Welcome to a new, occasional content vertical on the Soho Press website, “The Consolation Prize with Mark Doten: Enthusing about Literature and Bitching about Publishing.” The idea here is interviews with folks in the biz, poking the proverbial poking stick at sales reps, writers, booksellers, editors—anyone, really, who can both enthuse about literature and bitch about publishing.
We’re very happy to have as our first guest the sensational, indefatigable Emily Gould. You might know Emily from her days at Gawker or from her 2010 book of essays, And The Heart Says Whatever. She’s the editorial director at 29th Street Publishing, and she’s got (with co-owner Ruth Curry) an amazing online bookstore/bookclub, EMILY BOOKS. Emily Books is arguably (we’d be happy to make the argument) the best-curated book club out there, and we’re not just saying that because Soho Press book Nine Months by Paula Bomer was a selection. If you’ve thought about signing up, I’d do it now, because the book of the month is Notice by Heather Lewis, which, in the humble opinion of TCP, is on the (very) shortlist of recent American novels that could one day— once the dust settles a bit more—be classified as capital-G Great.
Emily’s first novel, Friendship, is due out from FSG in July.
THE CONSOLATION PRIZE: What gave you the idea for Emily Books? Once you’d decided to go for it, how hard was it to turn it from an idea to a real thing in the world?
EMILY GOULD: Ruth and I met working at a big commercial publishing house, the kind of place that publishes a lot of cookbooks and ghostwritten celebrity memoirs. Her next job was at a literary agency; mine was editing a popular gossip blog. After that she went back to school for writing and I freelanced, wrote books, barely got by. The culmination of this period was our idea for a book club/book store/publisher; for us, it made sense because it combined all our experience and expertise. We invented the jobs we wanted to have, basically. And while we still work other jobs full-time, we are getting closer and closer to our goal of making a living running Emily Books.
I don’t want to whine about how hard it’s been (but it has been hard!!!). It was easy to turn it from an idea into a real thing but much harder to keep it up and make it grow. I constantly remind myself of how long it has taken similar projects that I admire to really get off the ground. This June will be the third anniversary of our idea, this October the third anniversary of our first book pick, No More Nice Girls by Ellen Willis. I look forward to celebrating our first decade.
It might be worth mentioning that the publisher where Ruth and I worked when we first met recently closed up shop. Its business model is obsolete. To me, that feels symbolic. But then again, nearly everything feels symbolic to me.
TCP: Yeah, it’s interesting to see the kind of reach literary fiction does and doesn’t have. And not just for independents—the biggest and most prestigious publishers routinely sell a couple thousand copies of a novel—or less. Was it weird moving out of a gig like the gossip blog (let’s just say it, Gawker)—where even low-traffic posts get more eyeballs than most novels—and move into the world of publishing and book-writing? This is kind of a fascinating question for me, since my first media job was at HuffPo back when it launched, and it’s odd to work at these places that can get a zillion page views on certain kind of stories where you can feel yourself riding these huge cultural currents, but often for content you feel ambivalent about. (Though I wonder if for you it was a bit more complex, since at Gawker you did get to write about legitimately interesting stuff and say interesting things, right? You were there at a sort of cool time—not in the very first generation or two of Gawker writers, but still early enough that it seems like you were part of the crew that was influencing what the Internet would come to sound like.)
(umm … should I take a breath here? Do you want to speak to any of that? Or should I just keep rambling?)
EG: Uh no I think you pretty much got it right.
TCP: OK, so to continue formulating this very long question, I’ve always remembered the post of yours around the time you left Gawker (I’m going to go by memory and wait to look it up until after I hit send—I’m sort of curious if I’ve distorted it in memory for my own purposes), I think you were unloading boxes of N+1 off a truck and decided that it was time for a change—time to do something else, that was maybe more meaningful, or meaningful in a different way. So now that it’s been a while, I guess the question is, how do you see those sorts of questions and differences? Emily Books, and other independent publishing ventures—how do we fit into a larger culture that often seems dominated by those sorts of behemoths? How do you as a writer fit in, as someone who’s typed words on both sides of that divide, if indeed it’s a divide. The way I’m framing this may make it sound like a pessimistic question, and I don’t mean it that way at all—but I’m definitely interested in your take as someone who has been in various writer and publishing trenches.
EG: Well, it’s been an interesting seven years for the media landscape since I quit Gawker in a huff in a post titled “A Long Dark Early Evening of The Soul With Keith Gessen,” a post that has a lot of sentimental value for me because, while we weren’t romantically involved at the time and didn’t start dating seriously until almost a year after it was published, the night that I describe in that post— where I set out to make fun of a person or a scene and end up feeling like I instead wanted to defect and join them—did change my life in a very concrete way, as did writing about it. Though it was an extremely bratty way to announce my resignation. We’re getting married in the fall. I can’t help but be a little sentimental about this stuff.
Sentiment aside, though, well, two things. One is that the mid-aughts were a real golden age of blogging, and the moment we’re in now is very dissimilar in terms of formal trends in the art of writing online, or as I would call it in a meeting at my job as editorial director of 29th Street Publishing, a startup that makes mobile magazines, “content strategy.” The two opposed trends are “longform,” which I sometimes think of as “wrongform” because there’s such obvious fetishization of length for length’s sake, and so few publishers have the editorial resources or time to edit 5,000 words into the kind of shape they should be in to in order to deserve to run at 5,000 words. And then there is Twitter which I love, which I think is such a creative, exciting medium, and which valorizes epigrammatic writing and brevity.
The second, related, infinitely more important thing is that no one has yet come up with a sustainable, ethical way to monetize content that doesn’t pander to the absolute lowest common denominator. If you’re leveraging ads against eyeballs or harvesting data in order to sustain your editorial vision, that’s shaping your editorial vision somewhat, in a different way than it historically did for print magazines. What 29th St is working on are making subscription models more accessible for more publications at every part of the media spectrum, from established magazine and website brands to nascent ideas and writers’ projects, things that are more zinelike or bloglike. I’m excited to be a part of that. And of course Emily Books’s iOS app is a 29th Street production.
TCP: How do you know if a book is right for the club? I’m kind of wondering if you see lots of books you’d like to do, and have to really pick and choose and make terribly painful decisions, or if you’re slogging through a bunch of muck to find a gem a month.
EG: Ruth and I have a lot in common and we are also totally platonically crazy about each other, but we’re very different people and we have different taste. When our taste overlaps, we know the book will find an audience, because if both of us like something, a lot of other people will too.
We do read a lot of books all the time. Sometimes we’re really disappointed not to be able to get the rights to sell or republish a book, but that happens less and less frequently.
TCP: One thing that’s exciting is seeing authors like Rebecca Brown and Heather Lewis get new attention. It seems to me that even more so than straight people or gay men, fiction by queer women has a hard time getting published and getting attention (and I will add here that I haven’t done such a book yet, though I hope to soon). Is that something you and Ruth think about while making your selections?
EG: Very much so, especially since we selected Empathy by Sarah Schulman. In her new introduction to that book, she describes a shift in the way books by queer authors were marketed that took place around the time of Empathy’s initial publication, because it coincided with the rise of the big chain bookstores—she felt that the “gay and lesbian” section of Barnes and Noble was a ghetto. Now of course those stores are nearly gone and it’s hard to see her point, but I do think that we tend to put gay authors in a box. We strive to avoid labeling the books we sell. A lot of them are unclassifiable in terms of sexuality, in terms of genre—are they memoirs or novels? fiction or non? poetry or prose? funny or disturbing?—and we love that, though it does make marketing them and ourselves more challenging. It would be a lot easier to be like “we’re a FEMINIST bookclub, we’re a QUEER bookclub” and ally ourselves with existing things that are branded those ways. But though we are a feminist queer bookclub we are also really stubborn and hellbent on just being our own thing.
TCP: I am so happy that you picked Notice for the club. When did you first hear about the book?
EG: It was a strange thing, actually—I went from not knowing about it at all to feeling like it was coming at me from all sides. For starters, there was Ann Rower, whose hilarious, amazing book Lee and Elaine we republished. She gave us an “alternate ending” for our iOS app edition that was about Heather. But also around this time I was talking to my friend Choire Sicha and he mentioned House Rules. It turned out he’d known Heather—that author photo was taken in his old apartment, I think. And then Tamara Faith Berger mentioned Notice when we asked writers for their lists of books that had changed their lives. So it was a case of Emily Books leading us to more Emily Books.
TCP: Can you describe the experience of reading Notice for the first time?
EG: My experience was that I didn’t read it! I mean, I got to the scene at the couple’s house when it first becomes clear that they’re using the narrator to reenact their daughter’s rape and murder and it’s just so excruciating to be in her head. I couldn’t handle it. I put it down because I felt like it was a book I couldn’t be alone with. I felt like if I read it, it would be almost like I’d had those experiences, like those memories would be mine now.
When I picked it up again I felt like Lewis was conscious of the extremity of that scene because she gives you a respite from that level of intensity for a few chapters after it, and so I was able to go on. But I didn’t read it the way I read most books. I steal a lot of reading time on the subway and while waiting in line and things like that. This was a book you have to schedule: “Today I will sit down and read Notice.” I put it off until I couldn’t anymore; I literally finished it the night before the day we sent it to subscribers.
Boy, I’m really selling it, huh? But wow, I’m glad I read that book. The only other book I remember reading in such a ceremonial, single-minded way recently was The Gifts of the Body, by Rebecca Brown. I remember feeling like I had to read it outside. I read it in a community garden near my apartment, which was luckily pretty deserted, because I wept continuously the entire time.
With Notice, I didn’t weep. But it does make you react, somewhat coercively. I think that is part of what’s scary about it, too. I will stop talking about this now. I am curious about other people’s reactions to this book, which is part of the excitement of republishing it.
TCP: I know what you mean. I think the distinction is like with me and Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go—I read it once, and then the second time, I got one sentence in and started to cry—because of that contrast between the warm, measured voice and my knowledge of the terrible things the kids would go through. Which is the only time that’s ever happened to me. With Heather, it was almost the opposite. I read Notice maybe in 2004, then read it again a couple years later, and I think liberal amounts of alcohol were required to get through it the second time. And then more recently I tried to start it, and I got one sentence in and I just froze. I couldn’t go through it again. You’re right to say that the memories become yours—and with this book, rereading is retraumatizing. I don’t know if I’ll ever read it again (though I would like to try to do so at a greater distance, in part to try to understand how the mechanics of it work—I think it’s formally a brilliant piece of work). Anyhow, I’m not really selling it either, so I will just say I think it’s one of the best and most powerful American novels of the last 20 years, and I hope everyone goes and buys it right now from the great Emily Books!
BTW, is this the first publication of Notice in ebook form? I just looked it up on Amazon, and it looks like the Serpent’s Tail paperback is out print. So is Emily Books the only way to get this book now, without plunking down for a costly and potentially unhygienic used copy?
EG: Indeed! It the only e-edition. It is also the definitive corrected edition, with Heather’s own corrections to errata in the ST edition incorporated, and it features a new Introduction.
TCP: Last question. So, congrats on the new book. You’ve been through this once before—if you were to give first time authors one tip on dealing with the publication process, what would it be?
EG: This is advice that I am borrowing from Nao Bustamante,which is that you are not responsible for other people’s experience of your work. Even if it’s memoir. If they perceive it in a way you didn’t intend, that’s not on you. You also can’t do anything to change it. Nothing you ever say (or tweet, or write in a letter to the editor of the NYTBR) will ever change anyone’s mind about your book. Your book isn’t for the people who don’t get it, it’s for the people who do. Spend time with them. Roll around in your good reviews. And treat the bad ones with a shrug. Your book just wasn’t for them.
TCP: Thanks for taking the time to talk with The Consolation Prize, Emily—and good luck on everything. You’ve got a lot going on and I hope it’s a very successful year for you.
EG: Thanks, Mark! God(dess), me too.
Need more Emily Gould? Read her recent essay on Medium about burning through her first book advance. I think it says something about Emily’s writing chops that it’s a disarming, sharp, searching piece of writing, because it would be almost insufferable from anyone else. How did she do it? I’m not entirely sure, but it does allow me to close with a line from The Sting, applied to a fantasy future scenario involving Emily and a publisher (you have to imagine the publisher chomping on a cigar and holding up big bags with the dollar signs).
Publisher (to Emily Gould): Emily, maybe your first book didn’t match expectations, but now that Friendship is #1 on the bestseller list, we’d like to offer you $$$ one million dollaz $$$ for the next one.
Emily (with a sly, Redfordian grin): “Nah. I’d only blow it.”
CUE THE PINEAPPLE RAG!