"Is it the book itself or instead the author’s pose that matters?"
July 21, 2015 3:53 PM   Subscribe

How Not to Be Elizabeth Gilbert Thoughts on how gender informs travel writing by Jessa Crispin.
posted by frumiousb (48 comments total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
 
God, I feel like this applies equally to life. The number of people I've met whose entire identity consists of "I love to go to poorer countries, codescendingly pretend to understand the culture of the people serving me, then come home and talk about how much better the food is" is staggering.

Travel is, of course, great. But there's a weird schism where a person about-to-travel says "it's about perspective, seeing other cultures, expanding one's horizons," and then as soon as they become a-person-currently-traveling it clearly becomes about using some other people's life and culture as scenery for a self-aggrandizement.

What an ending:
...we do not need men to explain the world’s far-off reaches to us anymore. It turns out the inhabitants of the far-off reaches have voices of their own. Nor do we still need women to tell us it is fine to set up a life outside of marriage and family. What we do need are more writers willing to break free of travel writing’s colonialist tendencies, whether expressed as contempt for backward others or admiration for their “authenticity” and guidance. On the other side of this dehumanization are compassion and the will to listen.
posted by shmegegge at 4:14 PM on July 21, 2015 [20 favorites]


Maybe stick with Bill Bryson as opposed to the stereotypical gendered travelogue - all countries are ridiculous yet beautiful and we are all as people ridiculous yet loveable. I think the core theme is both Gilbert's writing and the traditional male travel tale is that this story is IMPORTANT and SERIOUS. MY LIFE CHANGED HERE PEOPLE. Bleh.
posted by GuyZero at 4:20 PM on July 21, 2015 [6 favorites]


Interesting essay, although I think the writer omitted one important point about Chatwin: it's widely acknowledged that he was full of shit, and that what he wrote about was more of a pastiche, truly "creative" non-fiction.

I also did wonder if the writer had actually ever read Isabella Bird, and thought this passage was more than a little bit unfair:

There are elegant, striking passages, but little about her emotional state. Bird was a Victorian lady; one look at her portrait—tightly wound with hat, scarf, petticoats, corset, and scowl—and you know this is not a woman deeply in touch with her feelings.

I'm trying to think of a contemporary travel writer or gazetteer that wrote about his or her own emotional state. Lafcadio Hearn comes to mind, I suppose, but he was an altogether different creature than Bird, with an entirely different experience - he was *stuck* in Japan, often suffering from ill health.

Bird could and did exercise agency. Besides, at the time Westerners were pouring into the Far East in order to "modernize" the countries there. It was taken for granted that Bird's Victorian culture was superior. And besides, her excellent book is a great window into a time that has vanished. We don't need to care about her emotional state, and can filter out the anachronistic racism if we choose to do so as readers. We don't need anyone to tell us what to think.

The best travel book I have read in the last twenty years would have to be Congo Journey by Redmond O'Hanlon. He thoroughly deconstructs the genre of "travel writing", and nearly deconstructs his own mind in the process.

The problem with travel writing - and traveling in general - is that the writer or the traveler always exists outside of the host culture. It's often mere observation without any opportunity for real insight.

Fundamentally, all travel writing books, whether written by men or by women, are a version of Eat, Pray, Love. If you don't understand the local culture (and at a hyperlocal level) or the local history or the language or the local dialect you can never ever provide any useful insights about the place you are visiting.

You can tell some interesting stories about your own personal journey, though.

Thanks for posting this link!
posted by Nevin at 4:25 PM on July 21, 2015 [12 favorites]


Through Jessa's blog I discovered Geert Mak's In Europe, a wonderful travelogue combined with an overview of 20th century European history (with, yes, some notable lacunae), one of my favorite books of the past few years. Also Andrzej Stasiuk's On the Road to Babadag, which is about as bleak and gnomic as a travelogue can get, a sort of dark, hyper-masculine mirror of the Gilbert-school of writing. I hope Jessa's own book is as interesting as these two. (Neither of those authors are women, sorry if that seems a bit dense of me to mention them here.)
posted by Peter J. Prufrock at 4:26 PM on July 21, 2015 [1 favorite]


(Neither of those authors are women, sorry if that seems a bit dense of me to mention them here.)

Yeah, I had the same thought before posting, but I thought: I'm a MeFite first, and a "gender" second, and my interest in and passion for the discussion at hand trumps everything else.
posted by Nevin at 4:31 PM on July 21, 2015


I read Eat, Pray, Love recently. All the problems described in the article are real. Gilbert is sort of glibly incurious about everything. I don't think she's dumb or ignorant, but it feels more like she's not willing to slow down the best seller narrative for any kind of analysis or nuance. In the Bali section, she can somehow note the shocking prevalence of spousal abuse in Balinese culture while proclaiming that the Balinese are the happiest people on Earth.

HOWEVER, man, this piece just seems really mean spirited. Eat, Pray, Love is flawed. Gilbert is flawed, but I think the book and the sensation surrounding it encouraged a lot of women to prioritize their own pleasure and to seek adventure. The "Women, you are vacationing wrong!" sentiment of this piece is also troubling.

I think Eat, Pray, Love kind of traveling has a place in the world. Maybe it's Travel 101 while this piece is advocating for Travel 201, but I don't think the antagonism is really necessary.
posted by chrchr at 4:44 PM on July 21, 2015 [18 favorites]


That leads to an interesting question: Is it the book itself or instead the author’s pose that matters in travel writing? So many of the writers, or the ideas of them, outshine their work. And when women are still burdened—by publishers, by men, by each other—with doing things as women rather than as people, it can be difficult to find a new maneuver.

From a Paris Review interview with the pseudonymous novelist Elena Ferrante (previously):
Evidently, in a world where philological education has almost completely disappeared, where critics are no longer attentive to style, the decision not to be present as an author generates ill will and this type of fantasy. The experts stare at the empty frame where the image of the author is supposed to be and they don’t have the technical tools, or, more simply, the true passion and sensitivity as readers, to fill that space with the works. So they forget that every individual work has its own story. ...

I’m still very interested in testifying against the self-promotion -obsessively -imposed by the media. This demand for self-promotion diminishes the -actual work of art, whatever that art may be, and it has become universal. The media simply can’t discuss a work of literature without pointing to some writer-hero. ... Once I knew that the completed book would make its way in the world without me, once I knew that nothing of the concrete, physical me would ever appear beside the volume—as if the book were a little dog and I were its master—it made me see something new about writing. I felt as though I had released the words from myself.
Ferrante goes on to argue that an absent presence produces a more intimate experience of writing, both for herself and her readers. Interesting maneuver.
posted by MonkeyToes at 4:44 PM on July 21, 2015 [9 favorites]


Nevin, I think it's evident that Crispin has read Bird, but came away with a different impression than yours.
posted by peripathetic at 4:44 PM on July 21, 2015 [1 favorite]


"[T]hey obey their gender codes: men go on adventures, women on journeys of self-discovery." How is Crispin's ideal of a writer who is in "listening mode" and "at no point betrays the belief that she is the most interesting person in the room" not total obedience to the gender code of self-effacement and always putting others' perspectives first?
posted by Ralston McTodd at 4:47 PM on July 21, 2015 [11 favorites]


I'm planning on being an obnoxious brown person in white places: where is my book deal? I'm planning on writing pages and pages about how strange and disgusting haggis is, cautiously trying it, then discovering that it is the soul of the Scottish people. Perhaps all this will relate back to the wisdom that was passed on to me in an earlier chapter by an elderly [fisherman/baker/yoga instructor/cabbie/ghost].

Bird was a Victorian lady; one look at her portrait—tightly wound with hat, scarf, petticoats, corset, and scowl—and you know this is not a woman deeply in touch with her feelings.

Isabella Bird is my hero because she wore tweed throughout the Japanese summer and did not die. Getting in touch with your feelings does not help at when when it comes to the heat and humidity.
posted by betweenthebars at 4:51 PM on July 21, 2015 [31 favorites]


The problem with travel writing - and traveling in general - is that the writer or the traveler always exists outside of the host culture. It's often mere observation without any opportunity for real insight. Fundamentally, all travel writing books, whether written by men or by women, are a version of Eat, Pray, Love. If you don't understand the local culture (and at a hyperlocal level) or the local history or the language or the local dialect you can never ever provide any useful insights about the place you are visiting.

There are degrees of that, though.

I'd actually nominate Lucy Bellwood's first Baggy Wrinkles strip as an example of how it's possible to discuss "how travel travel transformed me" without forgetting that your reader may also want to know what the place you travelled to is actually like. Other good travelogues I've read include Robyn Davidson's Tracks, and pretty much everything from the collections. All of those contain elements of travel having transformed or changed the traveler, but - without those moments, you wouldn't have a story, you'd have a mere recitation of an itinerary.

But there's an expectation for some women travelers to emphasize the epiphany way more than the actual traveling, and there are travelers who engage so little with the place they've visited that I wonder why they don't just stay home. I wish I could remember the name, but there was this deathly dull travel book I tried reading as a teenager - some guy who was going on some boat trip somewhere in Africa, and it just sounded like everything about the trip was making him god-damn miserable because all he did was complain. He even hooked up with a younger woman on the same boat, but he even complained about her, and she was complaining about the trip too, and oh my god why didn't you people just stay home for god's sake.

So, yeah, it makes sense that your perspective on a place is the perspective of an outsider, and it's okay that it shakes you up a bit - but for the love of God tell me something about the place you're at too. (Disclaimer: I'm putting the finishing touches on a travel essay where a chance comment from a guy at the Famine Cemetery Monument in Kinsale, Ireland triggered this whole Jungian Collective Unconscious Race Memory for me, so there is an element of the "introspective outsider", but at least I tell you what the place LOOKED like.)
posted by
EmpressCallipygos at 4:53 PM on July 21, 2015 [7 favorites]


.I'm trying to think of a contemporary travel writer or gazetteer that wrote about his or her own emotional state.

Alain de Botton, if you want a specific name. But this statement baffles me because i'd guess that possible answers include some 90% of travel writing that isn't just a guidebook?
posted by the agents of KAOS at 5:01 PM on July 21, 2015 [2 favorites]


I wish I could remember the name, but there was this deathly dull travel book I tried reading as a teenager - some guy who was going on some boat trip somewhere in Africa, and it just sounded like everything about the trip was making him god-damn miserable because all he did was complain.

I didn't like Heart of Darkness much either.
posted by zeptoweasel at 5:10 PM on July 21, 2015 [66 favorites]


the agents of KAOS: I think contemporary here means contemporary to Isabella Bird, who died in 1904 according to wiki.
posted by reren at 5:12 PM on July 21, 2015


Is it the book itself or instead the author’s PAYDAY that matters?
I don't care for Gilbert's writing, but I think there's a certain amount of presumed superiority in this piece. How good could Gilbert be, really, considering how well her book sold to SUV-driving masses of soccer moms?
posted by Ideefixe at 5:23 PM on July 21, 2015 [3 favorites]


I too think Crispin's piece is a bit unfair. I haven't read Gilbert, but to criticize her for making her travels all about her, and not about the places/cultures she visited, seems ridiculous. People write the books they are capable of writing, the books they want to write. There is no law that says you have to inquire deeply into the places you visit. She took a trip and experienced it her way; what is the problem with that? She was writing about herself. People rushed to buy the book; obviously it had wide appeal. I would rather someone write the way they want to write, than try to abide by some template for Enlightened Travel Writing as imagined by Jessa Crispin's friends in the hipper-than-thou literati.

I somehow have more taste for someone doing a sloppy American middlebrow travel adventure like Gilbert, than I do for the enlightened, thoughtful, yoga-toned, natural-fiber-clad travelers that I overhear talking about their journeys at my neighborhood coffee shop. Man, these painfully authentic/evolved globetrotters talking about their trips to India, Thailand, Japan, etc., are insufferable. Something about a person like Gilbert doing a kind of cheesy journey of self-discovery, and not hewing to some preordained script of cultural sensitivity and political correctness, is more honest and touchingly flawed, than these rigid hipsters trying to be so painfully correct in their travels.
posted by jayder at 5:52 PM on July 21, 2015 [13 favorites]


The "Women, you are vacationing wrong!" sentiment of this piece is also troubling.



Agreed. Jesus, Plenty of men write shallow garbage about their emotional journeys in unseen lands that get turned into movies and no one shames them.

I know firsthand(as an Indian woman who is unlikely to ever travel to India again) how funny it is to joke about white women who love Indian culture and do the whole "Oh, the colors! The food! The hospitality of the people! Such amazing people! Hinduism is so spiritual! INDIAAAA!" while I can't say out loud,"So you managed not to get your boob grabbed by the hospitable local while traveling on your own. Nice job, lady. Hi five" I'm glad Gilbert wrote her book and made lots of money on her book.

And if she'd written trash about India, I would have been pretty annoyed even though I'll never go again. Because I can call my mom a bitch, but if you do, well, God help you when I'm done with you.
posted by discopolo at 5:59 PM on July 21, 2015 [23 favorites]


I find the whole travel memoir genre pretty impenetrable. Except maybe the humorous ones, like Bryson, that are basically like the stories you tell when you get back: "You won't believe the shit that happened to me!" Otherwise, I want a good guidebook, good maps, whatever information I need to be safe, and to have my own experience when I travel. Reading how someone had an epiphany in Florence or wherever just makes me feel pressured to have one when I go there too, even though it's possible I'll arrive with a cold, end up in a shitty hotel and generally have a terrible time. I mean hopefully not, I haven't been to Florence yet, but I'd like to not have someone else's experience overlaid on my own to give me preconceived notions.
posted by emjaybee at 6:09 PM on July 21, 2015 [3 favorites]


I didn't like Heart of Darkness much either.

The movie adaptation is an interesting travelogue, though I wish they had sprung for Eric Idle as narrator, it would have been more approachable.
posted by maxwelton at 6:27 PM on July 21, 2015 [5 favorites]


I don't care for Gilbert's writing, but I think there's a certain amount of presumed superiority in this piece. How good could Gilbert be, really, considering how well her book sold to SUV-driving masses of soccer moms?

I haven't read EPL and don't plan on it, but no one can ever convince me the woman who wrote this is a mediocre writer.
posted by sallybrown at 6:31 PM on July 21, 2015 [3 favorites]


It'd be one thing if Gilbert's book was held up as "this is one person's own perspective on her travels" and that was the end of it - y'know, the kind of thing where "Gilbert's experience was BLAH, and someone else going to the same places would write about it differently, and that's cool".

But what this article is actually objecting to is that other women are encouraged to write about places the same way, and still more women are encouraged to travel the same way. Those "SUV-driving masses" most likely bought her book because it had a huge marketing push from Blessed St. Oprah, who seemed to be pushing the message that this kind of introspection was the only way to Live Your Best Life. If EPL had enjoyed the same kind of modest promotional push that most other travel books have, and if it hadn't been elevated to a near cult-like status, we'd be having a very different conversation right now.

The womens' travel-writing facebook group I belong to (one that I mention in the last travel thread) is also discussing this article. I linked to this counterpoint article in there, which is a critique of how the kind of "enlightenment" Gilbert is writing about is coming as a result of some kind of consumerist act rather than a mental one, and of how it's become part of a movement to encourage other women to buy their way to happiness rather than work towards it.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:48 PM on July 21, 2015 [8 favorites]


Travel is a consumerist act. You have to buy expensive airline tickets and luggage and have to arrange hotels or hostels. It costs money. I don't think it's easy for Westerners to experience and then write about self-actualization by going on a trip.
posted by Nevin at 7:04 PM on July 21, 2015 [1 favorite]


I wish I could remember the name, but there was this deathly dull travel book I tried reading as a teenager - some guy who was going on some boat trip somewhere in Africa, and it just sounded like everything about the trip was making him god-damn miserable because all he did was complain. He even hooked up with a younger woman on the same boat, but he even complained about her, and she was complaining about the trip too, and oh my god why didn't you people just stay home for god's sake.

My first guess was Paul Theroux, because he seems to spend all of his trips unhappy and complaining, but I can't recall him ever describing a hook up.
posted by Dip Flash at 7:16 PM on July 21, 2015 [1 favorite]


Well, yes, Nevin, but staying home costs money too. That's not what I'm getting at. What I mean is that there's a difference between "visiting Bali" by going on the package tours and staying in the super-high-end resorts and keeping yourself in this packaged-for-outsiders bubble, and "visiting Bali" by actually getting out on your own and eating in the places where the locals live and such.

An example of what I mean is - say you're talking to someone who just went on a trip to India, and you find out they only ate in McDonalds' restaurants while they were there. Would you say that that person actually had Indian food?
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:16 PM on July 21, 2015 [2 favorites]


Well, you can't get the Maharaja Mac in the US probably.
posted by weston at 7:22 PM on July 21, 2015


*sigh* Weston, do you understand the larger point I am trying to make?
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:22 PM on July 21, 2015 [4 favorites]


There was a great young writer in the 90s named Elizabeth Gilbert, who wrote cracking articles for Spin and Esquire, and I always felt bad for her that some other writer with her name came along and got famous for Eat Pray Love.

A few years ago, I was curious whatever happened to the original Elizabeth Gilbert--teaching writing at a state school somewhere, I assumed--so I was kinda surprised to discover that it was the same writer. I'm not usually that dense, it's just that what I'd heard about Eat Pray Love didn't sound at all like the sort of book the Gilbert I'd enjoyed back in the day would have written.

Nevertheless, I'm happy that a writer I liked became successful, even if her later career isn't my kind of thing. In addition to the Coyote Ugly story linked above, her article about Eustace Conway (later expanded into a book) is well worth a read.

Ignore the bylines on both of those articles, which claim they were both published within the last five years. That must be an issue with GQ's CMS...both articles are from the mid-90s.
posted by Ian A.T. at 7:26 PM on July 21, 2015 [2 favorites]


The author mentions the wonderful Dervla Murphy but another good antidote to Gilbert is Rita Golden Gelman's Tales of a Female Nomad.
posted by TWinbrook8 at 8:06 PM on July 21, 2015


My first guess was Paul Theroux, because he seems to spend all of his trips unhappy and complaining, but I can't recall him ever describing a hook up.

My thought too! I was like, geeze, did I totally zone out during the one steamy part of Dark Star Safari?
posted by Solon and Thanks at 9:01 PM on July 21, 2015


I somehow have more taste for someone doing a sloppy American middlebrow travel adventure like Gilbert, than I do for the enlightened, thoughtful, yoga-toned, natural-fiber-clad travelers that I overhear talking about their journeys at my neighborhood coffee shop. Man, these painfully authentic/evolved globetrotters talking about their trips to India, Thailand, Japan, etc., are insufferable. Something about a person like Gilbert doing a kind of cheesy journey of self-discovery, and not hewing to some preordained script of cultural sensitivity and political correctness, is more honest and touchingly flawed, than these rigid hipsters trying to be so painfully correct in their travels.

Read EPL and then see how you feel. I'm usually the first person to argue for the middlebrow, but I feel like EPL is a lot closer to the yoga-coffee crap than the nicer cheesy stuff you mention here. I had expected to like the book, or to at least not hate it (based on liking her earlier journalism work). Instead, I found it offensive (particularly the part about Bali) and startlingly cynical. I really like the Bitch Magazine article cited above when the reviewer calls the book priv-lit.

I also personally found Crispin a little too broad in some of her criticism. Strayed, for instance, is offering more of a description of the long distance hiking experience than the Pacific trail itself-- she also isn't using a culture not her own as backdrop.

I am really happy to hear all the great recommendations of travel writers I didn't know which have come from the conversation around this article.
posted by frumiousb at 9:31 PM on July 21, 2015 [4 favorites]


One of the travel writers who does a fine job of combining both approaches (examining both the foreign landscape/culture and the writer within that landscape/culture) is Laurie Gough, in Kite Strings of the Southern Cross and Kiss the Sunset Pig.
posted by alicat at 9:40 PM on July 21, 2015 [1 favorite]


There is no law that says you have to inquire deeply into the places you visit. She took a trip and experienced it her way; what is the problem with that? She was writing about herself.

Certainly, but it's also important to look at how such works reinforce the idea that rich white people are always the primary characters while less well-off people of color are the catalysts for the rich white people to find themselves. I think some of what Crispin sets up is the idea of traditional male travel writing being Colonizer narratives ("Look at these poor benighted people") and EPL-type writing being Appropriator narratives ("Look at how much more spiritual/enlightened/authentic/whole I am by being surrounded by these non-white people"), and wanting to find a way of creating travel writing as cultural exchange instead. Given that travel writing generally requires actual travel, as well as encouraging it, and that the tourism industry runs into these same issues and choices (colonizer/appropriation/exchange), there are real-world resonances and consequences to the choices that writers are making.
posted by jaguar at 9:47 PM on July 21, 2015 [7 favorites]


When the book came out, I reviewed Eat, Pray, Love in five words: 'Narcissist learns to love herself'.

In fact, I was so offended by the book, I did this (self link).
posted by quarsan at 10:09 PM on July 21, 2015 [4 favorites]


the tourism industry runs into these same issues and choices (colonizer/appropriation/exchange), there are real-world resonances and consequences to the choices that writers are making

This point can't be made strongly enough. Travel is a good thing-- responsible tourism can be a huge boon for a country. But there's something dangerous about tourism too, and about the idea that authentic cultural experiences can be purchased as a consumer product.

If I come back again to Strayed-- I don't find Wild particularly dangerous as a message, since more thru hikers on the big trails isn't likely to cause any issue for the surrounding countryside(aside from annoying other hikers, but whatever). But something like EPL could have startling and unexpected consequences.

When I traveled to Northern Thailand I went with a non-profit run by the Thai whose focus was on working with the hill tribes to move from traditional slash/burn farming practices to more sustainable agricultural without moving into drug production. Unfortunately one of the things I heard from them was that there had been a popularization of "traditional home stays" in hill tribe homes, and as a result there were whole hill tribe communities who were being used as a kind of B&B environment for tourists who wanted to buy some authenticity-- usually reached by a bus or by ATV. Thailand being what it is, some of these Home Stay Disney towns were also catering to tourist needs in other ways which ranged from the innocuous (selling junk food) to the dangerous (selling prostitutes and drugs). The tourists who used these services were inadvertently making the problem for the hill tribes worse, and the money was being collected largely by people who did not have their interest in mind at all. See also: package hotels in tropical places.
posted by frumiousb at 10:22 PM on July 21, 2015


As an antidote to travel writing, William Sutcliffe's 'Are You Experienced' is a wonderful and accurate satire on backpacking.
posted by quarsan at 10:50 PM on July 21, 2015 [2 favorites]


Certainly, but it's also important to look at how such works reinforce the idea that rich white people are always the primary characters while less well-off people of color are the catalysts for the rich white people to find themselves.

Yes: the world and its people are collapsed into set design for Gilbert's self-discovery.
posted by MonkeyToes at 3:25 AM on July 22, 2015


There is no law that says you have to inquire deeply into the places you visit. She took a trip and experienced it her way; what is the problem with that? She was writing about herself.

And while I strongly disagree with her, that's actually fine. And that's precisely my point, though - she was writing about herself, so what sense does it make for me to write like her, to travel like her, when I am not her?

Her way of writing and her way of travel is being pitched as the default for all women. It is that which I object to.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 3:34 AM on July 22, 2015 [1 favorite]


Yes: the world and its people are collapsed into set design for Gilbert's self-discovery.

Yeah.

There is nothing wrong with narratives about self-discovery, as a concept. There is nothing wrong with that self-discovery occurring during one's travels, either.

But we can hold those opinions while at the same time thinking (a) Eat, Pray, Love is a problematic book, and (b) travel narratives are unnecessarily gendered in problematic ways.

More travel narratives in which the people who live in the destination are treated as fully realized people with their own voices would improve the genre a lot. Obvs., this can be difficult when you start out a stranger - but it is certainly easier to make it worse by being incurious and self-absorbed and consumerist in your approach to 'travel experiences.'

And yes, if you are a person from a rich country traveling to a much poorer one, there is always going to be that problem of inequality to contend with. It makes the travel narrative an inherently hairy genre to start with, and I don't think it's too much to ask authors to be thoughtful about the sociohistorical context of their travels.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 5:19 AM on July 22, 2015 [1 favorite]


And while I strongly disagree with her, that's actually fine. And that's precisely my point, though - she was writing about herself, so what sense does it make for me to write like her, to travel like her, when I am not her?

Could you point to some of these people asking/telling you to write or travel like her?
posted by jayder at 5:38 AM on July 22, 2015 [1 favorite]


I guess I didn't think Eat, Pray, Love was a travel book as I was reading it.
I'm not sure why people read travel books, or write them, for that matter. Probably many, many reasons.
This piece seemed like there are correct ways of writing and incorrect ways, or as the first comment says, "a busy mind inventing useless categories of thought"

I guess I prefer the Bryson mode. (Strongly excepting Neither Here nor There, which is inexplicably awful)
posted by MtDewd at 6:01 AM on July 22, 2015


Could you point to some of these people asking/telling you to write or travel like her?

1. Oprah Winfrey.
2. Gilbert herself.
3. The travel editors that were being complained about in the article which this thread is about.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:11 AM on July 22, 2015 [2 favorites]


Neither Here nor There, which is inexplicably awful

Huh. I haven't read it in a long time but I read it literally dozens of times when I was a young teenager and supposed to be in bed - read them all dozens of times - and I liked it as much as any other. I always thought of that one and The Lost Continent as counterparts but maybe just because I got them at the same time and because being an American, "America" and "Europe" felt like an equal division of the world.
posted by atoxyl at 6:31 AM on July 22, 2015


3. The travel editors that were being complained about in the article which this thread is about.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:11 AM on July 22


Pardon me, but I read the article and travel editors are not discussed in it. In fact the word "editor" does not appear in the piece.

And where is Oprah/Gilbert telling people to write about travel like Gilbert does? Doing a show on Gilbert doesn't mean telling people that's the only way to travel or write, does it?

This strikes me as a really weird classist attack on the cultural segment served by Oprah and Gilbert.
posted by jayder at 8:06 AM on July 22, 2015 [1 favorite]


An example of what I mean is - say you're talking to someone who just went on a trip to India, and you find out they only ate in McDonalds' restaurants while they were there. Would you say that that person actually had Indian food?
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 10:16 PM on July 21


McDonald's has plenty of customers in India, presumably largely Indian. They serve a menu drawn from local foods and food traditions (with the characteristic McDonald's spin, of course). If I went to India, I would not eat only at McDonald's (although I would probably go once to compare to what I'm used to), but for me, a non-Indian living outside India to tell someone who ate food prepared by Indians for Indians based on Indian dishes that it wasn't Indian enough to count would just be snobbery.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 8:49 AM on July 22, 2015 [1 favorite]


I'm working on a life change that will mean that I will be travelling a lot. I working at doing the work while travel/spending extend time in one place thing.

This thread reminded me of a couple of times when I talked to people about this dream goal that they did make comments about 'finding myself' and 'oh do I wish that I could do that and have time to myself'.

I don't need to find myself, or do some sort of self actualization journey. I've learned to do this work where ever I happen to be. My travel bug comes out of general curiousity about the world and a love of meeting and interacting with all sorts of different people, good and bad. Plus I genuinely am happiest when I'm dealing with new things and new contexts. I don't do well with routine for long periods of time.

Going back to those comments which did come from women. Yes they were gendered and come from a gendered idea of 'travelling' but I'm also contemplating EPL style of writing and finding yourself travel writing in light of the amazing emotional labor thread.

Travel does have the escape element and much of this type of writing that I've come across does have the aspect of gaining freedom. I can see the appeal, especially for women that going away to 'discover your self' has because (I'm generalizing) perhaps doing this type of thing is really the only way some women can get away from all of the expectations and performance of emotional labor in order to have enough emotional energy to spend on just themselves. Or at least this is a context where women can imagine actually have the space for it to happen.

I still think that how people interact with the people and the area they are traveling in is important. I just suppose I have more empathy for the idea that when people/women talk about authenticity and finding their authentic self through travel it actually is a real thing because it really is a sort of freedom from a lot of gendered and social BS that women deal with in their lives. Not that one would never encounter gendered BS and expectation in other places, just that there is more space to have control over your response to it without the same sort of consequences one would experience when you can't easily tell someone to suck it because you have to see them every day at work. When your traveling you don't have to stick around if that makes sense. So it's easier to act it ways that aren't as governed by real life social constructs and pressures.

None of this addresses the privilege inherent in being able to travel like this which is important to be conscious of.

Bit of ramble. Hope it makes enough sense as I'm still pondering the connection.
posted by Jalliah at 8:52 AM on July 22, 2015 [1 favorite]


jayder, I'm not up to the emotional labor of explaining to you why you shouldn't nitpick a statement I make to within an inch of its life just because you want to be right rather than listening to my larger point.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 9:30 AM on July 22, 2015


I had a thought yesterday that I sort of dismissed at first, but I just Googled and was surprised by what I found, and I'm curious what others think.

Bear with me here ...

Crispin talks about how Burton's legend "still compels," while Isabella Bird's does not. And I was thinking that if one wants to value women writers whose journeys still compel, a better comparison to Burton would be Emily Dickinson. And I dismissed this thought because I thought Burton and Dickinson were not really contemporaries. But I googled and found that were close contemporaries (Dickinson 1830 - 1886, Burton 1821 - 1890). Dickinson strikes me as a really apt comparison because she is an example of a writer who exploited her position to the absolute max--her journeys were inner journeys, to be sure, but she learned/discovered far more on those journeys than just about any travel writer. And both her writing and her life story blazingly outshine any current interest in Richard Burton or Isabella Bird.

And that is a very roundabout way of saying that I don't see what there is to eschew about the writing of Elizabeth Gilbert as an example for anyone. Her book may be corny, middle-brow, whatever, but I have a belief that mediocre literature plays a tremendous role in setting the stage for bigger and more serious achievements. I think I have read somewhere the theory that Emily Dickinson's work emerged from the tradition of privately-circulated "album poems" in the nineteenth century (not finding any good links connecting Dickinson to it at the moment) and so, in this way, I think even a "bad" travel writer like people seem to think Gilbert is, can actually be doing something profound in terms of the example she sets.

So I am kind of puzzled and dismayed by the idea propounded by Crispin that one should "not be" Elizabeth Gilbert. Because embracing "bad" stuff and transforming it has had a weird way of forging really, really great stuff, that's kind of the history of art and literature. And someone like Gilbert, whatever her flaws may be, did "her thing," maybe it was tacky, crass, simplistic, whatever, but it seems like it's potentially good just as an example of a woman doing her own thing and opening the door for possibly better/deeper contributions by other women, and for that matter men.
posted by jayder at 9:48 AM on July 22, 2015 [2 favorites]


MtDewd: "I guess I prefer the Bryson mode. (Strongly excepting Neither Here nor There, which is inexplicably awful)"

Oh, I thought NHNT was fine. It's when he is in full "Civilization peaked in small town America in the 1950s" mode that I think he really goes off the rails. The Lost Continent was terrible.
posted by Chrysostom at 9:34 PM on July 22, 2015


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