The bitterly disappointed reader — who’s to blame?

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Here’s the problem:

You, the reader, want someone to write a book that resonates with you. It’s all about you!

Except, sadly, it’s not. It never will be.

Writers, certainly of non-fiction, write what they know, how they think, what they’ve studied or taught, how they were raised.

Every single one of us writes through multiple filters: race, age, gender, nationality, religion, political beliefs, income level, ethnicity.

Then we have to pass the gatekeepers of agents, editors, publishers and their sales and marketing staff. And, oh yeah, the retailers who only order our books on commission, shipping them right back within six weeks unless the merch is moving.

So when readers expect writers to write in a way they find cosy and comforting, a peculiar and somewhat infantile rage often emerges when some of them, inevitably, find our work disappointing.

“It’s not what I expected!” they wail.

Well, what did you expect?

Some readers who feel a writer has failed them not only dislike our books — they dislike us personally.

Which, while I love the passionate involvement readers can have with our books, is also a little weird — I don’t loathe Alexander Payne as a human being if I hated (which I didn’t) — his new film, “The Descendants” or his hit “Sideways.”

Separating the creative product from its producer seems a challenge these days.

I’ve seen this in four instances and I think it really bears discussion and reflection.

The first, of course, is the huge best-seller “Eat, Pray, Love” written by a childless, educated white woman who left her suburban marriage to travel the world in search of herself.

The very idea! Jowls shook worldwide in horrified indignation. How dare she…pursue…pleasure?!

If I pick up Dickens or Balzac or John Grisham or David Sedaris, I know what I’m getting into. I’m an adult making an informed choice. If I loathe the book — its tone, content, voice, pacing, dialogue, plot (or absence of same), well, tant pis! It’s the price of admission, kids. Just because it’s for sale doesn’t guarantee it’s great or that it will make me happy.

So when this blogger was chosen for Freshly Pressed, I took immediate exception to her decision to tear up the book she was reading because she disliked the author’s point of view.

Part of her objection was the privileged background of its author, Gretchen Rubin, whose father-in-law is the former secretary of the Treasury Robert Rubin. Her book, “The Happiness Project,” has been a huge best-seller.

She is who she is.

I chose the cartoon of Popeye because I live and write by his motto: “I yam what I yam and that’s all I yam.”

Expecting any writer to write as if s/he were someone else you might have a beer with instead burdens even the smartest authors with an added hurdle to clear when trying to find and grow an audience.

Same criticism has followed Laura Vanderkam, a young Princeton grad whose third child’s arrival just preceded that of her third book. For a woman in her early 30s, that’s a whole pile ‘o achievement.

I know Laura personally. She’s privileged, well-educated, a driven, goal-oriented woman.

She is who she is, and whether you agree with her gogogogogogogogo mindset, her worldview inevitably colors how she thinks, the subjects that engage her and how she approaches them.

If you don’t share her worldview, you probably won’t enjoy her books either.

My memoir of working retail, “Malled”, has drawn some of the most vicious comments I have ever heard anywhere, including three years of relentless high school bullying.

“I actually started to hate her”, wrote one woman.

“Bitter, pretentious and lazy, lazy, lazy,” wrote another.

These are not book reviews, dear readers.

These are character assassinations, written under the soothing cloak of anonymity, and posted forevermore on — the place where would-be buyers, you know, make decisions about our work.

I can assure you, if someone stood outside my store or my home, shouting how nasty my food or products or service were, I’d take direct action.

But in this virtual world, where total strangers make snap decisions about who we are (based on — hello! — a deliberately chosen and heavily edited narrative voice), the real person behind the words on the page becomes some weird, annoying ghostly abstraction.

The writer you meet, certainly in non-fiction or memoir, is but one facet of that person. Judging and dismissing them with a sneer only reflects a sad lack of sophistication about what book-writing is.

My readers no more “know me” than someone who sits beside me on the subway for 30 minutes.

The next time you loathe a book — or love it — try to remember that a real person wrote it.

With their best intentions.

Eat, Pray, Love: Why A Woman Seeking Solo Joy Pisses Everyone Off

Eat Pray Love, by Elizabeth Gilbert
Image by elycefeliz via Flickr

I haven’t yet seen the film, but I did read and enjoy the book, a true story of a middle-class white woman who leaves her marriage and wanders the world to find happiness. You’d think she’d killed and eaten a few babies along the way, so vicious are some of the reviews and commentaries.

Now the film is out, starring Julia Roberts as author Elizabeth Gilbert, so are the haters. Selfish! Self-indulgent! Whiny!

All this faux outrage is sooooo predictable. Writes A.O. Scott in today’s New York Times:

The double standard in Hollywood may be stronger than ever. Men are free to pursue all kinds of adventures, while women are expected to pursue men. In a typical big-studio romantic comedy the heroine’s professional ambition may not always be an insurmountable obstacle to matrimony, but her true fulfillment — not just her presumed happiness but also the completion of her identity — will come only at the altar.

This paradigm is, of course, much older than the movies, but it can be refreshing, now and then, to see something different in the multiplex: a movie that takes seriously (or for that matter has fun with) a woman’s autonomy, her creativity, her desire for something other than a mate.

The scarcity of such stories helps explain the appeal of movies like the two “Sex and the City” features, “Julie & Julia,” “The Blind Side” and now “Eat Pray Love,” a sumptuous and leisurely adaptation of Elizabeth Gilbert’s best-selling memoir of post-divorce globe-trotting. Directed by Ryan Murphy, who wrote the screenplay with Jennifer Salt, the film offers an easygoing and generous blend of wish fulfillment, vicarious luxury, wry humor and spiritual uplift, with a star, Julia Roberts, who elicits both envy and empathy.

Women who flee the usual yoke — work, children, parental responsibilities, cooking, shopping, cleaning — are an easy target. Other women, especially, huff with indignation. How dare she!

Gilbert did. And in so doing, her choice challenges safer, more conventional choices. Instead of demonizing her free spirit, why not celebrate it? We can’t. What if everyone behaved that way?

What indeed?

I loved The Motorcycle Diaries and Easy Rider, two terrific films about two men exploring the world on their motorbikes.

Guys are allowed this freedom. We expect it of them.

Look at Thelma and Louise, a raucous road movie  — until the women have to drive off a cliff to atone for all that independent fun.

Women need a break from one another’s finger-waggling. So Elizabeth Glibert left her husband and traveled the world and came home with a sexy Brazilian man.

The problem is….?

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Divorce Porn — When All The Gory Details Aren't (Thank God) About You

Cover of "Eat, Pray, Love"
Cover of Eat, Pray, Love

Interesting essay by Amy Sohn in June Elle:

While the single-gal chick lit of the late ’90s, with its brand names and glitzy nightlife, can be seen as the fictional flowering of the Clinton-era economic boom, one way to look at divorce porn is as a product of the recent financial downturn. Bridget Jones’s Diary may have flown off the shelves when the Dow was up, and we thought nothing of dropping $400 on Christian Louboutins. These days, we consign the mules, bake casseroles, and read about loss. Recent months have seen a parallel trend of “layoff lit,” books about people who lost money, jobs, or both: The Bag Lady Papers by Alexandra Penney, a Bernie Madoff victim; Slow Love: How I Lost My Job, Put On My Pajamas & Found Happiness, by former House & Garden editor Dominique Browning; and Janelle Brown’s novel This Is Where We Live, about an L.A. couple about to lose their home. (Divorce porn is for people who like their loss narratives served hot.)

Divorce porn’s Citizen Kane was Elizabeth Gilbert’s 2006 memoir, Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman’s Search for Everything Across Italy, India, and Indonesia, which hung out on the New York Times paperback nonfiction bestseller list for 57 weeks. Gilbert’s literal and metaphorical “journey”—embarked upon after a crippling divorce in her early thirties—provided endless fodder for book group discussions and set publishers on a tear to find Elizabeth Gilbert 2.0, a bright female voice who could tell a difficult, personal, and ultimately uplifting true tale.

They found several. Four divorce pornoirs have hit the Times hardcover bestseller list in the past year: Julie Metz’s Perfection: A Memoir of Betrayal and Renewal, Isabel Gillies’ Happens Every Day: An All- Too-True Story, Elizabeth Edwards’ Resilience: Reflections on the Burdens and Gifts of Facing Life’s Adversities, and Jenny Sanford’s Staying True. Morrison’s Falling Apart in One Piece was published in March to a big publicity push and so far is selling briskly, by Simon & Schuster and Redbook, of which she is editor- in-chief.

Who among us, married or engaged, hasn’t fantasized about being single once more? But most of us won’t pull the trigger, so we can peek between our fingers, in horrified fascination, at the implosion of others’ marriages and the aftermath.

I wrote an essay after my marriage ended, which won me a National Magazine Award in Canada; the night I won, I told the audience, truthfully, I wanted to thank my ex-husband, “without whom it would not have been possible.” I meant it.

The one decent thing about being a writer, and going through awful experiences is that you know it’s going to make a terrific story later, and preferably one with a decent check attached. We get good at retailing our demons.

When things get really bad, and they have, I repeat my mantra: “It’s all material!”

I didn’t write about my divorce because I was so ashamed that my husband of barely two years (seven together) had so coolly walked out on me for — oh, yeah — his “best friend”, a woman he worked with (and is still married to.) I had left behind a country, career, friends and family in Canada to follow him to his native United States, so I was pretty deeply invested in the ongoing success of that union. (Sometimes writing about my life really is too painful and personal.)

I think one of the reasons divorce porn is so attractive is also that marriage is often so private. We never really know all the accommodations our friends are making with/for their spouse and/or kids, what insanity or inanity or cheapness or infidelity they are swallowing to keep it all together. Or , when we whine, or listen to others, we simply don’t believe it’s really that bad or, as the saying goes, can’t handle the truth. My ex was a doctor, and no one could believe that this smart, handsome, gentle guy was…different…at home with me.

And reading about someone else’s divorce is so much simpler than the real thing. Unless you’re loaded and had a great pre-nup, ending a marriage is often expensive and filled with drama. Sort of like going to the opera, without the sur-titles or intermission.

I’m not rushing out to read these books because, having lived through one divorce, I don’t have a huge appetite to read about theirs.

How about you?

Six (Of Many) Challenges Of Writing Memoir

Memory (1896). Olin Warner (completed by Herbe...
A statue of memory...Image via Wikipedia

On the long-running listserv WriterL, populated by everyone from eager fresh grads to Pulitzer winners, we’ve been chewing over the many practical challenges of writing a memoir.

I’m halfway through mine, and am finding it challenging on many levels. It’s a totally different animal from my first book, which includes 104 original interviews from 29 states, five of which I visited.

This book relies on my ability to recall, describe and make compelling my own experiences and feelings and those of others. This time, I’m living inside my head, reporting my own life and that of about 20 other people.

Anyone hoping to write a memoir faces many challenges. Here are some the ones I’m now grappling with:

1) Other, real people become your characters. Many times the writer must do this, or chooses to do this, without asking their permission, no matter how much they reveal about these people. If they are alive, you have to find a way to be truthful to your experience of/with them without — or does this matter? — destroying their affection or respect for you.

When you change their names or identifying details, do the new ones help the reader or confuse them? Which of their qualities are most germane to your narrative?

If they are dead, are you free(r) to say whatever you wish?

2) It’s your memory. Is it reliable? Walt Harrington, a terrific writer, has said he carefully re-reports his own life; if he writes that Tuesday November 13, 1973, (I’m not sure it was a Tuesday, but he would be), was cold and cloudy, raining later that afternoon, he goes back to check the weather reports. Every writer, potentially, can fact-check his or her impressions by confirming them with others — if this is part of your plan. You may not want others’ input and it may not be gettable any other way. Then you’re on your own, unless you took detailed and copious notes or (unlikely) have audio, film, video recordings or other documentation for reference.

3) Our memories are clouded by emotion. One of the arguments made about recall is that traumatic events are more clearly embedded in our brains than others more banal. Can you remember last Wednesday’s lunch? How about your wedding day? The day your first child was born or the death of a loved one? What emotions are clouding or coloring these memories? Are they accurate? How would you know for sure?

4) Describing and conveying emotion is difficult. Maybe not for some, but as a certified WASPy Canadian (i.e. not someone who’s wild about emotional displays or drama), I find this especially challenging. A memoir without emotion is a meal without cutlery — you can get get through it, but it’ll be hard work and not terribly enjoyable. I wonder if writing memoir, then, comes more easily to more confessional cultures or generations; Americans, much to the consternation of more buttoned-up natives, often seem very at ease telling total strangers a lot of very personal detail.

Perhaps today’s teens and 20-somethings, sexting and posting on-line videos and details of their most intimate lives, would find this “challenge” absurd.

Yet, no one wants to read 75,000 or 100,000 words of pure confessional. It’s not a race to emotional nudity, stripping bare to the goriest and most salacious details reallyfast. Which are the most powerful? Says who? Like any great story, yours must also contain suspense, structure, conflict, resolution. It’s not just a matter of publishing your raw, unedited diary or a big pile of blog posts.

5) Which bits of this life you’re telling are most compelling, not to you, but to your readers? Why? After I’d written what I thought was a really great chapter, I shared it with my partner, who is not a writer but a fellow journalist and someone whose opinion I trust. “You can do better,” he said. Ouch.

It may have sliced you to your core the day your French or math professor laughed at you in front of your 7th-grade classmates — or whatever — but this moment, like every single one, must pass the “Who cares?” test. If it isn’t making a powerful or larger point, include it at your peril.

6) Which “you” is telling this story? I heard someone on NPR recently make a great point: once you’ve got the tone for your memoir, you’re good to go. Without it, you’re wandering aimlessly, no matter how great your raw material. I think of every memoirist, now myself as well, as simply one more character within the narrative, albeit the narrator. But we all have many facets and colors to our personality or character. None of us is 100% funny or calm or outraged or sad all the time, while the reader needs a consistent, persuasive voice in order to enter and follow your path.

I was one of those who really enjoyed “Eat, Pray, Love”, the much-lauded memoir by Elizabeth Gilbert of her global journey. I liked her authorial “voice” and trusted she would tell me a good story, and she did. For every reader who loved it, there are many who found her whiny or tedious or self-involved.

It is memoir. It is about you and what you’ve seen, heard and felt; that’s an inherent risk every author must take. It demands rigorous self-editing and fantastic help from your first readers and your editor.

Two of my favorite memoirs, oddly perhaps, are both of their African lives by British writers: “When A Crocodile Eats The Sun”, by Peter Godwin and “Let’s Not Go To The Dogs Tonight“, by Alexandra Fuller. Both are filled with sensual details — one smells Africa in their sentences — but also limn powerful, dark stuff. Godwin opens with a description of cremating his father and talks about his sister’s murder; Fuller’s life was spent in the care of a somewhat crazed mother in a foreign place, far from any possible rescue.

From this week’s New Yorker, by Daniel Mendelsohn:

This awkward blurring of the real and the artificial both parallels and feeds off another dramatic confusion: that between private and public life. The advent of cell phones has forced millions of people sitting in restaurants, reading on commuter trains, idling in waiting rooms, and attending the theatre to become party to the most intimate details of other people’s lives—their breakups, the health of their portfolios, their psychotherapeutic progress, their arguments with their bosses or boyfriends or parents. This experience of being constantly exposed to other people’s life stories is matched only by the inexhaustible eagerness of people to tell their life stories—and not just on the phone. The Internet bears crucial witness to a factor that Yagoda discusses in the context of the explosion of memoirs in the seventeenth century (when changes in printing technology and paper production made publication possible on a greater scale than before): the way that advances in media and means of distribution can affect the evolution of the personal narrative. The greatest outpouring of personal narratives in the history of the planet has occurred on the Internet; as soon as there was a cheap and convenient means to do so, people enthusiastically paid to disseminate their autobiographies, commentaries, opinions, and reviews, happily assuming the roles of both author and publisher.

So if we’re feeling assaulted or overwhelmed by a proliferation of personal narratives, it’s because we are; but the greatest profusion of these life stories isn’t to be found in bookstores. If anything, it’s hard not to think that a lot of the outrage directed at writers and publishers lately represents a displacement of a large and genuinely new anxiety, about our ability to filter or control the plethora of unreliable narratives coming at us from all directions. In the street or in the blogosphere, there are no editors, no proofreaders, and no fact-checkers—the people at whom we can at least point an accusing finger when the old-fashioned kind of memoir betrays us.


Elizabeth Gilbert's New Book Tackles The A-Word — Ambivalence

Cover of "Eat, Pray, Love"
Cover of Eat, Pray, Love

Best-selling author of “Eat, Pray, Love” Elizabeth Gilbert’s new book “Committed” is starting its publicity rounds, with features — so far — in the January issues of Elle and “O”, which I get by subscription. In Elle, Cathi Hanauaer — editor of the essay anthology Bitch In The House — writes; we lament “with Gilbert, the stark conflicts faced by virtually every ambitious working woman: for one, how to take care of business and maintain a sense of self while also doing the myriad tasks required of mothers and wives.”

“O” offers a long excerpt from the book, in which Gilbert tackles her ambivalence about signing up for marriage again, an issue forced by her sweetie’s Brazilian passport and his desire to live in the U.S. So, ready or not, marriage it was.

The excerpt didn’t do a lot for me. Pretty standard women’s magazine stuff. I’m much more interested in reading, if she talks about this, about the challenges of marrying someone 17 years older (she’s 40, he’s 57), of becoming a step-mother when she never wanted kids and, most intriguing to me, the challenge of marrying someone born and raised in another culture, language and way of thinking. She shares some of his linguistic quirks — like “smoothfully” — and she writes of his “natural Brazilianness” that makes him overprotective of her.

She protests, a little too much for my taste, that Felipe won’t go with her to yoga or on spiritual retreats; she’s preaching to her choir here, her readers who think this must be essential (?) to a successful union. One of the things I find most interesting about any thriving marriage is how much independence it tolerates, like a piece of metal with a stress load. There are couples, I’ve read, who have never sent a night apart from one another. That’s my definition of hell.

My sweetie is packing today for a weekend work trip to the Caribbean and in January will be gone for two weeks. Silence! A whole bed to myself! I’ll miss him, but he’ll be back. I don’t need to be attached at the hip to know that; we also don’t have kids, so it’s not as though his absence doubles the childcare load.

It’s the differences between partners, and the ambivalence about heading back to the altar, that fascinate me about marriage. I was married briefly and unhappily. I got engaged to my fiance, who is also culturally doubly different from me, being Hispanic and American — we were trying to remember when it’s been so long — six years ago. We think it’s six years ago. Everyone assumes it’s he who is foot-dragging, when it’s me.

If you’re a woman with a ferociously independent spirit who also craves intimacy and a deep, lasting connection to your partner, marriage is as alluring in its promise of security as terrifying in its certainty of closure. Women don’t talk much, certainly not in the media where Married-With-Babies is the default option, about our ambivalence. I’m glad she did.

I also like the double entendre of her title, Committed. Many of us commit to marriage, one institution. You are, sometimes against your will, committed to another, a psychiatric ward. Sometimes it’s hard to tell them apart.