Elizabeth Gilbert, Live From the “Chick Lit Dungeon”

What women really think about news, politics, and culture.
Oct. 1 2013 11:22 AM

Interview From the “Chick Lit Dungeon”

Elizabeth Gilbert on Happiness Jars, Jonathan Franzen, and the most patronizing word.

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Gilbert: Or they’re wrapping it up in a Martin Amis book jacket so their reputation is not sullied. I actually got such a wonderful letter one time from a guy who said, “I picked up your book on my girlfriend’s bedside table and started reading it, and I got really into it, and then I really started to care about it, and I wanted to keep reading it but I didn’t want anyone to see me, so I wrapped it up in a copy of Details.” It’s like reverse pornography. He had to actually put something smutty around it to salvage his reputation. And he said, “But then one day I was reading it on the subway, and I got to a really emotional part of the book and I started crying, and I realized that it appeared I was weeping over my copy of Details magazine with Anna Kournikova on the cover. I realized that was even worse.”

I also keep trying to make it clear that I didn’t write The Signature of All Things because I’m trying to salvage my damaged literary reputation, because I don’t think I have anything to be ashamed of about my literary reputation. To have written it from that perspective would be to say that I felt I’d made something abhorrent by writing that memoir, and I don’t think I did. I wrote this book to entertain myself and entertain my readers, and not because I was trying to regain some kind of valuable position that I felt I lost. I’m happy with the position I have.

I think that this is the best book I’ve ever written. That said, I don’t think it’s the most important book I’ve ever written. Eat, Pray, Love is the most important book I’ve ever written because I’ve seen eye to eye, face to face, and heart to heart women whose lives were changed by that book, who felt it gave them permission to ask dangerous questions about their existence, and gave them permission to travel, and gave them permission to wonder what they’re going to do with their one life. Word for word, pound for pound, I think this book is better written, but I don’t think people will come up to me in tears and tell me they’ll never be the same person again, and that’s something Eat, Pray, Love did, and I’m proud of it.

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Slate: Do you consider The Signature of All Things to be a feminist novel?

Gilbert: I think of it as a feminist novel, but I also didn’t want it to be a feminist creed, if that makes sense. I didn’t want this story to be: Here is this brilliant woman full of promise and possessed of a towering intellect, who was unable to make a contribution to the world because she was a woman, when in fact a lot of 19th century female botanists made tremendous contributions. It also felt to me like the more interesting novelistic story was that it was her own perfectionism that holds her back.

Slate: Alma doesn’t take the risk of publishing her research because she feels her work isn’t “done,” or done perfectly.

Gilbert: Yes. That to me is a story of women’s lives that’s really familiar. I feel like that’s the thing that’s holding back many young women writers, and many young women in general now—this idea that we don’t put our work out until we believe it’s immaculate, and there’s no such thing as perfection to begin with. Secondly, the lack of a perfected idea never stopped men from speaking out! To be successful I think you really have to shove yourself forward, and I consider myself really lucky that I’ve never held myself back in those ways. To a fault! I’m sort of a pamphleteer for my own work, standing on a street corner ringing a bell, shouting, “Look what I made! Look what I made!” But I think that’s often necessary.

Slate: Considering the “chick lit dungeon” and the VIDA counts, how can we change literary culture to increase respect for all women writers, and to increase respect for feminine subject matter?

Gilbert: I think the only thing you can do is to battle with your acts. Your acts are your axe. You put your work forward and you don’t back down. I think that’s all you can do. You can get mad, but don’t live there, because that becomes its own paralysis. Just get to work! That’s what Alma does. She’s told that “polite botany” is not as important as botany, and then she goes and writes three books about mosses. Just do it anyway! Don’t be stopped.

Margo Rabb has written for the New York Times, the Atlantic, One Story, and elsewhere, and her new novel, Kissing in America, will be published in 2015.

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