Zen and the Art of Image Maintenance

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The movie of Eat, Pray, Love commences with the kind of moment that, depending on your outlook, leads you to find memoirist Elizabeth Gilbert either deeply appalling or appealing. In a chatty voice-over, Julia Roberts tells us the story of her psychologist friend, Deborah, who’s daunted when asked to counsel a bunch of recently deposited Cambodian boat people.

The boat people, Julia tells us, have suffered “the worst of what humans can inflict on each other—genocide, rape, torture, starvation, the murder of their relatives before their eyes.” How can a privileged American—a mere Philadelphia shrink—possibly relate to their suffering?

But luckily for Deborah, boat people have no interest in discussing their years in refugee camps or having to feed expired fellow travelers to the sharks. Instead, their worries comprise a sort of deposed-dictator, PTSD season of The Bachelorette: “I met this guy when I was living in the refugee camp, and we fell in love. I thought he really loved me, but then we were separated on different boats, and he took up with my cousin. Now he’s married to her…”

At this punchline, the audience at my screening chuckled at the oh-too-truthiness of it all. It’s not surprising Hollywood chose to launch the movie thus. It is a moment pure Gilbertian, exactly the kind of psychic pass those troubled by uniquely unspeakable acts require.

Sure, life is filled with nasty inconveniences like rape and having to pitch a corpse or two overboard when you least expect it! But never fear. At the end of the day, all we all really care about is if that guy is going to call.

For those of us who’ve watched Gilbert transmute from a National Book Award nominee (for The Last American Man) to an author who breathlessly hears God declaim, “YOU HAVE NO IDEA HOW STRONG MY LOVE IS!!!!!!!!” (formatting Gilbert’s), watching her cinematic transformation is even more fascinating. Yes, Oprah tended to elide the side of the beloved spiritual rehabber that shipped a set of Gibbon in advance of her journey to Rome. But Hollywood has circumscribed even this Oprah-approved Gilbert entirely, rendering a zippy over-formatter with a direct line to our creator a passive rom-com goddess.

While a real-life Gilbert and Eat, Pray, Love’s protagonist were avowed globe-trotters, when we meet Julia Roberts’ Gilbert, she is entirely landlocked, wandering her sterile suburban home in darkness and leafing through a sheaf of withering maps of places she’d like to go. (How did this chained wife finance said home? The filmmakers punt this headscratcher by referencing callow junkets to Aruba.)

For this Elizabeth, one’s love life lives in lockstep with self-discovery, and each phase of her spiritual and physical journey is simply a means to further her romantic one. To this end, the screenwriters haven’t simply emphasized parts of the memoir. They’ve created entirely new plot points, ones that effectively hold together the movie’s lovesick Gilbert but have little to do with the memoir’s one.

Gilbert of the memoir barely mentions children. But for Hollywood’s Gilbert, the specter of motherhood looms like Alcatraz in the distance, the impetus for setting off on the journey of a lifetime, not a lifer. Now, a crappy Dear John email in the memoir is buffeted by a discourse on a descent into Rome’s Augusteum. The memoir’s uneventful stay in an ashram (what do you want? It’s an ashram) suddenly contains not only a real wedding but a ghostly wedding dance with Gilbert’s  ex on the ashram’s roof. (I cried. Sue me.) There’s even an official meet cute. In the memoir, Felipe and Gilbert simply run into each other at a party. But now, her future husband plows into Gilbert on her bike, running her off the road before he bangs her in real life.

But it’s Gilbert the observer whose absence is most striking. Eat, Pray, Love was studded with sharp buds of cultural critique, including a clever discourse on Italians’ skill at Il bel far niente—the beauty of doing nothing. Hollywood, puppeteer, delivers this recitative entirely through the mouths of others while Gilbert nods and looks on. It’s practically a reprimand. Gilbert the author was a vivid tour guide, showcasing the grapes of Rome with “champagne-colored skins as tight as a showgirl’s leotard.” But Julia Roberts’ Gilbert simply sits and absorbs, dutifully sipping her delightful espresso. This character won’t describe squat to a reader. She is her reader.

But it seems unfair to blame Hollywood for divesting Gilbert of her authority when it’s her author’s ruling shtick is to pretend she has none. (As a writer, Gilbert is a bit like a brainy professor who distracts you from her intellect by asking if her skirt matches her shoes.) She’s left the screenwriters no choice but to put a plot, any plot, in place. For it is the great irony of this soul-baring epic, one whose epigraph reads simply Tell the truth, tell the truth, tell the truth, that the cagey author leaves us entirely in the dark as to how the Gilbert sausage gets made.

Gilbert may make her living talking, like, to God, but you cannot get her to tell us about love or money—well, for love or money. This begins, of course, with the elision of the book’s impetus, which was, of course, not a bolt from God but a book contract. (You know—the thing writers live on.) We have no idea who financed this trip. Was it an advance, or help from her uncle and aunt? (The acknowledgments seem to suggest the latter, but travelers on “Eat, Pray, Love” pilgrimages would probably benefit from a ballpark figure.) On the dissolution of her marriage she remains assiduously mum. Is she legally prevented from talking about what happened? If so, why not be Zen and tell us? (Especially when the edict, whether spiritual or legal, doesn’t prevent her from clarifying the petty ex demanded their house, pied-a-terre, retirement accounts, and a stake in her future earnings.) Eat, Pray, Love closes with her commitment to Felipe, but readers of her follow up, Committed already know how loath Gilbert is to reveal anything about the actual marriage.

But why is Gilbert so tight-lipped about the vicissitudes of her actual reality, and why are readers under the impression she’s anything but? In a recent, much popularized TED talk, Gilbert tells the audience what it’s like to go from an unknown writer who everyone was sure would fail to a mega-bestseller that everyone knows will fail, because she’ll find it impossible to ever have a follow-up as good as Eat, Pray, Love.

Gilbert refuses this responsibility. Nowadays, she argues, artists are driven into suicidal depressions by such expectations. Once, we had a muse we could blame for our failures, and it’s time to bring the muse back. If she never has a book as successful as Eat, Pray, Love, she tells us, so be it. She’s refused to “leak down that dark path.” Her mind is safe because, she puts a “safe distance” between herself and the risks of creativity.”

But one must wonder if it’s the crisis of creativity that’s hounding her, or simply the crisis of actual self-exposure. Gilbert’s ex, Michael Cooper, recently canceled a book deal that was supposed to be his own version of Eat, Pray, Love. He cited as his reason that publisher Hyperion wanted it to be more “racy,” while he wanted to focus instead on his “decades-long commitment to humanitarian relief and human rights work.”

Despite their divorce, this couple still has something in common: a wish to avoid gritty details. (After all, could you give away a book on “humanitarian relief and human rights work”?) But Gilbert, as in her marriage, is a more skilled elider. Eat, Pray, Love’s premise—to journey around the globe and the self—is appealing to the quiet desperado in all of us. Handed a memoir that does the first so engagingly, it’s hard to notice the author hasn’t really done the second.

And while we bicker endlessly on Gilbert’s self-involvement or lack thereof, talent or lack thereof, patronizing white hegemonic superiority or lack thereof, we miss the point. Because Eat, Pray, Love’s author has actually managed to hide everything: her skill in prosody; her depth as a reporter; her talent for research, and—most important—the reason why the book came to be in the first place. She’s her own Cambodian boat person, nattering on about love to avoid whatever wreckage lies in her wake.

We won’t know until Oscar season how well Julia Roberts has fared in the role. (For the record, I was shocked to find her scene crying in the bathroom quite moving—I don’t know if Roberts has evinced such convincing distress since her coma in Steel Magnolias.) But it doesn’t matter. For my money, as guru, writer, and spiritually evolved truth-teller, Elizabeth Gilbert still turns in the best performance of herself.

Bonus Link: File Under: Self-Realization in Women

Will the iPad Change Publishing? Ask The Atlantic

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For those who stay abreast of such matters, the last few months of the Atlantic’s forays into fiction have been positively nail-biting. In November, the magazine announced it would be offering a subscription of two stories a month exclusively on the Kindle. As if to quell a possible uprising of the deviceless, they turned around and released the yearly print fiction issue to the entire subscriber base. This June, they’ll convene two panels on the topic of Fiction in the Age of E-books at Toronto’s Luminato Festival—presumably, one hopes, to settle the matter.

How far we’ve come since 2005’s dark days, when Atlantic editors winnowed fiction down to a yearly newsstand-only digest! The now-quaint rationale was, “Reporting consumes a lot of space.” But in fiscal year 2009, when book review sections shriveled and houses purged editors and authors alike, dreamy fabulists, note: the Atlantic moved forward to find space for fiction again. And we should watch what they do closely. Because, in the past five years, while other news mags stumbled to find a way to get readers to consume their space—the Atlantic’s so-sensible-it’s-revolutionary strategy has made them a model for how print and online can survive side-by-side.

You may by now have noticed I have a little Atlantic problem. By this I don’t mean I have a problem with the Atlantic. (Though I often have a problem with the Atlantic.) My problem is more along the lines of the New Yorker enthusiast who wallpapers his bathroom with covers, or the public radio supporter who accepts the free tote though clearly informed this has diminished her pledge. Like these other fans, my outlet of choice has passed beyond pastime: it has become manifest as some previously inexpressible part of myself, one best revealed through a convenient duck hat or fashionable messenger bag—though part of the Atlantic’s appeal is that instead of redesigning its tote bags, it convenes a panel discussion.

How well I remember each small but strategic move! First, there was 2006’s “tech” column, in which James Fallows gamely chin-stroked over such wonders as Microsoft OneNote (“What makes some software ‘interesting,’ as opposed to merely usable?”). Next came “Print” and “Send to a friend” options. (Standard now, of course. But they were on it.) They linked subscriber accounts to an online profile, and, when blogging began its rise, immediately hired five famous bloggers—and let them blog.) Harper’s continues to plague us with subscriber-only PDFs—annoying in hard copy, unusable by device—and the New Yorker’s doorstop of a CD-ROM has become a series of clunky scans one must select page-by-page to print. (If one can read the hazy type at all.) Meanwhile, the Atlantic has had its Twain and Nabokov up and accessible to all for years.

Now, while the New York Times futzes around with photo galleries and “followers” and Slate piles still more boxes into its ancient maroon masthead, the Atlantic (excuse me—AtlanticWire) is on its umpteenth web redesign, a go-to online entity that has, if anything, cannibalized the magazine. While bloggers Megan McArdle and Ta-Nehisi Coates crank out high-concept cover pieces, P.J. O’Rourke and critic Mark Steyn, the golden mean of the magazine’s original libertarian readership, have been gently phased out. Welcome to newer hires Sandra Tsing Loh and Caitlin Flanagan—the original Tipsy Belden and Nancy Shrew—who duel it out almost every issue, the better to draw women everywhere by offending all of them.

Immediately hiring bloggers when blogging began its rise seems like an obvious way to stay above water – but it was so obvious almost no one else did it. (See Conde Nast’s Flip.) Until recently, numerous publications that will remain nameless still preferred to push their reporters into blogging rather than hiring reporters who already blog. But the Atlantic has never been saddled with delusions of grandeur. Even their poetry—it’s “poetry”!—rhymes.

Now that e-publishing has hit even the books world with the online equivalent of a sucker punch, I am poised to absorb what the Atlantic sees to come.

The cover of Fiction 2010 offers, to say the least, a provocative vision. To our left glides a gentleman in pegged red pants holding an honest-to-God—positively florid—paper-and-ink book. To our right saunters a young lady fixed on the lambent square of her Kindle. They are shortly to meet cute—heads bent, dogs lightly leashed—near a mailbox at the corner of Publishing 3.0. The attractive pair is surrounded by blooms, sunlight, even a deli’s beckoning door. Their future is plentiful and bright—and there is not an iPad in sight.

If you are swayed by certain unimpeachable sources, this vision is akin to blasphemy. The New Yorker’s Ken Auletta recently depicted that same future as a battle epic and brutal, the upstart iPad flashing its pretty UI and 60,000 titles against a staid Kindle, its inkless jabs a pathetic defense. Acknowledging that Amazon got a jump by getting Kindles into readers’ hands first, Auletta reasons that device-based argument is nonetheless is limited: “The analogy of the music business goes only so far. What iTunes did was to replace the CD as the basic unit of commerce; rather than being forced to buy an entire album to get the song you really wanted, you could buy just the single track. But no one, with the possible exception of students, will want to buy a single chapter of most books.”

That’s two assumptions, both incorrect. (This is why you don’t listen to writers whose publications slap up stories in teeny Times Roman.) 1) That all readers read alike, and 2) that whatever device prevails will accommodate books—not that books will change to accommodate the device.

Because, while a chemistry textbook or history of Rome must eventually be delivered somehow in entire, readers of fiction have been buying “tracks” of books for centuries. They’re called short stories – coincidentally, exactly the item the Atlantic is currently offering in an exclusive curated series on the Kindle. It’s just a start, but it’s a nod to an important distinction between fiction and other kinds of writing that must hew more closely to their form of delivery. Even poor poetry is hampered by its linebreaks, but fiction is the original mutable source, one that encourages authors to flex their muscles and tackle it in different media, now deliverable anywhere in any form. Forget your weekly Dickens. Fiction in variant array has bloomed on the internet from the beginning, from Darcy Steinke’s blind/spot to Rick Moody’s Twitter story to Japan’s booming mobile-fiction market.

Of course, your average person sometimes likes to just sit in the bathroom and read a real-life book, too. (Kindles don’t play well with the Charmin.) When it came to news, the Atlantic was the first to realize that, though online news would change to accommodate its new host into blog, comment, tweet, and update, that didn’t mean throwing out the baby with the bathwater. This means, when offering fiction, it’s wise to partner with someone who can deliver it in a dog-earable form, too—like, I don’t know, Amazon. “Neither Amazon, Apple, nor Google has experience in recruiting, nurturing, editing, and marketing writers,” Auletta argues. I’m not sure if Auletta has been on Amazon since 1997, but it actually owns every title, reviewer, reader, crank and author online. His claim makes sense only if you define Amazon’s actions against those traditional publishers—and I think even then most authors would tell you their publishers don’t really recruit, nurture, edit or market their writers, either.

I don’t know how the Atlantic, Apple, Amazon, or Auletta’s collected works will fare in the coming years (though they will certainly be called on first in class). But it seems important to check the hype when a newbie goes up against the mightiest bookstore in the land and a publication that’s remained robust in print, set the pace online, all while trying to see how fiction can fit in the mix. Steve Jobs is banking on my wanting to read on a prettier screen. But fictive folks read in different ways, and I don’t mean being able to turn my screen around and have the type adjust 180 degrees. An iPad is pretty, but it only has 60,000 titles, I can’t take it into my bathroom, and it doesn’t seem to be delivering the Curtis Sittenfeld’s latest. So it’s not that Amazon and the Atlantic got there first. They have always been here—figuring out how to deliver their authors to readers in every conceivable form. Looking at the cover of Fiction 2010 again, I might go so far as to say the real reason they’re the future of fiction and the iPad isn’t is that, unlike Apple, they both have a dog in this fight.

Bonus Links: On The Atlantic’s Redesign, My Political Blog Hangover and the Virtues of Finitude