Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Why Write For The Insiders?

There's always something a little delicious about reading a negative review, though at the same time I always hesitate because I'm not sure how seriously to take it. Being negative can be so much fun that there's always the question of whether the negativity is fair. Be that as it may, this review of blogger turned novelist Emily Gould's first novel Friendship struck me:
The incestuous hub of this activity is now Brooklyn, where literary life resembles a high-school popularity contest. Brooklyn's litterateurs write about themselves and their friends and then are published and publicized by that same clique. This is hardly unprecedented in the annals of literature—as the critic John Leonard wrote of one of the late Manhattan literary gangs in 2006, "cohorts of scribblers have always herded together like zebras on the African veldt." But the narcissism that online platforms like Twitter and Tumblr tend to enforce has made Brooklyn books especially mystifying to non-belongers. To even begin to understand the recent memoirs by Benjamin Anastas and Jon-Jon Goulian or the new novel by parody blogger David Shapiro, you have to be a master of hipster Kremlinologyy: to know who's dating whom, who goes to whose parties and who's favoriting whose tweets

Firmly established someplace in the upper echelons of this hierarchy is Emily Gould, who has now written her first novel, "Friendship." She made her name as a blogger cheerfully dishing about her boyfriend, her parents and her cats and then as an editor-provocateur at the gossip website Gawker. She reached an even wider audience with a tell-all memoir in the New York Times Magazine about traumas like "losing the will to blog"— though what people mostly remember from that piece is the cover photo of her lolling in bed, her tattoos carefully exposed.
"Friendship" is about two New York women approaching 30. Amy, once a minor celebrity in "the blog big leagues," has a sinecure at a Jewish online magazine called Yidster. Bev, an aspiring writer, is getting by on temp work. Amy is melodramatic and egotistical; Bev is quiet and determined. Despite their frequent resentments, the two feel like "allies in a world full of idiots and enemies." Their friendship reaches a crisis when Bev becomes pregnant from a one-night stand and decides to keep the baby. Amy, meanwhile, loses her job, her boyfriend and her chic apartment. The reversal of fortunes is signified through fashion. Bev wears a taupe trench coat to an interview at the start of the book; Amy wears "sad taupe interview shoes" at the end of it. Taupe is evidently the color worn by the down-at-heel.

If you squint hard enough, you can see Amy as a kind of slacker version of Edith Wharton's Lily Bart, both brought low by fecklessness and profligacy. But the book's lesson—the mundane discovery that maturation is about outgrowing petty self-interest—is belied by the book itself, which has difficulty imagining what adult life might actually look like. Once Bev's pregnancy advances, she all but disappears from the story (the birth occurs offstage), which mostly catalogs Amy's hissy fits when she can't afford a dress or has to ride the bus. Eventually Amy realizes the value of true friendship, but the transformation is condensed into the final five pages and comes across as wishful thinking.

The rest is Brooklynology. To get any purchase on this novel, you need to be able to decode its real-life allusions. At one point Amy is criticized for having spastic eyebrows while shooting a video blog for Yidster. The scene is inert because it's an inside joke: Ms. Gould is poking fun at her own 2007 appearance on " Larry King Live." If you happen never to have seen that clip, tough luck for you.

The prose is of the diaristic, blogger style pushed to extremes in books like Tao Lin's "Taipei" and Choire Sicha's "Very Recent History," which offer stenographic transcripts of Brooklyn life. Ms. Gould is more personable than those writers and sometimes nails a wry observation (Amy, in a sulk, ignores her cat in order to watch cat videos on her laptop). But her writing is generally little more than autobiographical referents. The dialogue in particular, spattered with "uhs" and "ums" and "likes," conveys nothing beyond the banal mindlessness of tape-recorded speech: "But no matter what," Amy says to Bev, "if you decide to have this baby, you're going to, like, have a baby. That's going to mean something. Just because . . . like, it's a baby."
I like novels that pull one into other times and places, but a successful novel of that sort both emphasizes the differentness of the subject place and time, while introducing the reader into it. The reader is the 'other' and the milieu is the foreign land.

The insider novel, however, is an utterly tiresome mini-genre. Occasionally someone will try to write insider fiction set in the Catholic sub culture, and while I know the culture and get the jokes, I must say that if the only point is to say "hey, I'm an insider' it's dull and tiresome. What seems doubly offensive about this Brooklynology sub genre is that it parlays its geographical and personal connections to the publishing industry into publication and promotion when clearly Brooklyn is not the native clime of most book readers. The review opens with an anecdote of self importance which is enough to make even a writer feel a bit smug about the low motion death throws of the publishing industry:
In 2008, the writer Sloane Crosley fielded an interview question on the loaded subject of blurbs, those little bits of over-the-top admiration that gild the back covers of books. Ms. Crosley, who was promoting her single-woman-in-Brooklyn essay collection "I Was Told There'd Be Cake," had been a book publicist, and she scored heaps of advance praise from famous friends and clients. "Isn't this why aspiring writers in the rest of the country hate New Yorkers?" the interviewer asked. "Um, yes," she answered. "It seems like cheating. And by all means, if cheating is promoting other people's work, trying to get people to pay attention to a product that the entire world is slowly losing interest in, then yes, I cheated."
A better way to keep people interested in the product would be to write books which are aimed at people in their capacity as human beings, not their capacity as Brooklynites.


Anthony Hopper said...

There is a place for critical comments if they are warranted (and not mean spirited).

Darwin said...

There certainly is.

I probably over-qualified the opening. I guess I was feeling slightly insecure about the fact that not only have I no read any of the books mentioned in the review, I haven't ready anything by any member of the Brooklyn literary set.

But I don't really doubt the accuracy of the review. It rings true to me.

BettyDuffy said...

Have you seen this? Fun if you enjoy bad reviews:

Anonymous said...

Sloane Crosley's book is not about Brooklyn and neither is Tao Lin's. "I Was Told There'd Be Cake" is like Sedaris -- insular but not about NYC I dont think. Confusing but the rest of the review makes good points.

Anonymous said...

I prefer books about the lives of common men. Which is what I thought art was originally made to communicate to.