Chicklit my ass: an apology to Elizabeth Gilbert

liz_03I just finished reading The Signature of All Things, the new novel by Elizabeth Gilbert. I polished off that huge whomping five-pound hardcover late last night. I had to, because it was due back to the library today. You know, there is a hold queue on that puppy six months long, and it can’t be renewed. So I just had to knuckle down to the deadline. I was even prepared to pay the 30-cent-a-day overdue fine if i had to, but nevermind. I made it, under the wire.

But before I go on about The Signature of All Things, I need to come clean about something.

In case you are truly clued out, Elizabeth Gilbert is a Very Famous Writer—listed, in fact (and according to her bio on the inside flap of the book) as one of the New York Times’ 100 Most Influential People in the World. Yes indeedy. She has written several[ novels and non-fiction books, but what hoisted her onto the Most Influential list was her 2006 memoir, Eat, Pray, Love.

For years, I deliberately avoided reading Eat, Pray, Love. I would see it everywhere—in bookstore windows and in magazine ads and on friends’ bookshelves—friends with taste—and my lip would curl in disdain. Oh no…it’s that gushy icky romantic book, that so totally Oprah book… that book, all done up in pastel colours and floofy fonts, totally marketed to the ladies… and wasn’t there a crappy movie with Julia Roberts? … it’s…it’s… omg, it’s CHICKLIT. Yes, that’s it: chicklit. Shelved right up with the Ya Ya Sisters and the Travelling Pants Sisterhood and 500 Shades of Grey or whatever, and all those other books with ‘sisters’ in the title and pink covers with titles in embossed gold script. Ew, barf.

But then, every now and again when my friend was out of the room, I would pick up the book and flip it open. Ready to be irritated. But, my god, it read well. It was sharp. It was ballsy. It was very funny. It was … it was chicklit! I wanted to keep reading but then I would hear my friend coming back into the room and i would quickly shut the book, put it down, and pick up the Derek Jensen lying nearby. Feeling a little bit dirty. Like i’d been peeking into somebody else’s porn.

Then one day i spied Eat, Pray, Love in a used book shop for a couple of bucks, and I finally dared myself to read it. I caved, and bought the book. Of course, I did not take it with me to read over an espresso on Commercial Drive. I would have been mortified to be caught reading chicklit in public. I buried the book deep in my tote bag, brought it home, shut the door, and opened it to page one.

For my legion of dedicated blog followers (both of you), I won’t bother detailing Eat, Pray, Love, but briefly: it comprises Liz’s memoir of a year of travel and self-examination, as precipitated by a shattering divorce and existential meltdown. Over the course of one year Liz spends four months each in Italy (chasing the perfect foccacia), India (hiding out in an ashram), and Bali (falling in love…and other peculiar stuff). I’m not saying Eat, Pray, Love is absolutely the greatest book i’ve ever read in my life, but seriously: it is a REALLY GOOD BOOK. It is tough-minded, well crafted, courageous, and often hilarious. Liz describes what it is to be a chldless, single woman in her late 30’s more acutely than anyone I have ever read. Her reflections on the monkey mind in action and the mundane realities of ashram life are both hilarious and profound. And she regards herself and human relationships, in all their twisted complexity, with unflinching honesty. If any man wants a small window into the female psyche he should read this book. And there is the irony. Many men claim to want to understand women, but most men do not have the cojones to read Eat, Pray, Love.

An exception to this sexist generalization is Michael Stone, who has remarkable cojones. Just last week, I participated in a yoga/dharma/activism program with Michael at Hollyhock. I just about jumped up and cheered when, during a discourse about how we create stories around ourselves and others, he actually quoted a line from Eat, Pray, Love: when, in describing her crashed marriage, the author says of her relationship to her ex-husband, “I was in love with his potential.” That, is the sort of razor-blade retrospect that cuts to the bone, and it is the stuff Liz is made of.

So anyway, when I finally read Eat, Pray, Love, it spun my head around, and I was truly disgusted with myself. I felt like I had unwittingly bought in to a lynching. Because here’s the thing: I had heard the book dismissed repeatedly as self-indulgent, humourless, mushy, New-Agey, lame and self-pitying. And I had unquestioningly accepted that verdict, while in fact, it is none of those things. The book struck me as powerful, drily witty, and, while self-forgiving, also brutally self-pitiless. Most of the people who gave me that impression had not even read your book, and without having read it myself, I accepted their prejudice (prejudice: to ‘pre-judge’) and dismissal. I had really believed that a book by a woman, about the lives of women, must be fluff. I recognized my own internalized sexism. And worse: I was a snob.

I also set to wondering just what the hell was going on here, in the bigger picture. I think that the reason people scorn Eat, Pray, Love is because the perspective of a white, American, upper-middle-class woman is not seen as a valid or respectable point of view. And that the intellectual and spiritual insights of such a protagonist can only be trivialized. I heard Eat, Pray, Love described as ‘self-indulgent’, and I have to think that that is because, women aren’t supposed to write about their real down-and-dirty, smart-but-conflicted, not-always-pretty selves. Men can do it and earn respect, but women can’t—or, if they do, they get filed away under ‘chicklit’ and banished to the afternoon talk shows.

And frankly, I bought into that attitude myself. I’m embarassed. But I’ll make up for it, I promise. I now display Eat, Pray, Love brazenly, on my bookshelf, right next to the Michael Chabon, the Martin Amis, the David Foster Wallace and Hunter S. Thompson that I so love to despise (as my friend Terry observed: I’m a sucker for the asshole protagonist). Elizabeth Gilbert is just as tough as Martin and Hunter. Chicklit, my ass.

And hey: when Liz’s next novel comes out I promise I’ll actually buy a copy instead of borrowing it from the library. At least, I will, when it comes out in paperback. Hardcovers are just way to heavy to take to the beach on my bike.

Will post about Signature of all Things soon. But if you haven’t read Eat, Pray, Love yet, its not too late. There are plenty of used copies around. Don’t be a chicken, I dare you.

P.S. Here is a beautiful essay by Elizabeth Gilbert: Thoughts on Writing

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4 Responses to “Chicklit my ass: an apology to Elizabeth Gilbert”

  1. Pattipow Says:

    Why O Why must I always respond with first a declaration of my love of you and your integrity, and very fine, honest mind and heart? But here I go again. Roshin-Carmen, I just love the fuck outa you. I will read them both. You got me. I too have been a snob, and am just as vulnerable to women’s internalized sexism as the next gal. I’m looking forward to it.

  2. Linda Says:

    I actually read “East, Pray, Love” and got annoyed. Hey! I got divorced in 1978 and hey! I didn’t have money to take a year-long vacation to get over it. I sat down on my zafu every single day, twice a day in zazen. You have no idea how much you can accomplish from the peace of your zafu. Worlds opened to me. Brought me incredible strength. But you already know that. That little speech over, I’m waiting for your review of “The Signature of All Things” because I really can’t tell what it’s about from Amazon. Looks interesting, though.

  3. Linda Says:

    Excuse me, I accidentally hit “Submit” before correcting the type in “Eat, Pray, Love”.

  4. carmen Says:

    Hey Linda, that is an interesting comment. Money, the great divider. I think that is a real factor in why her book is so snubbed, and wonder how it is interconnected with her being a woman. Yes, she is a woman with some money in the bank. So she undertook a year of travel/self-discovery as a way of processing her divorce. What’s so wrong with that? In the big scheme of things probably it didn’t cost that much money…staying in an ashram or a modest guest house in Bali is cheap enough.

    Your sitting on the zafu approach is fine and great and honourable and hopefully contributed to your healing, I certainly do have an idea how that can work! But everyone takes a different path. Interesting, how we (including myself) tend to perceive those with ‘more’ money than us, and find it so hard to empathize with their suffering.

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