Thursday, August 12, 2010

In defense of Elizabeth Gilbert and "Eat, Pray, Love"

Earlier this morning I got into a strange, pointless debate on Twitter regarding Elizabeth Gilbert and her memoir "Eat, Pray, Love." What started me off on this topic was the backlash that has been aimed lately at the book and now the movie of the book (which I haven't seen.) What is curious is that a lot of the print backlash (which is limited to a single argument/complaint: "its all about her, not about me") comes from the same sources that embraced and promoted the book to begin with.

The problem with this line of critique is that the book "Eat, Pray, Love" never pretended to be about anything other than Liz Gilbert. That this became a phenomenon is not the fault of the author, nor is she responsible for the thousands of women who have decided that they should follow her path to find themselves.

I should disclose: I know Liz Gilbert, or, I should say, I knew her. Back in the 90s, she was a frequent reader at the KGB Bar reading series that I curated. She hadn't yet published a book, but her short stories, and her journalism, were great pieces that lent themselves well to being read to a crowd. I was particularly taken with her non-fiction, because she always found a way of using it to critique herself as much as her subject; to me, this seemed a fair approach. She was also willing to share stories about her writing career: her embarrassment at having an editor point out her writing tics, her success at accidentally resubmitting a rejected story to one magazine, which found the unchanged draft suddenly perfect.

When the KGB Bar Reader came out, we did our first radio interview together and complimented each other on our practiced eloquence and charm. Every Halloween, she and her husband hosted a huge party in their small apartment overlooking the parade. These social occasions always seemed less fun to me; this might have been my own social awkwardness, but in retrospect I also wondered if it was because she wasn't really having as much fun as she always claimed.

We fell out of touch around the same time my collection of stories came out; later, reading her memoir, I realized that this was probably around the same time her life was falling apart. Just before its publication, I interviewed Liz for Time Out New York. We actually both had memoirs coming out, and although it never made it into the printed piece, we talked about how strange it was, how unimaginable, that the two of us, of all people, had memoirs coming out (The Dogs Who Found Me was due out in a few months). But we both felt really good about our books; in fact, we both felt completely confident in what we had written, and unconcerned about how they might be received. This was a completely new and liberating experience for ourselves. I remember saying something along the lines of "I feel like people will really like my book, if they read it. I don't know how many people will find it, but I feel like it has good things to say." Liz felt the same about her own.

Of course, my book was being published on a much smaller scale. The initial printing was about 2000 copies. The orders were even less. Fourteen printings later, it has about 60-70,000 copies in print. So I feel like a also know a little bit about the frenzy that comes when a book exceeds its audience. As a writer, you feel an obligation to the readers who have found your book valuable. You hear from people who are grateful that you have given them, in some way, a voice. So, you keep talking. You keep granting interviews. You keep going on reading tours. Because you know you probably aren't going to have this chance again, this opportunity to say that there are a few things that matter to you, this chance to let other people speak alongside you.

And with that comes the growing number of voices who ask, quite reasonably, "Who do you think you are?" You can see this effect particularly on places like Amazon, where the growing number of reviews include people who feel the need to take the book down a notch or two, who slight it for being about a flawed person, who claim, in some cases, to be a better person than the author, a more worthy subject for examination. What has happened is the book has reached beyond its actual audience into a readership for which it was never really intended.

And that is when you realize how very lucky you are.

1 comment:

NYCKitten said...

Great post Ken...I enjoyed both your memoir and Liz's a great deal. When are they going to turn your stuff into a movie?!! Come on Hollywood!