In completing Elizabeth Gilbert's second nonfiction book, Committed: A Skeptic Makes Peace with Marriage, I am left with the startling realization that self-indulgent writing is becoming increasingly popular, particularly with women. The neurotic female protagonist perpetually on the hunt for a man and who finds solace in an array of Gucci purses has always been safely contained by the chick-lit genre, a shelf that can be ignored in a bookstore and clicked past in Amazon.
However, the success of Gilbert's Eat, Pray Love, a book with many important and relevant themes (domestic discontent, divorce, identity, depression) reads like one long Seventeen magazine spread, the appropriate title perhaps being, "How I Traveled for an Entire Year and Still Managed to Only Obsess About Myself and My Problems." Gilbert's narration is charming for about twenty pages, but after seventy, a bit pitiful. How a thirty-plus-year-old woman manages to be so well-traveled and yet also so self-absorbed is surprising, but even while raising funds for a homeless Balinese woman and her child, she manages to pull it off. Gilbert's undisciplined writing style, coupled with her self-serving search for God, trivializes divorce, depression, and the aforementioned issues, reducing them to fodder for a kitschy beach read marketed as a reflective memoir about women's issues.
Gilbert's Committed also had potential to be extremely relevant to modern women. Considering a second marriage post-horrendous divorce is not only a trend but is quickly becoming the norm for many Americans. Because of the nature of her relationship with her then-fiance and the circumstances presented in the book, Gilbert finds herself in position of having to truly analyze the concept of marriage from a modern perspective. Yet, despite assuring readers that she has been researching marriage for months on the other side of the world, she doesn't cite many sources. As she often does in Eat, Pray, Love, Gilbert expounds and wiseacres away with only a few statistical reports here and there to back up her points. Gilbert blindly interprets biblical marriage, makes sweeping cultural generalizations, and wanders from one assumption to the next without so much as a Wikipedia link to support her claims. She often concludes by transitioning feebly into examples from her own life, asserting herself as the credible source, asserting her own superficial voice as the authority.
I find it troubling that so many American women identify with a narration that is so preoccupied with self. By adopting a folksy, chatty girlfriend-type voice, Gilbert's nonfiction devalues her subject matter and presents a feminine stereotype much like that of Shopoholics, The Devil Wears Prada, and Sex and the City: the neurotic woman with a hip career who prides herself on being modern.
Eat, Pray, Love is obviously not revered as a work of great literary merit, but to consider that so many American women are consuming these types of narcissistic narratives and identifying with them is perhaps even more alarming. Weakly-written nonfiction books such as Gilbert's do very little when it comes to addressing the societal problems many women face, and will continue to face in their marriages and in their homes.
What can women possibly learn from this Elizabeth Gilbert effect of narrative narcissism coupled with poor research? If Gilbert can't even be bothered to cite a source or research her material, what are women to gain?
Koa Beck is a fiction writer and literary blogger. Read her lit blog at www.koalani.net