Letting go of the chick-lit label
by Abigail Censky
You’re probably familiar with “Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail” by Cheryl Strayed or Elizabeth Gilbert’s “Eat, Pray, Love”? They are two memoirs about two blonde-haired, blue-eyed women off to forget their troubled marriages and personal woes by trekking alone. On a structural level the resemblance is uncanny. Elizabeth Greenwood comments on their similarity in her article “Eat, Pray, Love Like a Badass: Cheryl Strayed, the Oprah Author 2.0”:
“The two authors do have plenty in common. Both young women bearing the scars of broken marriages embarked on journeys to find healing: Gilbert to Italy, India, and Bali; Strayed on a 1,100 mile solo hike across the inhospitable Pacific Crest Trail in the wake of her mother’s death and a period of dabbling in heroin. Two of the highest-earning Hollywood actresses glommed onto the books—Julia Roberts portrayed Gilbert in the 2010 film adaptation, and Reese Witherspoon purchased the rights to Wild.”
That’s the perception of “Wild” and “Eat, Pray, Love:” nearly identical stories that fit easily into a Venn diagram. The same deeply misinformed critiques and circulating misconceptions plague reviews of both memoirs. They are as follows:
1) Reductive plot and structure based comparison.
All Strayed or Gilbert prescribe is the notion that a plane ticket to Bali or a new pair of hiking boots from REI can remedy all of the unkempt emotional details of life.
2) The chick lit label.
The books were propelled to success only after the massive endorsement of Oprah and subsequent militarization of her book club groupies, the middle-aged women who gather in book clubs across the country to chat over wine and light appetizers. This is a genre that privileged suburban mommies read when ruminating on the causes of their melancholy in the carpool line. If these women are the significant portion of the readership, the value of the books diminishes.
To be honest, I’m a little bitter about it. I’m sick of the two memoirs being compared on a superficial basis. As Greenwood breifly addresses in her article, “Both writers told powerful stories of loss and forgiveness that resonate deeply with readers, and both were already well-regarded authors of literary fiction before Oprah anointed them.” When taken seriously, these two works become no more than distant cousins within the family of a larger and growing tradition—led by women—in the adventure and travel genre.
Both memoirs have a special place on my bookshelf. Their covers are tattered, pages annotated, and they travel with me wherever I go. When the literary world trivializes their content through surface comparison and judgment of their readership, their place in my library feels less secure. It’s as if my love of them is a lapse in judgment.
Strayed herself assuages my fears. When asked in an interview with journalist Kathryn Shultz about her new membership amongst the elite ranks of Oprah’s book club, Strayed confidently rebuts, “I didn’t have any hesitation when she asked me. Back when I was in graduate school at Syracuse people would say, “Oh, the Oprah Book Club,” and roll their eyes. I think it’s easy to disregard the literary taste of women, like somehow female readers are not as serious or intellectual, which is really sexist and incorrect.”
In the very same article, Shultz heralds the superiority of Strayed and casts Gilbert aside as inferior: “Okay admit it. Did you feel slightly resentful after reading ‘Eat, Pray, Love?’ Was it hard to sympathize with a well-paid, much-loved woman who took a whole year off work to just cure her sadness with pizza napoletana? Then you might be drawn to Cheryl Strayed’s backpacking memoir.” Upon further investigation I found that the majority of reviews pit the authors against one another in a battle similar to Nikki Minaj versus T-Swift. They perpetuate a battle that doesn’t actually exist.
I love Strayed because she’s gritty and real. My favorite “Wild” scene is when she throws her boot off the trail and makes new ones entirely out of duct tape. Or when Strayed and her brother make the horrifying decision to shoot their mother’s horse in the head because they can’t afford a euthanization. Strayed’s impoverished background, sense of loss and decision to embark without trajectory is uninformed, gutsy and terrifying. But I cherish Gilbert’s perspective as a storyteller as well. I admire the author for her sense of indulgence, her rejection of absurd conformity to routine happiness and her cultivated tone. I fell in love with her when she sat in the bathtub and decided nothing is more important than learning Italian.
“Wild” and “Eat, Pray, Love” are tales of introspection and resilience that are starkly different. Their only similarity is the quality of their craft—as Strayed would call it, their ability to write like a “motherfucker.” And that is exactly what both women do.