Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Anthropology, Physics, and the Memoir

A close friend started reading Eat, Pray, Love — one of the most engaging books I've read in years — and couldn't make it past page 87. His chief complaint: the author had secured a book deal before setting forth on her journey of self-discovery.

"After reading that, everything felt manipulated and controlled and fake. This wasn’t a personal, see-where-the-wind-takes-me journey. This was a planned-out literary event hashed out beforehand in New York," he writes in his highly entertaining blog.

I was stunned.

Every trip I've ever taken has been planned to one degree or another, and yet my experiences have always been unique, spontaneous, and real. Or so it seemed.

Why begrudge Elizabeth Gilbert her book deal? How else was she going to get to Italy, India, and Indonesia?

How did Richard Goodman find the wherewithal to write French Dirt: The Story of a Garden in the South of France? He doesn't say. Great book, though.

The problem with such books, I suppose, is that they are all a bit self-conscious. Of course that's also their greatest strength. Gilbert's strength is that she watches herself and others very closely.

Anthropologists tell us that the mere act of observing changes the thing you're observing. I gather that's even true in particle physics, where particles behave differently when you train a high-speed camera on them. (See What the Bleep!? Down the Rabbit Hole.)

If that's the case, then everything we read or say or observe has to be considered a bit unreal.

Just enjoy it, I say.


Greg said...

I hear you, Al. .... But that's just the problem; I couldn't "just enjoy it." Believe me, I tried. My loss, I know, as a lot of good folks have found compelling value in the book.

Bottom line: I think there's nothing wrong with securing a book deal before writing a memoir. The problem I had was with the way I felt she'd portrayed it in the book, and how she portrayed herself and her journey in those pages. All I can say was, it just didn't feel real, regardless of what the particles are doing. And the more I read, the better Murdaland was looking there on my nightstand.

Al Riske
(a.k.a. The Alster)

Point well taken, my friend.

Mark Richardson said...

Gilbert is a writer: it is what she does. Without knowing her I suspect that it would have been unthinkable for her to go on a trip like this and not write about it. I saw John Updike speak last year. Someone asked him if he keeps a journal. He laughed and said he literally doesn't write anything unless he gets paid for it.

Janny said...

Artists often seek out benefactors, sponsors and commissions to realize their visions. We have the art of someone like Michelangelo because of funding by the church - I've been OK with that. Maybe this author's mistake was writing about the deal? It's not like HGH tainting sports achievements. To be fair we should all be able to strike a deal that allows us to manifest something special from our natural abilities that otherwise might never have happened.