In 2005, when I was a young publishing assistant, I attended the PEN foundation’s annual gala in New York City, held under the giant whale in the American Museum of Natural History. As I walked into the lobby and took a glass of wine from a passing tray, I tried to tell myself that this situation was normal and all in a day’s work and that I was not awed by any of it, but of course I was mind-blown, starstruck. (It’s funny to remember now that there was a time when being in a room full of famous authors and editors could still thrill and impress me.) I had borrowed a long strapless bridesmaid dress that showed the tattoos on my upper back, and during the cocktail hour before the seated dinner Margaret Atwood came up to me to compliment me on them. In my wildest dreams I had never imagined being in an environment of what seemed to me then like such glamour and elegance. I drank all my wine every time they refilled the glasses, and they refilled the glasses constantly.
Each publisher had been allowed to invite an author, from a list distributed by PEN, to sit at their table. My boss had selected a female author I’d never heard of before, but whose two published novels I’d bought and read in the weeks leading up to the event in order to prepare for the possibility that she might want to, I guess, discuss her work with me. As it turned out, neither I nor anyone else was required to discuss her work, or indeed anything else, with her, because she didn’t talk to us. She wasn’t rude, exactly. She simply participated in conversation at the absolute minimum and didn’t encourage anyone to speak to her more than necessary. She didn’t do any of the things women usually do, that I spend so much of my life doing: try to draw others out in conversation, smile receptively, laugh at jokes or even non-jokes just to show you are listening attentively. She didn’t draw attention to her silence or deliberately snub anyone; she simply wasn’t playing the game. She took a lot of cigarette breaks.
She didn’t do any of the things women usually do, that I spend so much of my life doing: try to draw others out in conversation, smile receptively, laugh at jokes or even non-jokes just to show you are listening attentively.
When this author rose to national prominence a couple of years later with a long, best-selling, hilarious, and true-seeming book that skewered the mores of several different types of Manhattanites, I thought of that evening. As I read and loved her popular book, I remembered what she’d been like — or, more accurately, how I had no idea what she was like, in spite of having met her. This made me admire her. In a man, of course, the aloof author’s behavior would have been completely unremarkable. I doubt I would have remembered it. In fact, I know I wouldn’t have.
But women don’t often get the luxury of acting that way, not if they want their careers to grow.
I’ve worked in and around publishing for almost 15 years now; I’ve met countless male writers who are socially careless or even blatantly offensive and who suffer zero professional censure for it. But women don’t often get the luxury of acting that way, not if they want their careers to grow. To be like the female author I met in 2005 seems like it would require constant effort, a policing of the borders of self and persona and maybe also a constitutional immunity to caring what others think of you. In order to be successfully un-nice, an author would have to be so confident in her talent and skill that she was willing to risk alienating influential peers, editors, and agents — not to mention actual readers. To be un-nice might also require her to ignore the very real possibility that her likability will be reflected by her bottom line.
For all authors, and especially for authors who live in the publishing industry’s capital, New York, the continual awareness of a network of traded back pats and favors and blurbs and likes and faves is a background noise that’s hard to ignore, and at times becomes deafening. Authors know we’ll always have to sell another book, and with editors’ and publishers’ hierarchies and jobs constantly in flux, we never know whether the assistant sending a halfway-decent galley for a blurb might one day be the editor who’ll buy our book for six figures. Or whether the publicist we wish we could ignore might be our publicist someday, or whether we’ll end up on a panel with or being judged for an award by an author whose latest book we think deserves a savage pan rather than the lukewarm review we end up writing. Et cetera. Most everyone, except conscientious objectors, the very un-astute, and people with unshakable confidence or inherited wealth, plays the game. Women are less likely than men to fall into almost all these categories. For us, playing the game is less a choice than a default. It’s a part of the job.
After all, the business of publishing is not about being nice, it’s about seeming nice, and no one is really that nice.
So we bake cookies for our readings. We express love on social media for books we find to be only okayish. And once in a while, in person, we vent to each other about how we really feel, but instead of feeling relieved by these sessions I end up feeling disturbed. Not only am I a phony, so is everyone I know! And of course, these back-channel chats end up on the public record sometimes, undermining years of assiduous anodyneness. After all, the business of publishing is not about being nice, it’s about seeming nice, and no one is really that nice.
While my literary heroes have always been the kind of women who don’t or can’t pander, I’ve never been able to muster that kind of courage or tunnel vision. The way I see it, there are two ways to be a female novelist: play the game and ply everyone you encounter with sugar, or be a cool, distant ice queen, ideally ensconced for much of the year at some remote liberal arts college, disseminating your opinions only to your rapt students and never to, say, Facebook.
It’s much too late now for me to decide that I will be one of those ice queens, or like that PEN gala author, and it’s also so emphatically not in my nature that it’s kind of hilarious to think of myself approaching the world that way. I mostly like that I am naturally friendly and somewhat extroverted; I’m interested in people and I enjoy talking to them and engaging with them rather than observing them from a cool distance. I like (or am addicted to, however you want to say it) social media because I am a social, sociable person. I am somewhat less fond of my tendency to be constantly worried whether so-and-so secretly hates me, whether I’ll be blackballed at some influential publication or other if I make my real opinions known. But I also realize how much of this behavior is gendered, conditioned, like my tendency to temper my statements of opinion with “I feel like” or “kind of,” or to apologize to men who bump into me on the subway.
If likability equals profitability, I’m probably headed in the wrong direction. Not only am I incapable of keeping my niceness veneer consistent, I’m also increasingly not in the mood to do the work it takes to seem perpetually likable in person. It takes increasing effort for me to maintain a friendly, inviting persona at moments when I would much rather be alone, working, or with my family. Sometimes in situations where extroversion is professionally required of me — when I’m doing a reading or moderating a panel, or even just attending someone else’s literary event — I am called upon to Be Emily Gould by someone I’ve just met who’s read a lot of my writing and who has the not-entirely-inaccurate impression that she knows me already. But I don’t know her, and the imbalance puts the onus on me to close that distance and put the person at ease. A lot of the time I don’t mind doing this and over the years I’ve made friends this way. But sometimes after an evening full of these encounters I feel like the marrow is being sucked out of my bones. Still, I fear that avoiding such vampiristic feelings is not exactly an option if I want to sell books.
Being an extremely social, sociable, accessible person should not be the price of being a professional writer, but for women it almost inevitably is.
Being an extremely social, sociable, accessible person should not be the price of being a professional writer, but for women it almost inevitably is. No one ever explicitly says you have to send friendly notes to critics along with your galleys, maybe even on cute stationery, or bake cookies for your readings, but when you see your peers doing this and it seems to be working, it’s hard not to feel like that’s the standard we’re all being held to, unless we want to do the mysterious and uncertain work of crafting the opposite kind of unapproachable/distant persona. It’s galling how often we think of writers as people we either would or would not want to be friends with. Understandable, but still galling. I don’t want to be friends with everyone; why should everyone have to want to be friends with me? I don’t want to be friends with Philip Roth or Clancy Martin but I still want to spend time in the worlds their minds have created. Refusing to extend that kind of intellectual curiosity sans yearning for personal connection when it comes to work by women is wrong.
I wonder what would have happened if I had still been a smoker in 2005 and if I’d followed the antisocial female author out onto the steps of the museum and casually asked her for a light, then pretended to recognize her. “Oh, you’re [her name]! I loved [name of her book],” I would have said, then segued naturally into a great icebreaking question about some kind of irresistible gossip. She would have seen me, recognized my true full self, the proto-novelist light flickering behind my eyes, and she would have given me the rare gift of one of her smiles. Ha ha, no she wouldn’t have. She would have muttered something under her breath and then walked a few steps away to smoke the rest of her cigarette in peace, and she would have been right to do so. But claiming that right, for most of us, is harder than it looks.
Emily Gould is the author of Friendship, a novel, and And the Heart Says Whatever, an essay collection. With Ruth Curry she co-operates Emily Books, a feminist publishing project.
This essay was excerpted from Scratch, an anthology about writers trying to make a living. To learn more about Scratch, click here.