At some point during college I went to a guest lecture about writing. I don’t remember the lecturer except that he was old and white (which is allowed). I do remember when he said something like, “Elizabeth Gilbert and Eat, Pray, Love…now that’s not what I’m talking about when I talk about good writing.”
I had just read Eat, Pray, Love and, well, I liked it. Actually, it kind of blew my mind. It introduced me to a voice I had never heard before: it was funny, self-deprecating, honest, and female. I tried to mimic it. And in the eight years since I read it I’ve noticed similar voices in all kinds of places: Sloane Crosley and Lena Dunham and even Jessa Crispin. It’s not like it started with Elizabeth Gilbert. Except that for me it did start with Elizabeth Gilbert.
Beyond the style, there was the format itself. Disguised behind the untouchable life of a successful New York City writer jet-setting across the world…was a road narrative. And not just any road narrative. A female road narrative. Elizabeth Gilbert was on a quest. She had to travel around the world to find her treasure. This sounds silly, I know, but tell me: when have you read a road narrative with a female lead that was also written by a female? In twenty years I hadn’t seen anything like it.
There are some that come close. The Wizard of Oz–probably the most famous female road narrative of all time. Even Cowgirls Get the Blues–it’s not really a road narrative but the main character is a badass woman hitchhiker (who I’ll love until the day I die). The Sheltering Sky–I have not read this, but it was endorsed by a female expert on road narratives to be the only American female road narrative that she knows of. The thing is: all of these were written by men. Which is fine. I’m all for men writing female road narratives. But you are all still disqualified from the category of female road narratives written by women.
There are problems with Eat, Pray, Love. That’s for sure. First, the fact that the book ends with Gilbert meeting her future husband: that, all by itself, almost made me want to shit all over it. Second, the drive for quest in the book comes from a need for self-discovery. I categorize this book as a road narrative–in fact, I kind of force it there, like a dog in the kitchen I point my finger and demand that it stay. I’m afraid I’ll come back later to find it’s turned itself into a fairy tale. To someone else Eat, Pray, Love is memoir or travel writing or, ick, self-help. So, no, it’s not really the female road narrative I was hoping for. But when I read it all that time ago, it was the closest thing I had ever seen.
Now eight years have passed and Eat, Pray, Love is no longer the solitary female-road-narrative-by-woman in my collection. There’s Wild, by Cheryl Strayed. Perhaps Jessa Crispin’s The Dead Ladies Project could pass as a road narrative. I could throw a few half-lifes in there: The Secret Life of Bees and maybe Eat the Document. But in these last two the road is more of a plot device than a way of being.
And then there’s Tracks by Robyn Davidson. Now, if you want to read a road narrative Davidson is what you should read. Davidson’s got miles on everyone else in this category. But then again, everyone else kind of ended up here on accident. For Davidson it was on purpose. DO NOT WATCH THE MOVIE OR I WILL STOP TALKING TO YOU.
(Tracks was published, ironically, around the time the rest of these women were being born. I suppose if I had read these books in the right order–Davidson’s first followed by Gilbert’s–I might not have the same respect for Gilbert that I do. But fate is fate.)
I first discovered Jessa Crispin through an article she wrote in the Times about a month ago (although she’s been in the scene for quite a while). I immediately emailed her to say, hey I think you’re cool, which is the first time I’ve ever done that. Due to my excitement about the whole thing the email may have been a little sloppy and she never emailed me back but I’m totally not holding it against her.
Even though I think Crispin is pretty cool, I’m kind of mad at her. About a month ago I read her article “How not to be Elizabeth Gilbert.” Crispin tears Gilbert apart. She takes issues with Gilbert’s overly emotional writing, her lack of expertise on the countries she visits, he colonialist attitudes, and generally caving to female writer stereotypes. You finish the article thinking that Gilbert is an absolutely worthless human being who only took up writing so that she could be a guest on Project Runway. And Cheryl Strayed isn’t much better.
It annoyed me when I read the article and then it annoyed me even more as I read Crispin’s own book. It’s just that…the critiques that Crispin makes of Gilbert, one could pretty easily make of Crispin. “[Gilbert] may travel to India,” Crispin writes, “but she remains tucked away in an ashram, conversing almost exclusively with westerners, more interested in relaying the details of her recent breakup than noticing anything about her host country.” Well, Gilbert was not writing a book about India. Also, I’m pretty sure she did befriend some Indians, like a girl who was preparing for an arranged marriage. In her own book, Crispin is a self-professed loner book worm. She takes baths, reads books, drinks alone, avoids leaving her apartment if it’s raining. Which is totally fine with me and she came out with a great book because of it. But, you know, get off Gilbert’s back for doing the same thing.
Crispin argues that it’s all personal reflection and no expertise in Eat, Pray, Love (and Wild). The books drip of emotion and internal monologue. Ewwww, says Crispin. In terms of expertise Crispin wins by far. Her book is personal essay woven with stories of deceased local artists. She is an expert and an inspiring one at that. But Crispin is also emotional. (So you’re allowed to be emotional, if you’re an expert?) Crispin admits to crying often in airports and to drinking and then crying. Her tone is darker than Gilbert’s, but, like, so what?
Crispin writes “These books are not so much transgressive as regressive. After all, they obey their gender codes: men go on adventures, women on journeys of self-discovery.” I agree that both Eat, Pray, Love and Wild are regressive at times. But I don’t think that transgression and regression are necessarily exclusive. Let’s go back to the part where I asked you how many books you’ve read by women about the road.
Speaking of regressive, in Dead Ladies Crispin dips into the story of her fling with a married man throughout, going back on forth and what she wants from him and what she expects. That’s not the regressive part. The regressive part is near the end when she tells the reader the shocking news: her lover divorced his wife and he wants to meet Crispin in London. I nearly tore out pages from the book with my teeth. Don’t do this to me Jessa, you of all people. You criticize Cheryl Strayed for being regressive and then you threaten us with a romantic happy ending to your own story! But of course, by the end of her book, Crispin tapers off, leaving the situation with the lover unresolved and I leave the pages of her book intact.
The argument on colonial attitudes I’m just not gonna touch right now. Except to say that Crispin went to Europe. And wow it’s really complicated when white people travel to Europe. A lot of tense colonial feelings there.
Crispin shows no leniency in her distaste for Eat, Pray, Love. She doesn’t even acknowledge an artist within, but rather frames Gilbert as a kind of sellout. (Same goes for Strayed.) Sure, yeah, these ladies’ books aren’t perfect and their narratives aren’t as progressive as I’d like. But how much should we tear down and how much should we hold up?
It’s important to criticize. It’s important for women to criticize the work of other women. On one hand, I think it takes a female to recognize female genius. And to find it we have to read each other’s stuff with a critical eye. It is also important for women to remind other women when we are falling short of what could be. But shouldn’t we be nice about it? Or, I don’t know maybe we should be mean about it. Maybe men will take us more seriously if we are mean to each other.* Plus, some women really are terrible.
Anyways, it kind of reminds me of the time when Madeleine Albright spoke for Hillary Clinton’s campaign and said: “There is a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other.”
I don’t think Madeleine said this at the right time, but I do think it’s worth considering…that maybe there is a place in hell like that. And I’m not saying vote for Hillary or you’re going to that special place in hell. But what I’m saying is that there’s a woman up there who might be the first woman president of The United States. And she’s a foreign policy whiz, and she’s been pushing health care reform probably since about the time you were born (if you’re a millennial), and she’s been fighting for social justice since the 1960s. And now people are telling her she’s a sellout because she took money from Wall Street, which is what nearly every male presidential candidate in the last half-century has done. And she’s a sellout? She’s shaking her head at you saying, honey you can’t even imagine how hard it was to get here: mansplaining is only the start of it. So vote for her or don’t vote for her, but either way I think you should be nice to her. And nice to people who support her.
To all these women who’ve come before us, at the very least we can say thank you for your inadequacies. Thank you for your strengths. But also thank you for your inadequacies. They allow the rest of us to go forward even more boldly.
*Oh I hope you know I’m not serious about this. Who cares what the men think.