Elizabeth Gilbert Dissects the "Chick Lit" Label
Her most recent book is the #1 New York Times Bestselling memoir "Eat, Pray, Love," about the year she spent traveling the world alone after a difficult divorce. Anne Lamott called Eat, Pray, Love "wise, jaunty, human, ethereal, heartbreaking." The book has been a worldwide success, now published in over thirty languages with over 7 million copies in print. It was named by The New York Times as one of the 100 most notable books of 2006, and chosen by Entertainment Weekly as one of the best ten nonfiction books of the year. In 2008, Elizabeth was named one of the 100 Most Influential People in the World, by Time Magazine.
In addition to writing books, Elizabeth has worked steadily as a journalist. Throughout much of the 1990’s she was on staff at SPIN Magazine, where – with humor and pathos – she chronicled diverse individuals and subcultures, covering everything from rodeo's Buckle Bunnies (reprinted in The KGB Bar Reader) to China’s headlong construction of the Three Gorges Dam. In 1999, Elizabeth began working for GQ magazine, where her profiles of extraordinary men – from singers Hank Williams III and Tom Waits (reprinted in The Tom Waits Reader) to quadriplegic athlete Jim Maclaren – earned her three National Magazine Award Nominations, as well as repeated appearances in the “Best American” magazine writing anthologies. She has also written for such publications as The New York Times Magazine, Real Simple, Allure, Travel and Leisure and O, the Oprah Magazine (where her memoir "Eat, Pray, Love" was excerpted in March, 2006.) She has been a contributor to the Public Radio show "This American Life", and -- perhaps most proudly -- has several times shown up at John Hodgman's Little Gray Book Lecture Series, most notably during Lecture Four on the subject "Hints for Public Singing."
Question: Why did you shift to writing from the female perspective?
Gilbert: It’s funny ‘cause I wrote for and about men for like a solid decade. That’s pretty much all I did. I think I had to work through some issues. And also, fearful, always, of my own vulnerabilities. I think I was intrinsically attracted to, like, flinty, macho people. Wanting to be like that because it’s not, at all, how I am. You know, I kind of magnetize toward people like that. And I was interested in them and… You know, I wrote for SPIN for years and I wrote for GQ for years. They’re both really male focused magazines. And, you know, I wrote a book called the “Last American Man”, that was this big study of a woodsman. And then, my novel “Stern Men” was about a girl but it was a girl in a very manly world, on who behaved in a very manly manner, and who was, herself, sort of tough and macho and flinty. And then, after, really, a solid decade of doing nothing but kind of exhaustively examining masculinity from every possible angle to the point that I even did a story for GQ once where I became a man for a week, like inhabiting it in this really intense and direct way, you know, my life fell apart. And I wrote my way through it with “Eat, Pray, Love”. And then, the book came… this became this big phenomenon. And suddenly, I started hearing myself refer to as a chic lit author which was… was really strange after a decade of, like, really putting in the hour to write about men and think about men and… Back in my 20s, people use to say that I wrote like a man, which I took as a compliment. And now, I’m often referred to as a chic lit writer which I… I’m not even completely certain I know what that means except that I’m pretty certain it is never intended as a compliment, you know. And I… I think it’s strange. I think it’s curious, this whole idea of, like, gender based writing. And I also… I have to say, the whole chic lit thing bugs me because, you know, in our culture at this moment in time, it is women who read. And pretty much exclusively, it is women who read. And there is this kind of denigration of women’s reading which is a pity because they’re the ones holding that whole custom up right now. So it’s odd. And my next book, which is a memoir and a kind of meditation on the subject of marriage is definitely sort of… You know, I definitely had female readers in mind when I was writing it so I don’t think that chic lit label is going to go away anytime soon. But I don’t know if… I don’t know if there’s such a thing as gender neutral writing, gender neutral thinking, or… I don’t know. I’m really interested in questions that most of my female friends are really interested in right now. That’s kind of where I’m at, at the moment. I might go back to writing about cowboys at some point in the future but I don’t really think so. I’m not sure what the next thing will be but this is where I am now.
Question: Do women have more spiritual work to do than men?
Gilbert: Yeah. Women have special work to do at this point in time. It’s a really interesting moment in history to have decided to be a woman. It’s… You know, we have… I feel like any women of our generation… And by our generation, I mean, anybody who is born in the last 100 years, basically. I think this era of women have become sort of hamsters in a great unprecedented social experiment, which is what happens if you give women a little bit of power, what happens if you give them autonomy, what happens if you give them control over the reproduction, and what happens if you give them earnings, what happens if you give them options, you know. That social experiment has never been played out before. And, so we’re kind of… I really do feel like we’re all sort of hamsters in this maze, this big sociological test that’s going on and all of us are sort of figuring out how to do it as we go. Because we don’t have centuries and centuries and millennia and millennia of role models for how you do this, you know. We don’t have centuries of epics that are written about how you do this. You know, we don’t have Odysseus. We have, you know, Penelope and the big weaving and unweaving and weaving and unweaving scene that just gets repeated and repeated and repeated, that doesn’t really… you know, it’s not really relevant anymore to most of our lives. And so, we’re all kind of charting our own mythologies as we go. And one of these great things that I heard once about this was Martha Beck, said that she feels like she’s met only 4 kinds of women in her life recently. And its women who… The first kind is women who decided to have a family instead of having a career and who feel conflicted about that choice. And then, there are women who decided to have a career instead of having a family and who feel conflicted about that choice. And then, there are the women who decided to have a family and a career who feel really, really conflicted about that choice. And then, there are the mystics. And that’s the fourth sort of strange category. And she defines the mystics as a woman from any one of those other 3 categories who has somehow been able to kind of drawn out or, like, drum out all of the other distractions and all of the other options and she’s chosen her life, being guided by some sort of deeply honest, interior voice. And she has made all sorts of peace with what she’s doing. And that is who she is and she’s certain of it. And I would argue that any area that demands that people have to essentially become mystics in order to find peace and happiness is a real tough time in which to live. Because in other areas and other societies, you didn’t necessarily have to be a mystic in order to be a content person, you know. A path was laid out for you, that said, this is what a good woman is, you know. And you went and you did those things and you did them well and you could rest at night, you know, with a certain amount of peace, knowing that you were a good woman. We don’t have that consensus anymore, about what constitutes a good woman, what constitutes a woman’s life well-led. I think men, to a certain extent these days, are also struggling with these questions but not nearly to the extent that women are. I mean, I remember being 18 years old in college and sitting up for hours and hours and weeks and weeks on end with my fellow 18 year old and trying to figure out what we were going to do in terms of when we’re going to have kids and who’s going to raise them and how are we going to have careers, and what if we went to graduate school and what if want to do… you know. And I got to say, our 18 year old male peers, I don’t think they were over in the dorm room, like, next door having that conversation, you know. I think they, maybe, joined that conversation after their first kid was born, when they were 36, you know. But I’m not sure they were worrying about that the whole time. So it’s hard, you know. And I’m not the first person to have said that, you know. But I think, maybe, again, going back to why “Eat, Pray, Love” sort of struck a nerve with people, it’s like I kind of inserted my own version of how to figure out that into people’s conversations. But it’s a conversation that’s been going on for a really long time. That it’s not nearly over.
Elizabeth Gilbert spent most of her early career writing about and for men; now, she's labeled a "chick lit" writer.
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