Well, is she? It may seem unfair to ask a 28-year-old writer to carry the entire burden of Gen Y on her shoulders, but that’s how her publisher is selling ex-Gawker editor Emily Gould’s first book, the personal essay collection And the Heart Says Whatever, so we don’t feel bad holding her to it. Still, it’s a harder question to ask than to answer.
And the Heart Says Whatever is, undeniably, an account of what it’s like to be a twentysomething media type in New York. Its pages are full of bad, short-lived service jobs, college writing workshops, relationship angst, casual sex, and the kind of everyone-who’s-anyone parties that seem exciting at first but slowly begin to blur together and feel like work. We certainly recognize ourselves and many of our peers (not to mention the protagonists of certain “mumblecore” films) in Emily, her friends, and her co-workers. But, as far as we’re concerned, to earn the “voice of a generation” mantle, you have to do more than simply describe your own life in a way that happens to remind other people your age of theirs. To really represent post-collegiate America in the 21st century, you have to give some insight into what makes us the way we are, where we’re heading, and why (or whether) it all matters. Gould does none of this.
What we get instead are vignettes that read like unedited diary entries, full of quasi-poetic morning-after scenes and moments of alienation that seem like they’re supposed to be heavy with meaning but never actually deliver on that promise. Because she chooses not to write much about her time at Gawker (outside of an introduction that, frankly, feels tacked on, perhaps at the insistence of an editor) or subsequent career as a writer, we never grasp the ambition, anxiety, and intelligence that must drive not only a frenzied and occasionally snarkily brilliant blogger but also the more mature, frequently insightful critic who’s contributed impressive pieces to publications like n+1 and This Recording. As a result of these gaps in the narrative, we see Gould’s now-infamous panic attacks but don’t ever really comprehend what’s causing them.
If the book has a focus, then, it’s the slow dissolution of Gould’s relationship with a boyfriend she dated for six years. And while there will be no shortage of readers who can relate to the strains early adult life can put on couples who started dating in college, Gould never manages to make us care about their troubled love. (In fact, at times, she comes off as so scornful of or apathetic toward her ex that it’s tempting to root for the breakup, to hope that her kind-seeming boyfriend gets out of there and finds a woman who respects him enough not to make their private life public.) When she cheats on him, that too seems both boring and inevitable, as though she’s following some kind of callous, self-satisfied script. Often, in the trysts she recounts, Gould seems to take a traditionally masculine role, relishing the power she holds over her partner and longing for sex without attachment. At times, we get the idea that there might be something to this, but Gould never develops it into anything more meaningful that a recurring motif.
In an endorsement of the book on her Tumblr, Lindsay Robertson (a friend of Gould’s) comes to a revelation that we wholeheartedly agree with: “You know the Manic Pixie Dream Girl from the movies? Well, the best way I can think of describing ATHSW is ‘It’s as if the story (of high school lust, of big-city adventure, and, especially, of love won and lost) were told from the Manic Pixie Dream Girl’s point of view, instead of the whiny dude’s.'” But the problem with the Manic Pixie Dream Girl has always been her one dimensionality, her seemingly random, inexplicable, and yet somehow constantly fascinating (to whiney dudes, at least) behavior. Rather than flip this narrative, prove it wrong, or at least take control of it, Gould surrenders completely to her own Manic Pixie Dream Girl fantasy of herself.
More than anything, And the Heart Says Whatever feels like the kind of book you write when you’re not sure what to do next in life and then someone solves your problem by offering you a book deal. There is nothing urgent or passionate or necessary about it, and that’s especially disappointing coming from a writer we’re convinced has something to say. The book seems to have no motivation, no emotional core, and that’s part of the reason we don’t want to see Gould crowned the voice of our generation (at least, not in connection with And the Heart Says Whatever). We refuse to believe that we’re as aimless and apathetic and, frankly, dead inside as Gould makes us out to be. It’s hard to imagine that this was what she set out to do, and we won’t rule out the possibility that she has a truly insightful book in her. But next time, here’s hoping Emily Gould waits to start writing until she has something to say.