Who’s the Narcissist?

Reviewed By

Emily Gould may be the queen of oversharing—but you’re the one reading this review of her book.

Like so many of us, I spend an unhealthy amount of time reading blogs. My fall down the rabbit hole really began, I guess, around 2004, when I first moved to New York and was working cubicle-bound at a non-profit. In that situation, Gawker was both a revelation and a lifeline, and I probably spent as much time refreshing it as I did proofreading fact sheets about sustainable coffee production. Jessica Coen was the editor back then, and I remained more or less addicted through various staffing turnovers, until that fateful week in November, 2007 when Emily Gould and Choire Sicha (then editors of the site along with Alex Balk) read an uncomfortably apt piece about their workplace in n+1 and decided to quit.

During the years when Gawker was a disturbingly vivid part of my life, I ate up posts about celebrity sightings, layoffs in the publishing industry and Gould’s personal life, as only the bored and generally aspiring can. I watched as the site got meaner and the posting rate accelerated from reassuringly regular to relentless, and as the comment system morphed into something vaguely fascist. The latter bothered me, but not as much as it might have—though scrolling through pages of comments was one of my preferred methods of procrastination, I myself didn’t comment.

To read the comments unfurling at the end of most any post on any Gawker Media blog, you’d think every reader were chiming in—but lurking is actually the default (in)action. There are thousands and thousands of readers who are, to put it a little dramatically, witnesses rather than collaborators. And there are lots of reasons for not commenting: laziness, shyness, intimidation, voyeurism, a sense of superiority; all I know is that despite my fixation on these blogs—and, by extension, the lives and personalities of their writers—something stops me from wading in.

I don’t pretend, though, that this keeps my hands clean. When it comes to the saga of Emily Gould—reaching new heights this month with the publication of her memoir/essay collection And the Heart Says Whatever—I’ve been transfixed, from her tenure at Gawker to her prolific blogging elsewhere, to the 2008 New York Times Magazine story in which she recounted how her life and long-term relationship unraveled as she revealed more and more about them online. I’ve paid attention because I’m genuinely interested in Gould’s writing, and because, being in my late 20s in New York, navigating the exhausting, incestuous, barely paying world of freelance writing, I relate to her and what she writes about. We both like books! We both have cats! I don’t know, it might stop there. Whatever.

To say that Gould’s book has been highly anticipated would be true, but wouldn’t get at some of the disheartening reasons behind that anticipation: people are hungry for a newsworthy target for their snark, an excuse to revive the attacks that unfolded in the aftermath of that Times Magazine article, and, generally, a pretext to be dismissive, dickish, and haughty about our oversharing, blog-based culture. Admittedly, I came to the book expecting to like it. And I did. Actually, I loved it: I thought it was gut-wrenching and smart and naked and beautifully written. You can read it as a document of a particular techno-era in New York (and of confessional online culture in general), and as a chronicle of the fallout from a specific moment in Gawker’s reign. But the stories Gould tells here are also very personal, and very sad. The fact that she’s told parts of some of them before doesn’t change that—she captures better than almost anyone the feeling of what it’s like to be young(ish), both ambitious and aimless, more watchful and introspective than is good for her, at this particular moment in our culture.

That doesn’t mean Emily Gould is “the voice of her generation” (as certain publicity materials would have you believe), or even that she’s speaking, as Curtis Sittenfeld recently fawned, “to the truths of women’s lives.” She’s certainly speaking to the truth of her own life, as someone with experiences that are very much of a certain generation. But as we’ve seen over and over again, it’s not enough for a writer to “just” tell her own story, particularly if that writer is a woman; at the same time, if people suspect a writer is trying to speak for her gender or her generation, they’re ready to resent or ridicule her for it. As Gould told Sittenfeld, “If a woman writes about herself, she’s a narcissist. If a man does the same, he’s describing the human condition. But people seem to evaluate your work based on how much they relate to it, so it’s like, well, who’s the narcissist?”

To Gould’s credit, in And the Heart she writes about Gawker mostly with pleasing vagueness, and leaves out her Times story entirely—it would have been easy and more sensational to build a book around that central essay, but she has other stories to tell. As she recounts her experience of being knocked down in, and by, New York—having her words scrutinized in a creative writing workshop, assuming the guise of a publishing professional, getting caught up in the romance of shoddy apartments—she perhaps unavoidably perpetuates a certain New York mythos, but she builds on Joan Didion’s sense of the place rather than just imitating, or playing tribute to her. In one sense, the whole thing feels like an apology—an extended explanation of how she started out one way and grew into a different person—and a requiem for the six-year relationship that died in the process: “The whole time we were together, it turned out, I had been working on making myself into someone he wouldn’t recognize.”

She’s obsessed with the way time passes, and especially with what it means to be young—to feel your youth draining from you in a way that feels like both a punishment and a reward. Coming from someone so young (she’s 28) this inevitably reads as a little annoying, but it also feels utterly true. Gould is attuned to the way things around and inside her are shifting and changing, and she can’t stop herself from testing certain boundaries, pushing against her surroundings to see if there’s any give—even as she knows this is a cliché. “The future was still unclear, but just unclear enough to be exciting and not so unclear as to be frightening,” she writes in one meaningful distinction. She takes stock of the somehow yawning distance that exists between a man-boy of 23 and her 26-year-old self. Of that 23-year-old, she writes, “He was so young that even after smoking half a pack of cigarettes and staying up all night the inside of his mouth tasted like some mild fruit.” And, reflecting on her inexorable aging:

This is one of the most painful things about getting older, especially getting older in the same place where you were young: the constant realizations that you could have been doing everything better all along, if only you’d known how to read the map more accurately.

Youth and generation were a focus of Ana Marie Cox’s oddly peeved, finger-wagging early review in Bookforum , in which she scolded Gould for not understanding that actions have consequences. “Gould, in general, does not seem to think much about her future, let alone about how those choices will appear when she looks back,” Cox wrote, as if oblivious to the fact that this is in fact one of Gould’s points.

Differences of opinion aside, Cox’s scattered, strangely savage tone (Gould’s choices, she writes, “seem much less brave to me than they might have when I was her age,”) seemed disproportionate to her subject in ways I wouldn’t have expected of someone who did her own time in the Gawker Media trenches. Cox was the founding editor/blogger of Wonkette; she’s also, despite what you might infer from her review, only 37. Weirdly, Cox is just as unsparing in her assessment of Gould’s entire generation; according to her, we’ve “grown up confusing irony with tragedy, nonchalance with acceptance, a pose with poise, self-dramatization with self-awareness.” That’s painting with pretty broad strokes, and it’s hard to understand why Cox takes it so personally—or why anger and offense are so often the default reactions to Gould’s writing.

Gould’s experiences are all tangled up with looming questions about privacy and self-exposure and technology, but though these personal essays are set in that context, they are not about it. That distinction can be hard to see when our culture is still in the early stages of sorting through this stuff, and when the Internet’s influence on our thoughts and relationships and sense of self still has a whiff of novelty, or indecency. And the Heart raises plenty of interesting questions about the life of its author and her peers, but the idea that Gould represents a distasteful, altogether alien generation, or that her faults, and her honesty about them, somehow gives everyone her age a bad name, just makes her accusers sound petty and overwrought.

“There’s this weird quality of being suspicious and cynical about everything and simultaneously, unwittingly, being utterly open and receptive and gullible that is part of youth, or at least was part of my youth,” Gould writes early in the book. We’d probably all be better off if we aspired to that kind of balance regardless of age. It has certainly informed Gould’s writing here—maybe, despite her scars, she’s younger than she thinks.

Eryn Loeb is a writer and editor in New York. She has written for the Los Angeles Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, Time Out New York, and Poets & Writers, among other publications, and writes regularly about nostalgia for The Faster Times. More from this author →