Senior year of high school, I had “non, je ne regrette rien” engraved inside my class ring. This was a joke, but probably not as much of a joke as it should have been, or as my parents thought it was. What did I have to regret at 18? Nothing, of course, but I had been listening to a lot of Edith Piaf and I liked it. The point is: I think everyone is entitled to their bouts of world-weariness. Youthful memoirs of low-stakes misadventure are a project I want to root for.
Emily Gould also regrettes rien.
She is the 28-year-old former Gawker editor who in 2008 wrote a long personal essay (“Exposed: Blog-Post Confidential”) that ran on the cover of The New York Times Magazine and led to a six-figure advance for a memoir—And the Heart Says Whatever—out now from Free Press. “I can look back and recognize the things I’ve done and said that were wrong: unethical, gratuitously hurtful, golden-rule-breaking, et cetera,” she writes therein. “But I did these things because I felt the pull of a trajectory, a sense of experience piling up the way it does as you turn the pages of a novel. I would be lying if I said I was a different person now. I am the same person. I would do it all again.”
It’s good that she felt the pull of novelistic trajectory. As she recounts these experiences, however, her audience feels no such tug. Reflecting on an unsatisfactory sexual conquest, Ms. Gould writes, “I had just been idly flexing the muscle of my charm to prove to myself it was there.” And the Heart Says Whatever finds her doing this with readers instead of guys.
Ms. Gould graduates from high school, goes to college, moves to the city, goes to another college, has some jobs, has some boyfriends and lives in several apartments. Sometimes she quits the jobs or cheats on the boyfriends, but usually she doesn’t feel too bad about it. Who am I to say I was right or wrong? she asks. But also: Who am I to say why you should care? Her lack of interest in the first question is fine, if less brazen than she seems to think. Her lack of interest in the second is maddening.
Ms. Gould spins narrative thread easily, and when she’s good, she’s good: on the toxicity of “free-floating ambition,” for example, or the un-erotic experience of making out with a guy whose gestures seem “motivated by therapeutic intent, like he was giving a backrub to my front.” But after each well-observed moment, the book goes slack, and she casts for the next thing to wrap her words around. The analysis of her Internet adventures—a potential claim on our attention—feels slight. But so too does the everywoman coming-of-age story.
Because Ms. Gould is indeed charming, it’s tempting not to blame her for the book’s problems: if only there had been more rigorous editing, or something? But this kind of excuse seems faintly condescending. I’m not sure we would cluck sympathetically over a hypothetical Emmett Gould.
If I’m hard on this book, it’s probably because it stresses me out. I can imagine wanting to write it, or something like it, and this does not feel like a good impulse. In a recent interview for New York (pairing her with the established 40-year-old writer Meghan Daum, apparently because they are blondes who write in the first person), Ms. Gould identified her potential audience as “twenty-three-year-old girls who have Tumblr accounts.” I’ve got the right gender and the right number of years behind me; I don’t have the Tumblr and don’t want one. I guess maybe that’s my problem.