I’m a book snob, and I’m not ashamed to admit it. I’m also a long-time fan of India, and dislike the cheap, easy caricatures of the country that Western media often portrays. I watched the movie of Eat, Pray, Love on an aeroplane several years ago and thought it was dire. I don’t generally read popular fiction, or that characterised as chick lit, so I had avoided the book because I thought it would be everything I dislike about travel writing combined with a liberal feminist ethos.
I was a little bit right, but also partly wrong. I read Eat, Pray, Love recently because I’ve been thinking about doing some personal writing, so thought that it was just one of those books I should read. And while I don’t think it’s a great work of literature, I was quite touched by it at times. Perhaps because I recognised in Elizabeth Gilbert’s life (as portrayed in the book) a lot of the dilemmas faced by women who are obsessive travellers and around my age, early 30s. How far to embrace the fact that nowadays, (white, privileged, Western) women can do whatever the hell they want; and how far to succumb to the dominant societal narrative of ‘settling down’ (which is a phrase that has always made me what to run in the opposite direction as fast as I can).
In case you’ve never read Eat, Pray, Love or seen the film, the basic outline is this.
An outline of Eat, Pray, Love
In her early 30s, Elizabeth Gilbert realised that the life she was living—in New York City, married, trying to get pregnant—was not the life she wanted. In a particularly poignant anecdote, Liz describes a friend’s excitement at discovering that after years of trying, she (the friend) was expecting a baby. Liz said that she recognised that excitement because it was something that she had felt a couple of years earlier, when she learned that the magazine she worked for was sending her to New Zealand to write about giant squid. Liz writes that at that moment she knew that until/unless she could get as excited about the thought of bringing a new human into the world as she could about the giant squid in New Zealand, she shouldn’t commit to having a baby. I wanted to cheer for her at this point.
Following this realisation, Liz went through an extremely painful divorce that left her depressed and anxious. Although she was hit hard financially by the divorce, she also had a fairly successful writing career. Her publisher gave her a large advance to write the book that ended up being Eat, Pray, Love, so she could afford to take off for a year to three places that were important to her: Italy, India and Bali, four months in each. In Italy, she commits to learning Italian and eating enormous quantities of delicious Italian food. In India, she lives in an ashram and learns to meditate, properly. In Bali, she makes numerous local friends and eventually meets a new lover, an older Brazilian man.
‘How not to be Elizabeth Gilbert’
But before mentioning some of Eat, Pray, Love’s high points, I do need to play literary critic. I am a lapsed one, after all. An interesting essay was published in The Boston Review in July 2015 called ‘How Not to Be Elizabeth Gilbert’. I wholeheartedly agreed with this essay–until I actually read Eat, Pray, Love. I still partly agree with it, but I now feel that it is, at times, a rather vicious attack masquerading as serious literary criticism. One of the issues that the author, Jessa Crispin, takes with Eat, Pray, Love is that it reflects—and in a way, has caused—the over-personalisation of women’s travel writing. Instead of describing and seeking to understand different places and cultures, the Elizabeth Gilbert school of travel writing looks deep within the self, rather than out at the world. It approaches the world from the perspective of ‘how can I, as an individual, grow through travel?’ The places visited–often non-Western nations considered ‘exotic’–are merely a backdrop to this personal development. There isn’t anything inherently wrong in seeking to grow through travel—I do it, and I recommend everyone try it. But travelling ‘to find oneself’ is a tired cliché. It also means that the places she travelled through—Italy, India and Bali—are not really personalised themselves. This is travel writing without a strong sense of place. Which is to say, this is travel writing that is lacking something.
The critique of this critique is that travel writing has traditionally been a very masculine affair. Men from all cultures have had better access to the world than women; they have been freer to roam where they please without societal disapproval, or worse—overt acts of violence or molestation. The Elizabeth Gilbert school of travel writing has claimed the genre (or, perhaps created a new one) for women. So in criticising the individualist nature and calling it inferior to more ‘objective’ (read: male-centric) travel writing, there is the danger that gendered literary biases will be perpetuated.
I see both sides of this argument, and definitely don’t favour the perpetuation of gender biases in anything. But I also think that women are all too easily relegated to emotional, naturalistic realms, and it’s the duty of women writers and readers to push beyond that. The emotional realm is apparently something that women writers can offer to the world of literature in a way that men can’t; but we shouldn’t be limited to this, or by this. I don’t mean that women travel writers should simply emulate men. But I do mean that a more rounded examination of the world is preferable. I think women travel writers should be combining the interior with the exterior. Think how powerful that could be! Beating men at what was traditionally their game by bringing a lot more to the table.
Travel writing or memoir?
Which brings me to the point about the genre of Eat, Pray, Love. It is perhaps better described as a memoir than a work of travel writing. In her essay in The Boston Review, Crispin implies that Eat, Pray, Love is inferior for being, essentially, a memoir. One doesn’t have to like the book, but to degrade an entire genre as she does is, I think, going too far.
I’m taking an online travel writing course at the moment, and I received an interesting piece of feedback on some writing recently. I wrote quite a personal piece, and the instructor told me that it read more like a memoir than a travel piece. This wasn’t said with negativity, I don’t think, as this instructor has written a brilliant memoir herself. But her point was that I hadn’t really fulfilled the brief for that lesson. Yet, I was happy to be told that my piece read like memoir. That’s what I’ve been going for recently. Memoir with a heavy travel component.
What I learned from Eat, Pray, Love, then, was that as a writer, I need to be especially mindful of the line that I’m treading between travel and memoir. To intend to write travel but not sufficiently flesh out the personal identities of the places visited invites the charge of bad travel writing. I believe this is where the problem lies with Eat, Pray, Love. It sits at the intersection between genres, so critics (more than readers, necessarily) have judged it according to standards that the author perhaps wasn’t aiming for. But hey, the author is dead and all that.
An empowering story, should you seek empowerment
Eat, Pray, Love has been wildly successful, and there are good reasons for this. Although an imperfect book, there were some truly touching parts. It has also been an inspirational book to many women, because it says that you can change your life; that you don’t have to be stuck in situations that make you unhappy; and if you are unhappy, why not try travelling? It might help.
It’s impossible to know exactly how honest an author has been about their true life and emotions, but that is beside the point. Elizabeth Gilbert created a relatable image of herself as a broken, struggling, youngish woman coming out of emotional trauma, but not giving up. A woman making her own decisions and refusing to feel guilty about rejecting the conventional path of marriage and motherhood that was at her feet, had she wanted to walk that route.
I cried tears of empathy when she described her first night in Italy. After eating a simple, delicious meal, she went back to her rented room, turned the light off, and fully expected to be overcome with anguish, panic and tears. This had become the bedtime norm since her difficult divorce, and her reliance on anti-depressants. Yet the panic didn’t rise this time; she felt calmer than she had in years. She had chosen the ‘selfish’ path of retreating to Italy, but it was a necessary step in her emotional and physical recovery.
I didn’t love Eat, Pray, Love, but I did appreciate it. And hell, I really want to go to Italy now, just to eat some food.