On Elizabeth Gilbert

I didn’t intend to read Elizabeth Gilbert’s book on marriage, Committed, largely because of a couple bad reviews and lack of interest in the topic, but then I saw it was available at my library, and I thought I would give it a try. I’m very glad I did. Having read two of Gilbert’s books now, including Eat, Pray, Love (of course!), I have turned into a Gilbert fan.

I’m aware that there has been some backlash against Gilbert, mostly because of the popularity of EPL, and also, I’m guessing, because she had the extraordinary good luck to be able to nurse a broken heart while spending a year traveling around the world. And at the end, she has the extraordinary good luck to fall in love again. She’s sometimes seen as spoiled and self-indulgent, out having adventures, dashing off books, making tons of money, and basically being a frivolous, privileged person. Although I haven’t seen it yet, I’m afraid that the movie of EPL where Gilbert is played by Julia Roberts doesn’t help matters much.

Well, that’s highly irritating. Gilbert has been doing what writers do: she proposes book ideas, gets advances, does her research, and writes her books. And she’s good at it. Her books are so very readable — engaging, funny, open, smart — that she makes it looks easy, and I know it’s not. Calling her spoiled and indulgent is to forget that there are tons of male travel writers, Bill Bryson types, who do exactly what has done. Except, I suppose, that they don’t write about their broken hearts. Do the people who dislike her writing feel uncomfortable about the personal nature of it? That’s one of its strongest features, I say. One of the things that makes her so appealing is that she seems fearless: it takes enormous bravery to make yourself as vulnerable as she does. Her popularity has a lot to do with her willingness to pour her heart out onto the page, and to do it in a way that’s entertaining, moving, and, sometimes, wise.

I don’t buy the argument that writing a book, or multiple books, about oneself is inherently self-indulgent. What matters is the manner in which you do so. Are you writing about yourself in such a way that others recognize themselves in your story? Are you reaching toward something larger than yourself? Or, are you just a really, really good writer of the sort who can turn any subject into something worth reading? Then by all means, please, write endlessly about yourself. I’d love to read it.

Gilbert’s writing style, in both EPL and Committed, veers occasionally toward chattiness in a way that doesn’t work for me, but to make up for the moments of glibness and the occasional bad jokes, there are tons of passages where she gets the tone just right. She moves easily from personal experience to passages on the history of marriage, from descriptions of travel in Southeast Asia to memories of her mother’s and her grandmother’s marriages. Surely I don’t need to say much about the idea behind Committed, do I? She was basically forced to marry her Brazilian boyfriend Felipe when he is detained at the U.S. border and refused entry and they learn that marriage is the only way they can live together in the U.S. The problem is that they both knew they never wanted to marry again. The book is Gilbert’s attempt to make her peace with the institution before she finds herself a wife once again.

The book isn’t perfect — she comes across as strangely naive about the variety of beliefs about love and marriage and how they often have little to do with each other — but in its best moments, it really is a good read. I’ve come to think that the best essayists and memoir writers are those whose voices are so captivating you don’t want them to stop talking. Gilbert makes a marvelous companion.

23 Comments

Filed under Books, Nonfiction

23 responses to “On Elizabeth Gilbert

  1. I absolutely agree. I find her voice distinctive and her pacing skilled. Her content does not come off in the manufactured way some suggest but as genuine and warm. So much criticism of her writing ultimately sounds like sour grapes to me. Her life is truly enviable on some levels but she has made it so.

  2. I haven’t read either of Gilbert’s books, but my resistance to her hinges not so much on the notion that it’s somehow self-indulgent to write about oneself, as it does on a pattern I find annoying and which Eat Pray Love falls into: that of the white Westerner traveling to India or other SE Asian (Buddhist/Hindu) countries to “find their spirituality.” It’s not really Gilbert’s fault per se, since I wouldn’t be annoyed by this if it weren’t so common among folks of my white middle-class demographic. And it certainly doesn’t reflect on her skill as a writer, since I also feel annoyed by this impulse in such amazing artists as TS Eliot (at the end of “The Waste Land”) and the Beatles. But still, the prevalence of this Orientalist notion that The East is somehow automatically more enlightened and less oppressive than the West, grates on me. India is a country with massive social inequality, and religion in particular has been a plague on the Indian population, causing horrible bloody civil wars and even the partitioning of the nation into two countries who are now in a nuclear arms race with one another. Maybe Gilbert addresses this in a way that is respectful toward the experience of the actual Indians, but too often it’s ignored by white people who travel there to meditate, do yoga and otherwise focus on themselves, without paying much attention to the existence of the Indian people around them or the history of the country.

    And now that I’ve ranted, I’d like to add that I don’t mean to give the impression there’s anything wrong with taking an interest in or practicing some form of Eastern spirituality; it’s just when the East is fetishized as the location of easy alternatives that I get hacked off.

  3. I read EPL when the hype machine was at its height, and I’ll admit my feelings about it were lukewarm. I think it was the chatty, sometimes overly glib style, but it was also possibly because one too many people told me it would Change. My. Life. That’s hard to live up to! For me, it just wasn’t that kind of book. It was fine, not the kind of book I’d go out of my way to read, but not a book I’d regret reading. Although I don’t think it lived up to the hype, I don’t understand the vitriol people express toward her or to her writing.

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  5. I had no expectations about Committed when I read it (things are quieter over here in the UK about Gilbert as a person) and I loved it. I don’t think the personal is self-indulgent at all – what that perspective does is to give a really present warmth to the narrative voice. You feel there’s someone alongside you guiding you through the material, you don’t feel alone in the face of the information. I really liked that.

  6. I haven’t read either book, mainly because the genre itself doesn’t appeal to me, although I have been aware of the antipathy expressed towards the writer in some quarters. In the end, if the writing is good the book has a right to a fair hearing (or reading) on the strength of that regardless of what one might think of the motives behind the writing. If I see copy of either I shall listen to your opinion rather than that of those who condemn her without having read her work.

  7. Like you, I picked up Committed at the library (well, I “picked it up” virtually through their e-book lending program), though I had been sort of resisting it up to that moment. Now I feel encouraged about getting started on it.

  8. Dorothy,

    You’ve certainly raised the reputation of Gilbert to a much higher plane with your praises. I have not seen the movie, and don’t think I will. (With 37% approval ratings from critics and 47% from viewers, just thought I’d save my time)
    As for the whole Gilbert phenomenon, I’d just like to mention that I totally agree with Emily’s comment above. I couldn’t have stated it better, a critical view on the Westerner’s idealization of Eastern cultures. As an “Easterner” living in a Western world, I’m afraid from my own observation of modern day Asian societies, they are as much materialistic, if not more, than Western ones. Whatever that one could attribute to being “spiritual” could well be “superstition.” (Of course, I can only speak from my own Chinese cultural roots) Like her, I’ve often avoided books and writings like Gilbert’s.

  9. I’ve always felt so-so about Gilbert’s books–actually I loved Stern Men, a novel she wrote quite a while ago, but there were things I liked about EPL and things I didn’t. I do like her chatty quality actually in telling her story. I think I was expecting more of a straightforward travel narrative than the sort of book it actually was–so I really liked the Italy section and the other two to a lesser degree. However, I have seen the movie, and while there were a few moments of what some might see as ‘privileged self-indulgence’ (or just really good luck and doing the right thing at the right time to touch a nerve in readers/publishers) I liked it. It’s beautifully filmed and lush and if you’re willing to just watch and enjoy and not overly analyze things I think you might like it. I hadn’t thought of reading Committed but after reading your review and Litlove’s I might just pick it up at some point.

  10. I completely agree with you about the self-indulgence issue, but I also see Emily’s point about the exoticisation and appropriation of Easter religions. I haven’t real Gilbert yet, though, so this is more of a general point. The reason why I’ve been putting off reading her is because I feel that I’ve heard too much about her to react to her writing without the buzz getting in the way, if that makes sense. I often put off reading very popular books for a few years for this reason. But between you and Litlove, I’m now extremely curious about Committed.

  11. Interesting posts and comments, too. I wish my brain wasn’t so coldish (read snot filled). I’ll come back to read this again!

  12. I didn’t intend to read Committed, either (damn those library shelves, huh?). Like you, I think Gilbert does a fine job of what she does, and I was very impressed with how thoroughly she does her research. I imagine to someone like you who has studied so much and have been immersed in literature of the eras in which marriage was much more of an economical arrangement than what it is in America today, her “discoveries” about marriage are surprising. However, my guess is that the average American knows very little about our own history of marriage, let alone what it is and has been in other cultures, so I’m glad she synthesizes some of that for those who may not know. I agree wholeheartedly with you when it comes to Gilbert (and others like her): by all means, please write endlessly about yourself.

  13. Frances — I’m glad you agree! People say she sounds manufactured? I don’t get that at all. To me, she sounds like a very genuine, sincere, REAL person. I definitely agree that her voice is distinctive. It doesn’t always work for me, but most times it does.

    Emily — yeah, I know what you mean, and I’ve felt that annoyance at times too. I had that reaction when I read a Somerset Maugham novel about the east as a source of spiritual renewal. The journey to the east IS common, but it can be done well, of course. I don’t remember EPL enough to say how she dealt with the question of poverty among real Indians. In Committed she is good about recognizing the poverty and injustices she sees as she is traveling around Asia, and she doesn’t idealize the cultures she experiences at all. She does look to them for wisdom, and sometimes she seems awfully naive about what she finds, but she never sees them as offering easy alternatives. Gilbert is probably not a writer high on your TBR pile, but it would be fun to see what you thought!

    Teresa — with that kind of build-up, no wonder EPL didn’t blow you away! I don’t remember what inspired me to read it, but I’d heard of her before EPL and think I read it before the huge reaction began. It didn’t change my life in any way, I don’t think (unless indirectly), but it remains a nice memory. She’s the kind of person I would like to be, in some ways, or perhaps have as a friend.

    Litlove — that’s exactly it. She’s like a nice guide or a friend to take you through all the ideas. She’s an excellent companion, and that’s what I love about her! I was very glad to read your post because it inspired me to pick this one up.

    Annie — I agree that it’s all about the book itself and should be judged solely on that alone, although it’s sometimes hard to set aside what we have heard about the author. No wonder Gilbert struggled so much to write her next book! After EPL when her reputation skyrocketed, she had a hard act to follow.

    Rohan — I’d love to know what you think, especially about the orientalist issues raised above.

    Arti — I’d heard that the movie wasn’t very good, but I AM curious about how they handled it. The question of idealization is an interesting one. It makes me want to reread EPL to see how much she is, in fact, idealizing anything. In Committed, I don’t think that happens, but it’s a book with a different point and purpose than EPL.

    Danielle — I haven’t read Stern Men, but I’m curious about it. She talks in Committed about having been known as a writer who writes about men and who writes like a man, up until EPL hit, and then all the sudden she’s the favorite of women. Quite the turn-around! I’m curious about the movie, so I may see it at some point.

    nymeth — I often avoid books with a lot of buzz, too, for that same reason — it affects how you think about the book too much. I hate to think about not reading great books for that reason, though! I suppose waiting until the buzz dies down is a good way to avoid missing good books that happen to be popular.

    Lilian — I hope you are 100% better by now!

    Emily B. — you may be right about what people know about marriage. I shouldn’t underestimate ignorance, should I? :) People know about arranged marriages, though, so the idea of marrying someone you don’t love isn’t new. She does offer a lot of new details, though, that might not be as familiar.

  14. I have not read Gilbert’s books, partly for the reasons Emily states so well (running off to Italy and/or the East seems like such a cliche right now). I did see the film, and I thought the scenery was absolutely beautiful, as were the connections that Gilbert made with people in the different countries that she visited. Sometimes you do need a change of scenery to get a much clearer perspective on where your life is and where you want it to be.

    I will be interested to see how long her new marriage lasts…and what the topic of her next book will be.

  15. This was a great post, and great discussion. I never considered the point Emily raised, but it’s really true. So often we think that by picking up and moving somewhere else we can fix things (I admit I’m probably guilty of this). I enjoyed EPL, but there was something whiney in the voice of the story which has stayed with me. So often with these Western memoirs, I find myself closing the cover and thinking ‘couldn’t you just thank God you’re healthy and living in peace and relative plenty?’ I don’t know, maybe I watch too much CNN, or maybe I have a tendancy to oversimplify, but endlessly inward-looking stories just feels fussy to me.

  16. I’ve not read Gilbert’s books or seen the EPL movie but I did enjoy your post very much. You make some good points about how her being a woman might be a factor in some of the anti-Gilbert chatter. I always find it interesting when a writer is so popular with readers but not with critics.

  17. Debby — I think I heard she is working on a novel. Or at least I know she was writing one that got interrupted when her husband-to-be was deported from the U.S. It’s good to hear that about the movie; I’m guessing I won’t like it much for the way it changes the book, but I will certainly enjoy the scenery!

    Melissa — I can see that these kinds of books wouldn’t appeal to everybody! I think it’s important if you’re going to write a travel book about personal exploration, that you need to acknowledge the realities of the country you are traveling through, which I think was basically Emily’s point or part of it, and I think Gilbert at least tries to do that, or at least she does in Committed. I don’t remember EPL well enough to say.

    Stefanie — I find that interesting too, and I’m more and more inclined to side with the readers against the critics. I don’t really trust the critics’ motivations (especially after thinking about that review of the Joyce Carol Oates book that seemed so nasty), and I’m less and less inclined to count popularity against a book.

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  19. Hilary

    I’m not sure if I’ve read Eat Pray Love in its entirety. I seem to get bogged down when she attempts to be an anthropologist and not just a diarist. I love autobiographies. So when she sticks to the workings of her own body and soul I’m happier. One of my favorite moments–when she made the potatoes for herself in the middle of the night! We all know what followed. She showed in that moment how hungry and lonely a single person can feel at times. And at the other end of the spectrum she showed how content she could be enjoying a meal alone and studying a language. She emphasized just before she decided to commit to Felipe that she was truly happy alone. It became clear to us that Felipe would just add to her happiness–give her some balance perhaps–but he was not the end-all and be-all of her existence.

    In Committed I felt that she was more of a diarist, less an anthropologist. Or maybe the travelogue this time just resonated with me. I’ve been a foreign-service wife. I know the pain and frustration of seeing hopeless poverty. I empathized with her the day she was chased by the young beggars.
    But I was really curious to know about Felipe’s flaws, his humanity. In Eat Pray Love it was as though he were one of those lovers in the romance novels. I wanted to know about the real man and I got some of that especially on that bus trip they took. He acted so much like my husband, stoic, sucking it up, expecting her to suffer in silence. I loved that!

    I didn’t pay any attention to the Eat Pray Love movie reviews. I desperately wanted to see the film and I did. I liked it very much and I cried like a baby. The movie skimmed the surface the way movies do but made up for it with the lush scenery. We are inundated with movies these days which are heavy on special effects, light on human interaction. I even cheered her on when she was eating the pasta and pizza and promised myself a slice of pizza after the movie. Self-indulgent? I think that’s sort of like our moms telling us to eat all our vegetables because there are children starving around the world. We know that most Americans (not all) are better off than most in a material sense. But this is exactly what Gilbert was railing against. She was tired of the big house and all the stuff that went with it. She was trying to fill a spiritual hunger. She got more than she bargained for when she got Felipe. I wish them happiness.

  20. Pingback: Elizabeth Gilbert, Committed (2010) « Smithereens

  21. Hilary

    Since writing the comment above, I got Committed out and reread some parts of it and realize now that I was wrong–that Felipe isn’t a stoic traveler–that he finds the hassles of traveling very difficult and becomes short-tempered as a result.

  22. Pingback: Pleasure, Guilt, and Pizza: Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love » Novel Readings - Notes on Literature and Criticism

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