How Gone Girl Changed Publishing

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Speaker 1: Welcome to the Ways to Slate’s podcast about gender feminism and framing your bad husband for murder. Every episode you get a new pair of women to talk about the thing we can’t get off our minds. And today you’ve got me, Heather Ridout, a Slate’s staff writer.

Speaker 2: And Neil Laura Miller, Slate’s books and culture columnist.

Speaker 1: And today we’re celebrating the ten year anniversary of a little book called Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn. And we’re attempting to reckon with all that it has wrought in the publishing industry and beyond. I remember what a big Deal Gone Girl was when it came out. It was the book of that summer. I read it on the beach along with everyone else, and probably I wanted to read it in the first place because critics like you, Laura, were raving about it. It got such amazing reviews out of the gate. And you’ve written a lot about Gone Girl and its imitators over the years.

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Speaker 2: Yes, I have. I was really floored by Gone Girl when I first read it, which was just before it was published. It’s such a clever, well-written, insightful thriller. And it’s set in the sort of post-war recession late aughts among sort of Brooklyn culture journalists who are coping with not just the recession, but the kind of collapse of the glossy magazine industry where you can make a living writing quizzes and interviewing musicians and filmmakers. So I knew that really well. I could really identify with that. And it was also a great riff on middle class life and gender relations with its famous schoolgirl rant.

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Speaker 2: But the thing that really amazed me about it was that central twist, which we’ll talk about later and the way that Flynn just so cleverly tweaked the sort of conventions of the thriller genre and sort of makes the audience face up to the fact that as much as we sort of hate the villain or want to see the villain defeated, nothing makes a great thriller like a good villain. And this is one of the best villains ever written.

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Speaker 2: I can’t say that I was all that impressed with all the books that were published afterwards. It just seemed like so many came with the promise that they were the next gone girl and then never lived up to that promise. And one of the things I like to talk about is why women readers in particular, who made this genre so popular, were so easily satisfied with pale shadows of Flynn’s brilliance.

Speaker 1: Yes, we can definitely talk about that. And the cool girl riff and everything else Gone Girl and all those books that were marked The Next Gone Girl. So we will get into that after a quick break.

Speaker 1: Before we go too far, we should give listeners a quick refresher on the plot of Gone Girl if it’s been a while for them. So we have the main characters, a married couple, Nick and Amy Dunne, and they met, as you mentioned, in New York City as magazine writers work for them, has dried up and Nick’s mother gets sick. So that’s why they relocate to his hometown in Missouri. And they’re living off of mostly Amy’s money there, which is the source of some resentment. And the state of their marriage is very tense when all of a sudden Amy disappears on their fifth anniversary.

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Speaker 1: And the story alternates between Nick’s perspective as local law enforcement and the national media are increasingly pointing their fingers at him, thinking he’s guilty he killed his wife or what? You know the cliche, it’s always has been who did it. And then we’re alternating that between these diary entries that Amy left behind. But then midway through the novel, we get the famous twist, and this book is ten years old. But we will warn you anyway that we’re going to get into some spoilers now.

Speaker 2: So the twist is that Amy, who is completely disgusted with Nick for being kind of a loser, dragging them back to this crappy town in Missouri in this crappy life. And not only that, but having an affair with a student and planning to divorce her, she has actually faked her own disappearance in order to frame him. So we get this Amy diary at the beginning that makes her sound very innocent and sweet.

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Speaker 2: And then suddenly we get this flip of this Amy, who is just sort of fiendishly running this whole fake out, this elaborately planned effort to sort of make it look as if she’s been murdered and that he is responsible. And this was partly based on the Laci and Scott Peterson case, where she was this young, pregnant wife who was murdered and everyone thought that he did it. But, you know, he kept evading conviction. And it was just a big tabloid story which often inspired Flynn. A lot of her work is inspired by sort of tabloid stories.

Speaker 2: So we learn that instead of being this innocent victim, Amy, is this incredibly skillful and diligent and far seeing planner who is who is manipulating the investigation. She’s controlling the coverage of her disappearance. And but then she sees Nick on TV and she decides that she actually wants him back after all. So she changes this fiendish plan and eventually works it out so that it seems as if she’s been held captive all this time and that the only way that either of their lives will work is if they stay together. So Nick is sort of trapped by Amy, who is not only a master manipulator, but also by the end of the novel, a murderer. So that’s the plot line.

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Speaker 2: But another really fantastic thing about this novel is all of the descriptions of everyday life and and culture and gender relations in the arts, the most famous of which is Amy’s cool girl rant. Here’s that scene from the movie, which is presented as a monologue as opposed to one of Amy’s diary entries.

Speaker 3: Cool girl. Men always use that, don’t they, as their defining compliment. She’s a cool girl. Cowgirl. Cowgirl, engaged. Cowgirl is fun. Cowgirl never gets angry at her, man. She only smiles in a chagrined, loving manner. Then presents her mouth for fucking. She likes what he likes. So evidently he’s a vinyl hipster who loves fetish manga. If he likes Girls Gone Wild. She’s a maulvi who talks football and endures bullying. Who wins at Hooters. When I met Nick Dunn, I knew he wanted a cool girl. And for him, I’ll admit, I was willing to try. I wax.

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Speaker 2: Amy explains that the cool girl doesn’t really exist outside of movies made by socially awkward men. And I always think of something about Mary when when she comes to that part for her, the cool girls are just real girls who are trying to be cool girls by pretending to like everything that a man likes. And this concept really struck a nerve at the time.

Speaker 1: There was a few year period there where it seems like culture writers were obsessed with the concept of the cool girl and they almost killed it for me. It was sort of like the way Girlboss has become so clichéd that it’s almost meaningless. But for the time it was very revelatory and related to that. Gone Girl also kicked off a discussion about unreliable female narrators that I think we’re also still having. There was a debate about the book and whether it was actually misogynist and not feminist, because Amy was the sort of character who made women look bad because she made false accusations of sexual assault. She got pregnant through devious means. Do you remember that conversation?

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Speaker 2: Yes, I do. That conversation happens every time you have a female character who’s who’s as compelling as Amy is, but not. A good girl as opposed to a cool girl. And I think one of the things the novel is about is how you need a character like that to have a thriller. And there’s no reason why a woman can’t be that sort of fiendish character. And that they make the whole genre go. We talk about how they’re unlikable, but in fact, we secretly love them. And I think that is the message of the book.

Speaker 2: So you can sort of get into this whole moralizing thing about whether Amy is a good person or a bad person. I mean, she’s what she is and she’s very, very powerful. She knows how to manipulate the appearances of femininity perfectly. And this goes back to her childhood as sort of the basis for a series of kids books that her parents wrote called The Amazing Amy. And she’s just been living under this kind of unbearable pressure of appearance for a long time. And she finally turns the table and uses that against the people who she feels wronged her. So, you know, she’s she’s definitely powerful, but it’s almost like it’s hard to imagine a powerful woman who wouldn’t come across as wicked in some way because, you know, because of those old fashioned conventional ideas of of of femininity.

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Speaker 1: And I think that the movie adaptation of Gone Girl, which was in 2014 by the director David Fincher, it made the the story in the book an even bigger cultural force. I am a fan of this movie. I think it’s stylish and well cast and slightly off subject. I think it’s an essential text for any Ben Affleck ologist, which I consider myself. But Laura, what was your take on the movie?

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Speaker 2: Well, Heather, I hate to say this, but I am not a fan of this movie. I feel that Rosamund Pike is really miscast. She’s too sort of a word I would use for her is Marc Morial. You know, she’s just like she’s kind of carved out of stone and serene and almost too beautiful in a way. And I think that, you know, even though she has a convincing American accent, she still comes across as some kind of British woman, possibly a noble woman.

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Speaker 2: And she just doesn’t seem like Amy to me. Amy to me should be all American and pretty, but not too pretty and just an average sort of girl. And I, Rosamund Pike, just can’t do that. There’s something sort of too impassive about her that that just made me feel that she was completely wrong for the part. I think Ben Affleck is perfect as Nick, though I will agree with that. But the whole story is about Amy. And to me, she was miscast.

Speaker 1: I think that when the book was originally optioned, I remember following this news excitedly and Reese Witherspoon was involved, was maybe ended up being a producer on the movie, but I think at some point she was supposed to star in it. Would that have worked for you?

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Speaker 2: That would have been so great. That would have been amazing because she could do both the fake Amy and the the the fiendish Amy. I mean, one thing I really do like about the movie, I will say this is there’s one scene where right at the moment where the twist comes. We get we get this shot of Amy sort of driving off out of, you know, heading out of town, her plan in place, working like a charm, going off to who knows where. And she’s got these sunglasses on and sort of like the wind is sort of blowing. And you you really do see there’s that fantastic moment in the book where you get the real Amy’s voice and it’s like she’s liberated from this, this sort of conventional, all-American, feminine role of the nice, sweet victim. And it’s just like.

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Speaker 3: Boom, I am so much happier now that I’m dead. Technically missing, soon to be presumed dead and gone. And my lazy.

Speaker 4: Lying, cheating.

Speaker 3: Oblivious husband will go to prison for my murder. McDonagh took my pride and my dignity and my hope and my money. He took and took from me until I no longer existed.

Speaker 2: David Fincher really did give us the visual equivalent of that. Like suddenly she’s doing the most American gesture of freedom there is, which is just get in a car and drive to parts unknown. And I did I did like that. I mean, I generally like David Fincher, but I could just never get past how miscast Pike was. What do you like about her performance? Explain yourself, Heather.

Speaker 1: I think well, you were saying she is she’s too too pretty, but she has to be pretty. I mean, she isn’t. The whole thing is that she’s, like, perfect and so accomplished. An amazing Amy was based on her. So. So I think she does have to be both delicate, pretty and sort of all-American. Pretty. I can see what you mean about her British ness sort of shining through. But I think you believe that Ben Affleck would have fallen for her.

Speaker 1: We’re going to take a break here. But if you want to hear more from Laura and myself on another topic, check out our Slate Plus segment today where in light of Gone Girl’s anniversary, we’re going behind the scenes on book blurbs. After Gone Girl became a huge bestseller and a hit movie, there were inevitably going to be imitators. But the sheer number of imitators, even ten years later, now, is pretty striking, wouldn’t you say, Laura?

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Speaker 2: Yes. There were so many gone girl imitators. There are still so many gone girl imitators. And maybe they’re not so much gone girl imitators as books that publishers are promising us are going to do the same thing as Gone Girl. And one of the things that Gone Girl did for the thriller genre was sort of spawn a subgenre that became known as domestic suspense or domestic thriller. And it’s not like these didn’t exist before, but these in particular focused on contemporary domestic family marriage relationships. And they really focused a lot on the difference between the appearance of happy perfect middle class, upper middle class family and then some kind of sinister reality which obviously has an appeal to a female readership.

Speaker 2: And there were just so many books that in one way or another picked up on that. But probably the most famous of them was Paula Hawkins, the girl on the train, which possibly sold even more copies than Gone Girl and became a movie as well. And then the sort of quintessence of the formula that Hawkins sort of developed was the woman in the Window, which was written by a pseudonymous author named A.J. Finn, who has his own crazy story that we won’t get into here.

Speaker 2: But anyway, even though these books are seen as being spawned by Gone Girl, in a way, the only thing they really have in common is this woman. NARRATOR This central female character who is kind of looking below the surface of domestic tranquility and seeing these ugly things. This woman is unreliable in some way, but whereas Amy is unreliable because she’s a master deceiver in the girl on the train, we get this formula of the female narrator who has been through some kind of trauma, and she’s recovering it. And she’s sort of this forlorn and lonely creature who spends a lot of her time sort of observing other people and she drinks too much, or she has mental health issues, so she takes, you know, psychiatric drugs.

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Speaker 2: And then she sees something. She sees something disturbing, namely a murder or she suspects a murder. And when she tries to con the authorities, nobody will believe her because, one, she’s a woman, and two, she is a drunk or she hallucinates other things. And until finally in the end, she has this kind of violent climactic confrontation with the killer, and she’s proven to be have been completely right. Everybody is wrong to disbelieve her and she’s vindicated.

Speaker 2: There’s a Netflix parody of the genre, the woman in the house across the street from the Girl in the Window with Kristen Bell, which is intermittently funny. But one of the funniest bits is the very end, where after she has, you know, been proven right and she’s sort of lying in her hospital bed recovering from her fight with the the actual killer. And one character after another comes to the hospital to say, I’m so sorry. You were right all along. And to me, that is the complete money shot of of this particular genre.

Speaker 1: And I also think the explosion of interest in true crime and serialized television about murder. But with shows like Big Little Lies, which was also a book, of course, but even to Mare of Easttown are sort of related to the whole Gone Girl phenomenon. It seems like one of the main takeaways from the success of Gone Girl has been women like murder stories.

Speaker 2: One of the interesting things about the thriller or the mystery genre is that it can become a way to explore how people’s personal relationships manifest these larger cultural issues, the way the recession affected Nick and Amy, the way the collapse of magazine publishing affected their ability to make a living, you know, you know, in their in their sense of what their future was. It can go to a lot of different places and deal with a lot of different tensions. And I think women really like the detective or mystery or thriller genre in particular, because there’s just this kind of reassuring pattern of there’s this transgression and then there’s this investigation and then there’s usually some kind of restitution.

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Speaker 2: Now, that’s not necessarily true in Gone Girl, where Amy just gets away with all of her schemes. But if you look at the whole first part of the book as how Amy has been dealt this crappy hand where she’s constantly being. Acted to live up to these roles that are meaningless to her. And she’s supposed to put up with, you know, having her husband spend all their money and then leave her for a younger woman. Then in a way, she does get her restitution in the end.

Speaker 1: Something you mentioned to me is that with some of these books, Instagram has started fitting sort of handily into the plotlines because it just so fits with the theme of what things are presented as are not as they appear. Is that something you’ve seen feature in more than one book?

Speaker 2: Yes. I mean, just in general, any kind of mystery or detective or thriller fiction has to come to terms with technology and how people use it. And one of the things I liked about the Cat Rosenfeld book, No One Will Miss Her is that Instagram does get used in that it’s how we investigate the people we brush up against or in our world. It’s how we form opinions about people. And often those opinions are crafted in a certain way.

Speaker 2: The way that Aimee crafts, the way that she’s depicted in the media as as the victim of her husband. And that just seems like a great like great material to dig into, because it has a lot to do with conventional femininity in the way women feel like they have to perform this perfect facade all the time or otherwise they’ve failed as women. I wish it were less the case that women felt that way, and I think it is less the case. But it’s still clearly something that bothers a lot of people because we’re constantly hearing about the negative effects of Instagram on women and girls.

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Speaker 1: Before we head out, we want to give some recommendations. Laura, what are you loving right now?

Speaker 2: Well, speaking of mysteries and detective fiction, which is truly my addiction right now on Britbox, I am watching a TV series. It’s called Redemption, and it stars an actress named Paula MALCOMSON, who people will probably best remember from playing the prostitute character in Deadwood. And what’s interesting about it is that she is a detective, a police detective, and she gets this call that she is the next of kin for a dead body of a woman whose name she doesn’t recognize.

Speaker 2: And it turns out to be her estranged daughter, who she has not seen in 20 years. So she goes to Dublin to identify the body and she learns that not only was her daughter living under an assumed name in Ireland, but she has two grandchildren. And she tries to find out whether her daughter really did, in fact, commit suicide, as the police are saying.

Speaker 2: But the thing that I really like about it is that I’ve never, ever seen a police detective story that’s about being a grandmother at the same time. And it’s quite a common motif to deal with a police detectives home life and how difficult it is and how it is hard to stay married. And, you know, there’s always the wife or the husband who’s complaining that the detective is too caught up in the case and is is not around enough. In this one, it’s really integrated into the overall mystery of what happened to her daughter and how she slowly wins over her grand children. And all of the performances are great and the writing is really good, and I’m just enjoying it so much.

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Speaker 1: As a grandmother. Detective that’s the next frontier.

Speaker 2: Yeah, exactly.

Speaker 1: So it’s always nerve wracking to recommend a book in the presence of the great Laura Miller. But I will try.

Speaker 2: Please.

Speaker 1: I want to recommend the Palace Papers by Tina Brown. Tina Brown is a former big Time magazine editor and she is British and she previously wrote a biography of Princess Diana that I loved. So this book is the follow up to that book. It’s a sprawling account of the British royal family in the 20th and 21st centuries, and it is just delicious. Divine Tina Brown is such a dishy and dramatic and at times withering writer, and the royal family is kind of the perfect subject for her. And I just never want this book to end. Then I would like to add a quick corollary recommendation to that. If you like reading about British peers and their affairs. You should also watch a very British scandal, a miniseries on Amazon Prime starring Claire Foy from The Crown. And it’s about a jaw dropping divorce between a duke and duchess in the 1960s.

Speaker 2: Those both sound really great. And Tina Brown, talk about the embodiment of the old guard of magazines when they played so well and they had a million ads and they were so glamorous. I mean, she’s just the personification of that.

Speaker 1: She or someone like her is who laid off Nick and Amy.

Speaker 2: That’s exactly that.

Speaker 4: That’s it.

Speaker 1: That’s our show this week. The Waves is produced by Shayna Roth.

Speaker 2: Shannon Policy is our editorial director. Alicia montgomery is vice president of audio.

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Speaker 1: We’d love to hear from you. Email us at the waves at slate.com.

Speaker 2: And the Waves will be back next week. Different hosts, different topic, same time and place.

Speaker 1: Thank you so much for being a Slate Plus member. And since you’re a member, you get this extra segment from us. And this week, we wanted to talk about book blurbs. Book blurbs are sort of relevant to what we’ve been talking about with with Gone Girl, because so many books are touted as the Next Gone Girl or the next whatever hit book. And Laura happens to know a lot about book blurbs. And we just wanted to get more into them. So, Laura, I guess, can you start by defining a book blurb for us?

Speaker 2: Would generally in book publishing, a book blurb is a quote that you get from another writer or maybe sometimes a media figure saying, Oh, this book is so great and and explaining why they think it’s so great and they are a funny thing that does, I think, affect the way some people purchase books. I mean, they might look on the back and see that Megan Abbott or whoever endorsed this book and they think, Oh, well, I like Megan Abbott, so I’ll probably like this book.

Speaker 2: You know, they are maybe a little bit cynical or they do kind of perplex people, but they’re really just founded on the idea that someone who wants something to read is wandering around a bookstore and has no idea what to pick. And so they look for clues that that a book that they’re considering is like something else that they liked. And so they are they get a certain kind of cover art. They get a certain kind of typeface on the cover, they get a certain kind of title, and they also get a certain kind of blurb.

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Speaker 2: And a lot of people who are in book publishing will say, well, the blurbs that are attached to a book are are often more meaningful to other people in the industry, like booksellers or reviewers, because they signal to you, Oh, this book is literary, or this book is like a super plot driven thriller, or this book is a more sort of meditative mystery, or this book is like a love story and of a particular kind. So it positions the book in all sorts of sort of unspoken webs of prestige or affinity.

Speaker 2: I do think that readers don’t typically realize that most blurbs are a huge favor that the blurb person does for the author of the book. And it’s actually a very stressful part of being an author that you have to send out all these begging letters to every single well-known writer, you know, asking them to blurb your book. And, you know, I certainly remember every single person who blurbed my book because they just were doing me a huge, huge favor by taking that many hours out of the day to read it, not knowing whether they were going to like it or want to blurb it or not. And the more well-known a writer is, the more they are just deluged with manuscripts that they are asked to blurb. And then eventually, like the best known ones, are like, I never do it or whatever. I just have to automatically say no because I don’t have time to read all these manuscripts.

Speaker 2: You know, somebody who is actually really generous about about endorsing books is Stephen King. And I don’t know, maybe he just is as fast a reader as he is a writer. You know, he’s just like a machine. And so he has endorsed everyone from Michael Connelly to Lauren Groff. He but, you know, it’s more common for it to be just this burden that authors feel has been imposed upon them.

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Speaker 1: And I think they’re also sort of interesting cues you can take from the blurbs themselves in that they’re supposed to be positive. They’re not reviews. But you can tell when some are sort of lukewarm. You know, if I I’m thinking of one in particular. That said, this book has some beautiful sentences.

Speaker 3: And.

Speaker 1: You know, that’s a compliment. But in the context of blurbs where people are just talking about what a stunning, you know, game changing novel this is, that that’s not that that great. So I think also reading them becomes interesting on that level.

Speaker 1: Can you think of any that have made you roll your eyes?

Speaker 2: Well, one that always makes me roll my eyes is a is a blurb from the crime writer James Ellroy. He’s sort of a crime writer. Literary writer is a little bit of a madman. I interviewed him once and he told me, oh, I never read the books. I just blurb I just blurb them. And so now every time I see a blurb from him, I’m just like, oh, you know, he’s just he just made that up. And that probably happens a lot, too. You know, if you I mean, he’s doing it. Because he wants to be helpful to other writers, which is great, but he is also not that helpful to readers. And then at least if any of the potential purchasers or readers of that book know what James Ellroy’s game is, it’s certainly not, you know, going to help the book at all.

Speaker 1: Is there an author’s name who if if you see it on a blurb, that that will make you think, oh, I want to read this. You know, that person, I trust their taste. I’m adding this.

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Speaker 2: A lot of them almost never blurbs. So that is interesting question because I do think that Stephen King’s blurbs are very sincere. I don’t always like the books that he really likes, but I think that he really likes them. I believe he’s very honest. So I take it seriously, even if I don’t, you know, I don’t assume that I’m going to love it. Hmm. I think if Susanna Clarke, who wrote Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell and Piranesi and or something, I would probably pay attention to her.

Speaker 1: For me and probably Curtis Sittenfeld. I don’t know how much she blurbs anymore, but if she recommends a book, usually I take notice because she is one of my favorite writers. The blurb process, that’s that’s why it’s so, you know, nerve wracking for authors but also probably you know hard for the author is being imposed upon is you know you do want to help and maybe you feel you owe this person and yeah, I’m sure even people like Tina Brown and Oprah and Reese Witherspoon have these conundrums to some extent.

Speaker 2: They they really do. And I have I know so many novelists who will come to me and say, I just got this manuscript from a former student, and I really like them and I think they’re really talented. But this manuscript isn’t really there yet, but they really need my help. So I’m going to have to come up with a blurb and there is a lot of that that goes on as well.

Speaker 1: Right. So blurbs. Can we trust.

Speaker 2: Them? I would say generally not.

Speaker 1: Is there a topic you’d like us to discuss on a Future Wave segment? We’d love to hear from you. Email us at the waves at Slate.com.