Monday, June 30, 2008

Emily Gould and My Life, Because Everything is Really About My Life

I imagine that I am one of the last (among those who care about these things) to read “Exposed,” Emily Gould’s article for the New York Times Magazine. I didn’t even know about it until this past weekend, when a friend mentioned offhand, “Didn’t you say you knew that girl who was editing Gawker? She was on the front cover of the Times Magazine.”

I know Emily through my husband, who used to play music with her ex-boyfriend a few years ago when he was still her boyfriend. We were not by any means close, but our meetings were always friendly, with a lot of sympathetic eye-rolling when our partners got a little too deep into discussions of four-tracks or King Crimson. (Did they really talk about King Crimson? I don’t know, but I seem to recall, at one time or another, progressive rock being an issue.) I remember that my husband hung out at their apartment once, bringing home to Manhattan the opinion that they were a really nice couple as well as a copy of a fun novelty book from Emily’s publishing company. Emily, if you read this, I think we still have that book – do you want it back?

I also remember meeting up with her and her then-boyfriend on Second Avenue once to go to a verité music flick at Anthology. It was hot, hot, more than hot, and I hadn’t been able to eat much of anything all day, finally managing to choke down a strawberry popsicle on St. Mark’s Place. (I am an epic, ugly sufferer in the heat.) I’d had a hard time deciding what to wear, because I wanted to do my husband proud in front of the music friends who I knew would be at the movie, but I also wanted to not die of heat stroke. I ended up wearing a floral dress with crochet trim, which felt overly correct and schoolmarmish next to Emily’s slightly grubby ribbed white tank top and black jersey skirt – I think it was the kind with the fold-down waistband that was only just starting to be popular. Once at the film – endless, grainy, unedited footage of hairy Japanese musicians doing nothing much – I continued to writhe with discomfort, heat streaking up and down my body despite the air conditioning, and I finally ran to the bathroom and puked up my popsicle. My husband told his friends that I had the flu and took me home. I can’t remember now if I really had the flu or not.

Finally, I also remember going bowling at Port Authority with her and her then-boyfriend and a couple of other friends on my husband’s birthday. Neither she nor I were very good bowlers, and I seem to remember her being nice but not a whole lot of fun, but I can’t really blame her for that, as how fun is it to have to go to Port Authority and do something you’re not really good at for the birthday of someone you don’t really know?

A few meetings of that sort were all there was to my personal contact with Emily. Some time later, I saw online that she had become an important person at Gawker, and then I heard she wasn’t anymore, and then I heard she broke up with my husband’s music friend, and then I heard she was writing all sorts of things online about her relationships, and then I heard about this New York Times thing, which I finally read yesterday afternoon.

I expected to be completely revolted by the article for several reasons:
1) While I was not AT ALL part of the situation IN ANY WAY and thus have no real need or right to take sides, I took Emily’s ex-boyfriend’s side in their breakup on the principles that A) a breakup requires one to take sides, and B) I know him better than I know her.

2) Thinking about it in an offhand sort of way, I find Emily’s career arc to be slightly distasteful – the lack of general seriousness, the rise to public prominence for no meaningful reason, the dependence on celebrity/gossip culture, the exhibitionism, etc. (Public school teachers in high-needs urban areas find most people’s career arcs to be slightly distasteful. So watch out when you are talking to a public school teacher in a high-needs urban area. Chances are she is judging you.) Also, and this is probably unfair because I don’t actually know anything about Emily’s background, but it just seems to me like the career of a child of privilege because, well, because that’s how it seems.

3) I really hate the self-importance of the New York media echo chamber and the continuous implication that what they’re doing is REALLY CENTRAL to everything. To jump ahead into the article for a moment, Emily writes that Gawker has all the “information about being young and ambitious in New York.” Sorry, no. No, no, no, no no. A certain type of youth and ambition, perhaps. But, young and ambitious as we may be, I can say with confidence that neither I, nor my husband, nor most of our friends find ANY of the information in Gawker necessary or even pertinent to our pursuits.

4) (This is really the most important reason.) THE TATTOOS. Emily, if you read this, I am so, so sorry, I truly am, but HOLY GOD THE TATTOOS. Yes, I know I have a tattoo also, BUT IT IS NOT OF THE SEQUINNED FLOWERS ON GRAM PARSON’S NUDIE SUIT. IT JUST ISN’T, OK? Emily, if you read this, you totally know that there is a difference between just getting a tattoo and getting THAT TATTOO. I know you know there’s a difference, because that’s why you got that tattoo, but you think it’s a GOOD DIFFERENCE and I think it’s a BAD DIFFERENCE. AND KNOWING ABOUT IT MAKES IT REALLY HARD FOR ME TO TAKE YOUR WORK SERIOUSLY. I’M SORRY. There. I said it. (But not really. I typed it. Your article is sort of about the difference between those two things. Maybe it would have been a better article if it had been more specifically, thoughtfully about the difference between those two things. I don’t know. I’m just glad I didn’t have to write it.)

However, as much as I expected (and maybe hoped) to, I did not come away from the article thoroughly disgusted. Yes, I was annoyed by the media thing, but that’s old hat. Yes, there’s a certain vapidity to it in the sense of, who the hell really cares about the minutiae of this girl’s life? But it’s not really Emily’s fault that the New York Times Magazine offered her a cover article despite the fact that her story is essentially free of interest to the general public. Hey, I wouldn’t have turned it down either, no matter how little I had to say, and I bet you wouldn’t either, so I can’t work up any true indignation over that.

The worst thing I have to say about the article (and also Emily Magazine) is that it’s often not particularly compelling writing. (Emily, if you read this, I am really sorry. I have no wish to cause you personal pain, even though that is of course what I might be doing. Really, I should just shut up and go back to staring moodily at my sleeping baby or at least write about something more bloggy, like my perineum or my new sandals or my recent trip to Ikea. Because who elected me Ms. Critic of the Universe and gave me the right to talk trash about other people’s creative productions? Nobody, that’s who. But I’m going to keep writing this anyway, and then I’m going to post it online where everyone can see it forever. Because, just like you did, I feel driven to do it, and I feel like it’s some sort of innate right. I feel you, girlfriend. I really feel you. Though, Emily, if you read this, you probably hate the fact that I just called you “girlfriend.” Sorry for that, too.) She is not an especially bad writer, and I guess I ought to salute her for that, as there are lots of especially bad writers out there, but she is not amazing either. For the most part (and there are exceptions), I cannot hear a strong, lively voice behind her words; I cannot pick out the clear, individual consciousness that makes any piece of writing more than just the story that it tells, thus lifting it out of tedium. That, to me, is the most inexcusable part of this whole Emily-Gould-brouhaha-in-a-teapot – if you are going to write endlessly about the excruciatingly private details of your own and others’ lives, oughtn’t you work really hard to WRITE THE HELL OUT OF IT, rather than just providing a serviceable narrative? But on the other hand, I guess WRITING THE HELL OUT OF IT is not really the way that this medium – blogging – works. You just sort of write it from wherever you are at the moment, and everyone - including you - gets to decide later if it’s tedious or not. Like I'm not sure I wrote the hell out of this essay, and I can't figure out how important it might be to do so. I don’t know. I just don’t know.

Anyway, I was really not especially revolted by the article, though I really would have re-thought those photographs, don't you think? Instead, I just felt a little sad. (Or “hollow and moody,” as Emily characterizes her own occasional reactions to Gawker before she became its editor.) Mostly, the article was about making a bunch of foolish choices that seemed perfectly reasonable at the time, and who doesn’t identify with that? Whether or not Emily should have made those decisions (maybe not), whether or not she would take them back now if she could (maybe not) – these things don’t really interest me. What interests me is the idea that ALL of us do the same thing. We do things because they truly seem like good ideas, or because we feel that we ought to, or because we can’t stop ourselves, or because we’re being urged on by other people. Each thing we do, correct or incorrect, wise or foolish, shapes our options for the future, and at every moment, we end up where we are, like it or not, with no choice but to set out again from there. And yes, I know that I’ve written about this idea before. Shut up already.

The comments that follow the online version of the article are mostly negative and mostly toe one of the following lines: Why write an article lamenting exposure if it just exposes you more? Or, Oh boo hoo, now you’re super famous and you’re SO SAD – some people have real problems, you know? Or, why do you think we care about your life anyway? Or, THIS IS ALL YOUR OWN DAMN FAULT! Or, I can’t believe you’re still profiting from the flagrant unprofessionalism and personal betrayal you have shown so uniformly throughout your career.

There is obvious truth to these criticisms – so obvious that I’m not sure why anyone bothered writing them. The thing that really strikes me, though, is that, at this point in the game, there’s not a whole lot that Emily Gould can do that wouldn’t be open to such criticism in one way or another. She could, of course, just disappear – stop working in media altogether, or write only under a pseudonym known to no one at all, or join a Buddhist monastery (abbey?) – but I think we can all agree that these are not particularly satisfying, sensible, or realistic options. Just like everyone else in the world, Emily did what she did, and now she is where she is, and while we can perhaps criticize the former, it’s sort of redundant to criticize the latter.

Really, though, personally speaking, I feel hesitant to criticize at all, because I can sense how very close I stand to the shaky ground on which Emily stood. (And still stands?) When I began this blog, I had the idea of maintaining strict anonymity. But I ran into a problem right away, because I had to tell people about the blog, and then I wasn’t anonymous to the people I told. And then I went and posted my own picture, so theoretically, strangers could now recognize me on the street. (Though I don’t know how many “strangers” are reading this blog. Reader, who are you? Do I know you? Avast, and identify yourself!) Also, I’ve gotten pretty close to over-sharing. I’ve told you about my underwear, my depressions, and my conflicts with my husband, and I know these are not things that normal people just walk around sharing with everyone. Even right now, in writing this essay, in linking to a talked-about article and an infamous blog, I am thrusting myself into a large, public discourse. And in doing that, of course, I’m taking advantage of Emily’s fame, which I have criticized in this very essay. And I’ve done this on purpose, because it made sense at the time. There may come a day when I regret all of it - the sharing, the pictures, the linking, everything - but there will be nothing I can really do about it. On that day, I will just have to do what Emily Gould and all the rest of us all must do every day - take stock of where I am and then move on.

4 comments:

Concerned Citizen said...

For the record, it's entirely possible, even likely, that H. and I were discussing King Crimson, as you tell it. While I am not proud of this, and I do not consider this representative of my conversation, I must remark that the group's 1974 LP, Red, is an outstanding piece of work.

Anonymous said...

Everyone's a critic these days!

Generally Impartial said...

By now you have probably noticed the referral hits on your blog stats, so you know how I found this post and my obvious apparent bias. I will say that I have been a silent follower of Emily's writing since her Gawker days, initially favoring her brand of snark but then connecting as an artist working with, among other things, the ideas of constructing intimacy with strangers. It is easy to brand her work as "oversharing" and simplify it into something easy to understand and, if desired, denounce. It is also easy for this kind of "oversharing" work to feel dated and seem so obviously mistaken in hindsight. And, ZOMG, it is most easiest to dismiss a person's writing or artwork as not having the hell done out of it.

I must say, you should feel ashamed. You should feel ashamed not for dissent, but for revealing that human ugliness (which we all share) so inelegantly. That, and being called out on it!

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