I’ll start with a confession. My name is Kate, I’m a literary academic, and Eat, Pray, Love is one of my favourite books. This apparently makes me an anti-feminist, imperialist fool. I’ve been hoodwinked by the hype: gypped by the Guru, bamboozled by Bali, swindled by spaghetti, and most recently, seduced by a sari-clad Julia Roberts. According to notable critics, such as Maureen Callahan of The New York Post and Karen Brooks in The Courier-Mail, I’m not meant to like this ‘self-indulgent twaddle’, this ‘narcissistic New Age reading’. As a teacher of literature, I should scoff, and return to my literary canon.
But I feel compelled to defend Elizabeth Gilbert’s book. Eat, Pray, Love offers a clever blend of wisdom, engaging anecdotes and humour. I love this book because it succeeds on so many literary fronts: it’s well-crafted non-fiction that effectively marries different life writing forms, it centralises women’s issues, and it’s a book that unites the literary and the popular in style and subject.
More cultural event than book, the infamous rise of Eat, Pray, Love began in 2006. Eat, Pray, Love playfully recounts Gilbert’s spiritual travels and cultural ventures through Italy, India and Indonesia. Gilbert was already an established essayist and short story writer before she was offered a large advance to write Eat, Pray, Love. The book has been an enormous success: five million sales to date, and positioned on the New York Times best-seller list for almost four years. The ever-charming Gilbert has been a highly visible author – promoting her book far and wide (with a particular attention to The Oprah Winfrey Show). She’s since written a sequel (Committed: A Skeptic Makes Peace with Marriage), and Eat, Pray, Love has been adapted for the screen. To confirm that imitation is the sincerest form of f lattery, in 2009 Andrew Gottlieb’s Drink, Play, F@#K: One Man’s Search for Anything Across Ireland, Las Vegas, and Thailand offered a (less successful) gendered parody of Gilbert’s memoir.
Jennifer Egan in The New York Times attempted to explain the phenomenal popularity of Eat, Pray, Love. The book isn’t original or unique in style or in its representation of a woman ‘on the edge,’ she wrote; however, it has struck a chord for its millions of (mostly female) readers, offering something familiar and desirable. And Eat, Pray, Love traverses a range of popular genres and subjects – travel writing, women’s memoir, personal essay, self-help book. This blending of forms and traditions allows Gilbert to tap into different markets and a diverse readership. Amongst the timely themes she covers are religion, spirituality, travel in a post-9/11 culture, cross-cultural friendships, love, relationships, divorce and depression.
Clearly, an appeal of Gilbert’s tale is its ‘inspiration’. Subtitled ‘One woman’s search for everything’, Eat, Pray, Love is a 30-something’s meditation on a life gone awry. As the book opens, we meet Gilbert in a failing marriage with a partner who wants children (‘I didn’t – as I was appalled to be finding out – want any of these things’). She’s looking for answers in the spiritual realm; she escapes marriage and ventures quickly into a passionate but short-lived affair with a younger man. Then, thanks to a work opportunity, Gilbert finds herself fleeing the US on a spiritual tour to Italy, India and Indonesia, where she will eat, pray and love her way to self-actualisation.
Eat, Pray, Love is life writing ‘by design’. Gilbert engineers and lives an experience to write about it. It’s probably fair to say that Gilbert knew her market and tailored the text towards it. She takes readers on a vicarious adventure that she (and her publishers) know readers will enjoy – which has, of course, lead to criticism that the memoir isconstructed with a certain amount of artifice.
But why are we so surprised by this? Why is there so much dumbfounded naiveté and discomfort around such conscious and deliberate literary practices? Clever Liz Gilbert, I say! She commodifies and packages her experiences in ways that are now all-too-familiar (and widely desirable), following on from the success of a range of other cultural texts from self-help tomes to inspirational travel novels to ‘reality television’ makeovers.
Life writing, with its offer of truth and intimacy, has been subject to more scrutiny than other contemporary literary genres. Witness the plethora of ‘hoax’ memoirs that were exposed in the 1990s and 2000s (Binjimin Wilkomirski, Helen Darville, Norma Khouri, J.T. Leroy, Margaret Seltzer, to name just a handful of examples). It was perhaps inevitable, then, that a book as successful as Gilbert’s was met with suspicion. It’s a reasonably easy task to distil the repetitive criticism levelled at Gilbert’s memoir: Gilbert isn’t a good writer. Eat, Pray, Love is self-indulgent and narcissistic. Gilbert’s book is full of irritating, dull, New-Age navel-gazing. Gilbert spends far too much time talking about herself, and provides little insight into the people and places she visits. And Eat, Pray, Love is exploitative, reductive and imperialist in its representations of different cultures.
But for me, the seemingly trite and ‘try-hard New-Age-y’ aspects of Eat, Pray, Love are part of its appeal. Self-help books are a multimillion-dollar industry, and while Eat, Pray, Love isn’t exclusively a self-help book, it certainly resonates as such. The main condemnations showed at self-help books are that they oversimplify complex problems and offer generalist solutions. These texts often blame the individual for his or her own problems, making suggestions for individual improvement, rather than exploring the complexity of the individual. Is Eat, Pray, Love guilty of this? Sure, Gilbert spends a lot of time on introspection and there’s a fair amount of emotional and psychological self-flagellation, but this is always tempered with a sense of Gilbert-in-the-world. The book is filled with cultural observations and commentary: about Italian history, India’s melting pot of religious practices, and the impact of terrorism on Bali’s economy. Gilbert consistently demonstrates an awareness of her own subjectivity, of her position as a woman, a white American, a privileged, educated writer. She reflects and apologises constantly for her ignorance, her naiveté and her cultural background:
Truthfully, I’m not the best traveller in the world.
I know this because I’ve traveled [sic] a lot and I’ve met people who are great at it. Real naturals. I’ve met travellers who are so physically sturdy they could drink a shoebox of water from a Calcutta gutter and never get sick. People who can pick up new languages where others of us might only pick up infectious diseases. People who know how to stand down a threatening border guard or cajole an uncooperative bureaucrat at the visa office … I don’t have these qualities.
In the introduction Gilbert discusses the ethics of her book. For instance, she tells us that’s she’s changed the names of people to protect their anonymity, and that she’s asked ‘Richard from Texas’ for his permission to name him and tell his personal stories of alcoholism and drug addiction. She doesn’t go into detail about the decline of her marriage, she doesn’t reveal the name of the Guru or the whereabouts of the Indian ashram. Gilbert demonstrates an awareness of the ethics of relational life writing – knowing that it’s impossible to write ‘your’ story without telling stories about other people. She characterises others, even those who have wronged her, with a grace and affection.
This brings us to the claim that Eat, Pray, Love offers a reductive, paternalistic and imperialist view of the countries, people, cultures and religions it represents. Critics have damned both Gilbert’s representation of Eastern faith, but also readers’ naive and wilful reception of these representations. Critics such as Joshunda Sanders and Diana Barnes-Brown (in Bitch magazine) have pointed to the book’s fetishisation of Eastern religions as fuelling the misconception that aff luent Westerners might have, that their crises can be simply solved by heading East and sampling some mysticism (seemingly in the form of singular truths). Callahan describes Eat, Pray, Love as the ‘worst in Western fetishisation of Eastern thought and culture’. From a post-colonial point of view, I agree: this is troubling. It’s perhaps easy for people like Gilbert to reach out the hand of friendship to those who have less resources, and to ‘use’ their lives and their beliefs as exotic material for her book. However, Gilbert does this in an entirely self-aware way. She represents herself as unknowing, as foolish, but her memoir is fuelled by sociological desires to understand and ref lect upon the cultures around her. For example, Gilbert is self-conscious about language; her want to learn and use local idiom is evident throughout her travel (‘Every word was a singing sparrow, a magic trick, a truff le for me’). To what extent might Gilbert herself be a cultural provocateur – asking us to consider our relationship with the people and places we encounter when we travel?
Inherent within many of the criticisms aimed at Eat, Pray, Love is a disturbing assumption that Gilbert’s readers are largely unintelligent drones, unable to read between the lines to consider the complex relationships and/or cultural-political climates that underlie her story. We’ll simply take the story at face value, interpreting the narrative at its simplest level; we’ll read it how Oprah tells us how to read it.
You can’t discuss the book without mentioning Oprah. One of the keys to Gilbert’s success was the ‘Oprahfication’ of Eat, Pray, Love. When Gilbert appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show (twice) to promote the book, the focus was invariably on the extent to which viewers might ‘relate’ to aspects of Gilbert’s journey: a failed marriage, an obsessive love affair, depression, and a journey towards healing. When authors appear on The Oprah Winfrey Show, the discussion is rarely, if ever, about the book itself. So, what’s been lost in much of the public discussion of Eat, Pray, Love is a sense of the book’s ‘literariness’ – which comes as no surprise. Gilbert is a great writer: adept with humour, insight and ref lexivity. Her observational skills are paralleled with a self-deprecating, quirky wit, and irony (‘That’s me in the corner … That’s me in the spotlight. Choosing my religion’). I’m always surprised to hear that a reader could reach the end of Eat, Pray, Love and not love Liz Gilbert.
There’s also a cultural cringe working against Gilbert. I see a simple explanation for this: readers approach this book thinking they won’t like it. The Oprahfication of Eat, Pray, Love has contributed to this feeling. After all, no serious author or reader wants to be associated with Oprah-sanctioned books – just ask Jonathan Franzen. Oh, wait … And that pesky issue of self-indulgence? It’s a memoir! Like so many female memoirists before her, Gilbert is an easy target. She does, after all, ‘put herself out there’, exposing her life in the public domain. But consider that there’s a great tradition (centuries long) of male writers ‘telling all’ in their autobiographies. Many male writers have covered issues such as depression and recovery. Perhaps what grates is that Gilbert, a middle-class American woman, has expressed these emotions so pointedly and astutely.
So, why do some readers feel embarrassed about reading (and liking) Eat, Pray, Love and I don’t? Maybe it’s that I’m a bold enough reader to not be bothered what other people think of my tastes; or maybe, as a university English lecturer whose specialisation is contemporary non-fiction, I feel bound to give all books a fair go. Maybe I like the book because I’m not supposed to like it. I’m a great defender of popular culture, particularly popular literature. I hate being told what I must and must not read! And as a feminist (who found nothing anti-feminist about the book), I think Eat, Pray, Love deserves a defence.
I first read Eat, Pray, Love in 2008 when I decided to include it in a university literature subject I was teaching: Twenty-First Century Literature: Texts and Contexts. Based on what I’d heard, I thought the book would work as a good popular literature case study and a foil to more serious literary/fictional efforts on spirituality (Yann Martel’s The Life of Pi) that I was teaching in the same course. So, I sat down to read the book … and couldn’t. A few days later I sat down to read the book again – again, nothing. I think this was, at least in part, due to the fact that so many people had told me I wouldn’t like it. Word-of-mouth has a lot to answer for. So, I left it for a couple of weeks. In the meantime, I discovered the wonderful world of audiobook downloads. Elizabeth Gilbert narrates the audiobook version of Eat, Pray, Love (when I mentioned this excitedly to a friend, her smart reply was ‘well, of course she does! ’). Ahem! After devouring the dulcet tones of Ms Gilbert for about 10 minutes, I was hooked. She was reading to me, and better still, telling me very personal details about her life. It was like being invited to peer through someone’s window. My immersion in the audiobook brought me back to the book itself; eventually, I read as I listened.
When I took the book into the classroom, the student responses were (predictably) about as diverse as the critics’ reviews. As a result, the discussion was fruitful and lively. I felt affirmed in choosing the book, reminded that reading literature isn’t just about the classics or finding the best examples of crafted literary perfection. It’s about understanding a diversity of genres, considering a snapshot of what’s out there in the wonderfully unpredictable world of literature. Perhaps most importantly, reading literature is about considering what’s capturing the imagination of readers and why.
Eat, Pray, Love is not to everyone’s taste, but is the vitriol directed at Gilbert and the book fair and justified? The book has become undesirable because it has become so successful – because it has made so much money, appeared on Oprah and been tainted by a big-budget Hollywood adaptation. This, seemingly, transforms Eat, Pray, Love into instant bad art. It seems that literary snobbery is alive and well, especially when it comes to female memoirists.