While in Louisiana, I actually managed to spend some time reading. Finished up the short stories of Flannery O’Connor on the way down and knocked out David Carr’s “Night of the Gun” and Emily Gould’s “And the Heart Says Whatever.”
I hadn’t really planned to write about either one of them. I’m a couple years late on Carr’s book and, frankly, I was worried I wouldn’t like Gould’s. (Despite my cranky image, when it comes to new writers if I don’t have anything nice to say, etc. I also didn’t feel like putting up with cat-calls from the peanut gallery.)
But! (As they say on Gawker and The Awl.)
Reading them back to back, something occurred to me. Because of reviews, I’d been conditioned to really dig Carr’s book as much as I’d been conditioned to despise Gould. But the reviews in one of these cases seemed to have had less to do with actual reviewing and more to do with karma, retribution and a dash of “who do you think you are?”
Short version for those of you who don’t keep up with the New York media scene:
David Carr is a writer for The New York Times who had what you would call a rough spell back in the 80s. Coke dealer, crack head and off-and-on journalist while living in Minneapolis, he got a girlfriend/dealer/user pregnant with twins, finally found a rehab program that worked (mostly). Then he had cancer. And beat that. Now he’s got a dream job, a beautiful wife and his twins seem to have grown up with minimal scarring all things considered. And–this is an important part of the book–unlike James Frey, Carr didn’t simply go with a remembered narrative. Trying to be honest and because he couldn’t remember quite a bit of that time in his life, he went back to his old stomping grounds and interviewed the people he ran with at the time.
Basically, it’s a tale of redemption from what seems a stand-up nice guy.
Emily Gould, on the other hand, is an attractive twenty-something who spent some time as an editorial assistant before becoming an editor at Gawker and then writing a short memoir. (She now blogs at EmilyMagazine and does a video program called Cooking the Books, in which she has authors do a cooking segment.
In other words, what the hell would she have to say at this stage in her life? What’s she bitching about? What has she learned? What can she teach us about anything.
Before I continue, let me do the full disclosure bullshit. Full disclosure: When my book first came out, I’d emailed Gould about appearing on the show. That never happened. I’ve never met her. I’ve never met Carr, either, though I did walk by him at either the Republican or Democratic National Convention a couple years ago. Carr was also kind enough to pitch in when I made a ridiculous effort to get Ookla the Mok to be a trending topic on Twitter. So I owe him.
You should also know I had a phase in my life when I was a huge fan of the word “whatever.” It drove my college girlfriend absolutely nuts.
Further, there’s something you should know about my reading habits. I don’t feel a need to learn anything from a book or an essay. If I do, great. If I don’t? Oh well. If the writing is to my liking–or at least doesn’t get in the way–and there is a story (of sorts) and it provides me a glimpse of something I othewise wouldn’t see, I’m a happy camper. I’m not convinced people learn anything from life. I’m not convinced people change. So I don’t necessarily need it in what I read. Of course, as a writer, I have responsibilities to the readers who expect such things–and trust me, I heard an earful from certain quarters on the first few drafts of my own novel–but of the list of things I expect as a reader, life lessons ain’t one of ’em. I’m also a sucker for people who put their worst foot forward in a well-written manner, knowing full well they’re going to get hammered for it.
And the thing is, both Carr and Gould offer me a glimpse–Carr at how those middleclass white kids from the suburbs make that slide into a world of drugs and violence, Gould at how this current crop of twenty-something women moving in to Manhattan think and operate.
Yes, I realize that one of the many reasons Gould got piled on when the book came out was because twenty-something women–and older women–are so quick to scream, “SHE DOES NOT REPRESENT ME.”
Point one: Did white male journalists across the country have a hissy about Carr’s book? No. So simmer down. Point two: Bullshit. To an extent, ladies, you are all Emily Gould. (Don’t worry. It could be worse. Inside of every guy is a little Tucker Max.)
Consider it from an anthropological point of view. Carr’s story is riveting, one of redemption, but it’s not exactly representative of a large portion of society. Most journalists don’t end up crack dealers. Hell, most middle-class white kids don’t. And I’d venture that the majority of those souls who hit the bottoms that Carr hit aren’t fortunate enough to claw their way out of it, much less write a book about it.
Gould, on the other hand, captures a fairly common slice of life. From where I’m sitting, it’s pretty much a case study of the early 21st century literary 20-something making her way–or trying to–in the Manhattan media culture. Thousands of people wash up here every week with the same aim. What the hell are these people thinking? What is wrong with them? What makes them think they are special? How does this delusion manifest itself? I want to know! (And I want to know from someone other than me. I have my own answers, but I’ve lost interest in them.)
No, I don’t necessarily think the ennui and listlessness of the 20-something is anything new in the world. I also think that’s what bugs the shit out of a lot of readers. That stage in our lives is probably more cringe-worthy for most of us than high school or college. At that age, we think of ourselves as adults and are either brimming with unearned confidence or wallowing in laughable self-pity. Worse, we think this is a unique condition and as such, it must be shared loudly with the world. Later on, however, we become very thankful that we didn’t share–or that no one was listening.
As a writer and as a dude I’m extremely interested in what’s going through the heads of all these young women rushing into New York. I used to try to write from the point of view of women, partly as a challenge and partly under the ridiculous notion it would somehow get me some lady loving. (Note to guys: Ain’t gonna happen.) So among other things, this is like field research. And, unlike other stuff out there from the same demographic, it doesn’t involve goth or vampires or self-cutting or references to fucking Sylvia Plath. On the flip side, it’s not from the point of view of a type-A striver (as someone who once thought about writing a memoir on my mid-twenties called “Half-Assed,” this is something I can appreciate.) Hell, if there’s one thing surprising about it, considering Gould’s time at Gawker, is the earnestness, the lack of pedal-to-the-medal ironical-type sarcasm trying to pass itself off as wit.
But if we want to talk about a fascinating slice of Americana in the early 21st century, well, whoaaa nellie, there you go: Gawker. I could write a damn book about Gawker. (And maybe I am.) Let’s just say I’m an avid reader and one that feels a need to wash my eyeballs after some posts. I’d say Gawker made Gould’s book possible. But it also hurt her in the process. Or she hurt herself by participating. Take your pick.
These kids these days, I tell you. When they aren’t GETTING OFF MY DAMN LAWN, they’re blogging or tweeting or facebooking or what have you. Gould did some time at one of the biggest blogs (in terms of influence) and, say what you will, did so without benefit of a pseudonym.
Blogging for Gawker doesn’t exactly put you on the right side of the karmic balance sheet. You make your bones shitting on people. And when you run out of people to shit on, you build up some or take one of the many volunteers–and shit on them. It’s genius really. And I love it. And more and more, Gawker is doing so-called real journalism. But, again, not necessarily chicken soup for the soul.
Gould, of course, knew what she was getting into. And she does have some karma that needs to be repaid. (Out here in my fourth ring of blogging hell — known as “Irrelevance” — I do know blogging buddies who’d had run-ins with her outside of the Gawkersphere).
And she’s paid for some of it. In essence, a lot of the words spilled about Gould’s book could be summed up as, “The writing is good, but … ” But she slagged off me/my friend/my blog/my coworker/my own book. (I”m not even going to entertain cries of self-absorption. It’s a memoir for crying out loud. What the hell were you expecting?)
But what gets me is — and not to get all Jezebel on anyone — I don’t recall anyone saying this about Carr’s book: “The writing is good, but …”
Ha. You didn’t think I’d get it back around to Carr’s book, did you?
It seemed odd to me that a woman who broke a few hearts, wrote nasty things about people in public and comes off at times as selfish and callous gets a public beating, whereas Carr actually pulled guns on people, left infants unattended in the car, choked and punched women, assaulted cab drivers and the list goes on and on. Granted, he was under the influence of various drugs. But I don’t remember a whole hell of a lot of hand-wringing about those things when “Night of the Gun” came out.
Of course, another significant difference here is that many of the people Gould wronged are perfectly capable of taking to blogs or magazines or newspapers and exacting some sort of revenge. Many of those wronged by Carr ain’t exactly media savvy enough for that sort of thing — though, again, his reporting and the multimedia stuff on the web are attempts to give them voices.
In the end, I found myself wondering which of the two sinned more. Carr or Gould? I guess it depends on your definition of sin. And it depends, too, on the value you place on redemption or attempts at such. And whether you’ve been sinned against by one of these two people. And your gender and age and position in the media world.
For me, ultimately — 1,600 words of bloviating aside — it doesn’t really matter. I enjoyed both books. I was driven crazy at times by both books. I don’t exactly have a fond space in my heart for emotionally confused women at the moment and we all know how I feel about cheating. And I wanted to throw Carr’s book across the room when he started drinking again towards the end (and I’m a damn drunk!). But liked them both. I don’t know that I would have compared them if I hadn’t read them back to back, but I did and so I did.
And if you got a problem with any of that–and I know some of you will– well, whatever.