On Emily Gould’s Friendship: From the <3

On Friendship: The <3 Wants What It Wants
photo by Austin McAllister

There are books that seem to come along at just the right time, so perfectly do they portray your own experience on the page and so clearly can you understand the inner lives of the characters. And if there’s anything (save, I guess, actual human connection) as viscerally satisfying as that particular shudder of recognition when a work of art speaks right to you, I don’t know what it is. It’s a rare enough experience that each time it happens it feels explicitly personal, even though what makes the work valuable is its ability to generalize—to make everyone feel that way. And what’s interesting, I think, (or, if not interesting, at least specific to a certain kind of innate narcissism which dictates that whatever we love will also be loved by those we love) is that its the things that touch us most deeply as individuals that we’re most inclined to share with those closest to us, in order to see if they feel it too. It’s why I’ve been obsessively asking everyone I know to listen to Ultraviolence and watch Broad City, just like I once pressed upon them When the Pawn..

And then there’s Friendship. Emily Gould’s novel came out with not a little publicity earlier this month, due in no small part to the fact that Gould has been an active and pioneering part of the New York media world for almost a decade, during which time she’s been involved in some controversies (or what passes for controversies in the fishbowl of the New York media world), the end result being that Gould’s been the target of not a little jealousy, and far more than a comprehensible amount of misogyny. Well, actually, the real end result has been that for the last couple of weeks, much of the chatter surrounding Friendship has revolved around insider-y gossip and the color of Gould’s socks, meaning that even straight reviews (see: Michiko Kakutani’s in the New York Times) have focused more on Gould than on the book. Which shouldn’t be acceptable whatever the novel, but is perhaps particularly unacceptable when there is actually a lot to say about the book at hand. And the themes Friendship explores—namely, love, loss, the mistakes we make and how we do and don’t fix them—are the kind that don’t get talked about seriously, it seems, unless the author is a middle-aged Norwegian man. And so all of this is why Friendship is the book I’ve most frequently recommended those I love buy and read lately, because I want to see if it speaks to them in the way it spoke to me.

I don’t know that every story is a love story, but I do know that every story of true friendship is about love. And I also know that, even though it could fairly be said that female friendship is having a moment (Broad City, GirlsFrances Ha), the only people who think that female friendship (or any kind of friendship) is simply part of a trend, haven’t really experienced the messiness and intensity and complexities inherent to being a true friend. For those that do recognize the bond that exists between Gould’s main characters, Amy and Bev, this book is an at times unsettling look at how our own vanities and insecurities manifest themselves in all aspects of our lives, not just those having to do with—and this is key—romantic relationships. Far too often, women’s friendships with each other get reduced to placeholders in between what are considered “real” relationships—those with men. But pretty much any woman who’s had close friendships knows that emotions are no less real for being based in platonic feelings. And, in fact, sometimes they’re a little bit more real. Your romantic relationships are almost supposed to be fucked up, but your platonic ones? By definition, they ought to be ideal. So when they’re not, it’s all the more troubling. (In a recent interview in Vice, Gould told Sarah Nicole Prickett: “when you break up with a man, all your friends say, ‘Whatever, he was an asshole. You’ll find someone better.’ When you break up with a woman, nobody knows what to say. It’s a very intense, private thing to end a friendship.”)

Beyond the focus on Gould, instead of just her novel, there are other reasons that Friendship has had a less welcome reception than some other books which take place in a similar Brooklyn milieu. There are things we are trained to be skeptical of, as critical readers (or, I don’t know, just as regular readers), and most of those things have to do with the experiences of women. Does a novel revolve around pregnancy or motherhood or female friendship? Is it possible to insinuate autobiographical details of the author’s life within its pages? Did the female author write without utilizing a male POV? Does that author have any sort of literary world notoriety i.e. not known for knitting or baking cupcakes for book launches or only saying uncontroversial, cheerleader-y things on social media? If any—or all—of these questions can be answered with a yes, then it seems like “critical” readers are allowed to declare open season on the novel at hand.

This is, obviously, unfair as a rule, but perhaps especially in this particular instance, because what Gould’s done in Friendship is—while not revolutionary in style or form—important because of the way in which it resonates with so many women I know (including, obviously, with me) seeing as how it portrays in a funny, matter-of-fact way the importance of women’s thoughts and desires and fears and needs without any unnecessary embellishment (by which I do and don’t mean men). When I spoke with Gould about Friendship and the chord that it seems to have struck with many women, as well as the ways certain events in the book mirrored those that would wind up happening in her real life, she said, “Life imitates art imitates life. I think when you write fiction you are tuning into some frequency, not to be totally magical about it, but you pick up on something that’s there in some way.” And with Friendship, Gould managed to pick up on the particular need women seem to have right now (but, honestly, have really always had) to see themselves going through the banal struggles of life—pregnancy, credit card debt, stalled career opportunities—and know that they’re being seen, and that they’re not alone.

And, for those who care, Emily Gould makes about as solid a salad dressing as she does a poached egg, which is to say, very.

Follow Kristin Iversen on twitter @kmiversen



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