In Elizabeth Gilbert’s sprawling, ambitious, and immensely satisfying new novel, The Signature of All Things, the heroine, Alma Whittaker, is known as a “polite botanist” in the 19th century. Gilbert writes: “In the scientific world of the day, there was still a strict division between ‘botany’ (the study of plants by men) and ‘polite botany’ (the study of plants by women). Now, ‘polite botany’ was often indistinguishable from ‘botany’—except that one field was regarded with respect and the other was not—but still, Alma did not wish to be shrugged off as a mere polite botanist.” Gilbert knows all about the professional respect gap: Her work, particularly her 2006 bestseller Eat, Pray, Love, is often dismissed as “chick lit.” I spoke with her about this label, about her new novel, overcoming perfectionism, and how we can change literary culture. This interview has been condensed and edited.
Slate: Alma reminds me of Virginia Woolf’s concept of Shakespeare’s sister Judith in A Room of One’s Own, whom Woolf imagined to have all the talents of her brother but would never have the same opportunities. Did you set out to tell that kind of story, or did it evolve as you developed Alma’s character?
Elizabeth Gilbert: I really did set out to try to write a 19th century novel with a more complete female experience. The only two endings that women ever got in those books—which are stupendous books with fantastic characters and extraordinary women—but at the end you either married Mr. Darcy or you were under the wheels of a train. I really wanted to write a book about a woman whose life is saved by her work, which I feel is not a story we see often, but as somebody whose life has been saved many, many times by my own work, it’s a really important story to me.
Slate: Some critics have expressed surprise over how different your new novel is from Eat, Pray, Love, although you’d been writing literary, ambitious work long before that memoir.
Gilbert: It has not escaped my attention that when I wrote about a man’s emotional journey they gave me the National Book Award nomination, but when I wrote about a woman’s emotional journey, they shunted me into the “chick lit” dungeon.
Slate: What are your thoughts on that dungeon?
Gilbert: “Chick lit” is the “polite botany” of our time. I think that the whole conversation about who’s included in the serious literary world is an entirely fear-based discussion—that the people who exclude certain kinds of women writers from that world are afraid that by including them it will diminish their own seriousness, and the women themselves are afraid of being excluded, or of not being taken seriously, so that they sometimes either hide some of their impulses or try to write in a certain kind of way to gain approval. I just don’t want to play that way. It’s not fun and it’s not exciting, and it doesn’t lead to daring work.
Slate: I’m glad your publisher didn’t put a shoe on the cover of this book. A moss-covered shoe.
Gilbert: Yes! A buckled-up boot. You know, I think some people fear that if they like the wrong kind of book, it will reflect poorly on them. It can go with genre, too. Somebody will say, “I won’t read science fiction, or I won’t read young adult novels”—all of those genres can become prisons. I always find it funny when the serious literary world will make a little crack in its wall and allow in one pet genre writer and crown them and say, “Well Elmore Leonard is actually a real writer.” Or “Stephen King is actually a really good writer.” Generally speaking, you know you’re being patronized when somebody uses the word “actually.”
Slate: You often post on Facebook and Twitter about your ongoing quest for self-improvement—you’ve posted about Happiness Jars, and you tweeted recently, “You know what I really want? To cultivate the biggest possible heart…” I can’t imagine what Jonathan Franzen might say about Happiness Jars, or tweeting about one’s heart.
Gilbert: Isn’t it nice to have Jonathan Franzen around for the contrast? What would we do without him? How else would you know the other way to be? It’s funny how he’s come to represent one certain kind of way of being.
Slate: He probably doesn’t keep a Happiness Jar. I think some critics attach a sense of shame to feminine self-improvement.
Gilbert: If we’ve somehow internalized this idea that it’s disgraceful or lacking in seriousness to discuss our feelings, our dreams, the ways in which we want to become better human beings—either that somehow those are trivial topics, and of course they are not at all; they’re the big topics, the only topics—if we’ve somehow decided that that’s going to subject us to ridicule or dismissal then that’s kind of our own fault, I think. Just refuse it! I don’t know any other way. Just refuse it, and push through, and eventually, everybody else will catch up. And I know that those few dozen people who hold the keys to literary seriousness, I know in their hearts they also care about those same questions, I know they have emotional lives, I know that they worry about how to be better human beings, and they worry about mistakes they’ve made, and how they can improve themselves, and how they can improve the lives of the people around them. They don’t talk about it, but they worry about it.
Slate: Maybe they’re secretly reading Eat, Pray, Love under the covers.
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.
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.