Emily Gould seems to inspire a reaction whatever she does... or writes. With her first novel, Friendship, just out from Farrar, Straus and Giroux, PW talked to Gould's editor, Miranda Popkey, about reputations, Internet haters, and the female ties that bind.
This is your first acquisition as an editor. Did you have any hesitation taking on a novel by an author who seems to be such a lightning rod for negative attention?
Did I think about it? Yes, of course. Did it give me pause? Honestly, no. I was a fan of Emily’s nonfiction work, but I wasn’t aware she was writing fiction until I heard her read a short excerpt from the manuscript that would become Friendship, and I was bowled over. While she was reading, I was completely enthralled—not by “Emily Gould, the Blogger,” but by the story she was telling, full of honest details and precise language. The power of that initial encounter—and the power of the novel that I eventually got on submission—completely overwhelmed any sense I had of Emily’s “reputation.” Plus, I think what’s so wonderful about Emily’s narrative arc is that she’s refused to let being a lightning rod define her. When I think of Emily now, I think of Emily Books, and her ability to be a kind of megaphone, promoting female voices that wouldn’t otherwise be heard in the mainstream. That’s a really impressive trajectory. I was hoping that publishing the novel would give us a chance to tell that story, too.
Putting aside the author, what was it about the novel that spoke to you, as a reader?
So many things, but if I had to pick just two: the female friendship at its center, and the way in which it grapples with personal narratives, the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves. The past decade of my life has been defined by an intense and nurturing and, at times, challenging female friendship—and it’s not until very recently, with novels like How Should a Person Be? or TV shows like Girls, or movies like Frances Ha that this kind of relationship has been explored in popular culture. Female friendship is usually the b-plot; this novel makes the complicated relationship between two friends into a central drama—and that rang very true for me. In terms of personal narratives—I think both [the main characters] Bev and Amy realize that the stories they’re telling themselves about their own lives aren’t true anymore, aren’t even productive -- are maybe destructive. Amy especially has a vision of herself and of the life that she should be living that more or less actively prevents her from living her actual life. That rang very true. The question—which I think this novel grapples with so intelligently—of what to do when you lose the plot of your own life is a very urgent one, at least for me.
Speaking of that lightning rod business, the reception of Friendship, or at least its author, has been fraught with more intense vitriol than one might have expected. Not only did Gould manage to annoy Girls creator Jenni Konner (who responded, on Twitter, with a nasty comment to a New York Times profile insinuating Gould paved the way for shows like the HBO dramedy), but she was also the subject of an especially nasty profile by blogger Edward Champion that caused a Twitter-war-turned-almost-suicide-attempt. Were either you, or Gould, prepared for anything like this?
I don’t want to speak for Emily, but I was a bit surprised. And I was heartened: there was vitriol, yes, but there were a lot of people—women especially, which I think is important—who went online to voice their support for Emily.
A number of the reviews of the novel, as opposed to the profiles of Gould timed to the novel's release, have been more kind, if somewhat mixed. The New York Times called Friendship "sharply observed" and NPR called it "one of those otherwise ephemeral novels that's worth picking up...for its color commentary." Overall, have you guys been pleased with the critical reaction to the novel?
I wouldn’t use the word "kind"—maybe "perceptive" or "thoughtful." In other words I don’t think reviewers have been giving her a pass—certainly that’s not something Michiko Kakutani is known for! Some have attacked the author, and some have chosen to seriously wrestle with the book—and I think the vast majority in that latter camp have recognized its merits. Annalisa Quinn wrote a review for NPR that I particularly loved—she compared [Friendship's] "magical universality-in-specificity" to Middlemarch and Mrs. Dalloway. And I don’t want to speak for all of FSG, but I think most people would agree that that’s pretty high praise!