Arriving at Cadogan Hall on Wednesday evening to swathes of successful looking, bright-eyed women, there is no doubt I am in the right place. I am here to hear Elizabeth Gilbert, author of the hugely successful memoir-cum-self-help book Eat, Pray, Love, in conversation with Paul Holdengräber for Intelligence Squared. Taking a seat, the place is packed (the event is a sell-out, such is Gilbert’s draw) full of mid-twenty to forty-something year olds. Age aside, they all share an assured air – their expressions are open, their tone is one of utter enthusiasm. Snippets of conversation can be picked out from the positive noise that fills the auditorium – how the story is an ‘inspiration’, how it has moulded and moved people. The woman sat beside me is already cracking the spine of her freshly bought copy of Committed, Gilbert’s newest tome.
These are Gilbert’s ardent fans, her Eat, Pray, Lovers, and I am wondering how I fit in here. I’ve read the book in preparation for this evening and have found it simultaneously enjoyable and aggravating. Her outward and inward journeys are no doubt impressive, and how could one deny someone their search for contentment? And yet… accusations of spiritual colonialism are hard to shake and, for a cynic like myself, chapters on pizza are always going to be more gripping than ones discussing the alignment of Chakras. In the book, Gilbert has a likeable character and a gorgeous way with words, but some of her analogies seem thoughtlessly exaggerated (her and her warring husband have the ‘eyes of refugees’ as they go about their divorce, for example). All this makes me feel like the lone auditorium member hoping for Gilbert to get a little bit grilled.
Breaking the anticipation, Gilbert enters the stage looking grounded and earthy. Raising her eyebrows to the audience, by way of a hello, she settles in for a cosy chat with her friend, and Director of Public Programs at the New York Public Library,Paul Holdengräber. We are set to be taken on a journey taking in Gilbert’s inspirations, her career path and, of course, the upcoming Eat,Pray,Love movie.
We start, of course, at the beginning. Raised on a farm in Conneticut, Gilbert describes her childhood as a “petri-dish for creating writers”; With no neighbours close-by, no television and a rule of eating family meals together, the environment was that of “competitively entertaining”. Gilbert talks of her family as a veritable feast of bawdy eccentric (and alcoholic) characters, and it was her 11 year old self’s wide eyed observations at family gatherings that taught her the first basic rule of storytelling; “No one’s going to give you the floor, you have to earn it by telling the best story.”
When it comes to passing on her writing wisdom to fawning young hopefuls she says; “You have to work with no promise of reward.” Whilst Eat, Pray, Love has undoubtedly reaped huge rewards for Gilbert, her 16 year old self (who ‘married’ herself to writing in a candle-lit bedroom ceremony) would never have predicted such a future; “I would have liked to have something published before I was dead” were her humble hopes. Now, when aspiring writers ask her about finding an agent, Gilbert asks them “Well, have you written a book yet?”
Looking back to her first novel, Stern Men, Gilbert recalls worrying how she might look to those lobster fishermen in Maine that she was focussing on – a “hovering weirdo” who thinks it’s perfectly appropriate to approach them with a foolish opener, such as “Hello, I’m from New York and I find your culture so charming! Can you take me and show me… how you talk?” I find it encouraging to learn that Gilbert is self-concious in this area, as those who have accused Eat, Pray, Love of being ‘Priv Lit‘ would most likely view her as a bumbling hack, asserting herself over those she meets and clumsily grasping at their culture. In her defense, Gilberts says she tends to approach people humbly, levelling with them and saying “I really want to write about this but I don’t know much about it…”
In a New Yorker review of Eat, Pray, Love, David Denby had said that Gilbert sees the world as being in existence solely for her enjoyment. “Isn’t it?” Gilbert laughs now, wondering if everyone else holds her view that the world is like an all-you-can-eat buffet. Perhaps that’s the problem some hold with this book, that this way of thinking can be harmful if not exercised with caution. Gilbert, however, throws caution to the wind; When it comes to life “I like to roll around in it like a dog” she says.
Another gripe that cynical readers had with Eat Pray Love (myself included) is that travelling all over the world to ‘find yourself’ is great for those who can afford it… but what about those who can’t? Do you have to take a real journey to make a spiritual journey? “No,” Gilbert answers certainly, “Except, I had to.” To say Gilbert has nomadic tendencies is an understatement; Like an addict, she admits that she is the kind of person that, when travel presents itself “you twitch at the opportunity.” She is also keen to point out that all her spiritual training and enlightened learning would have been useless if she couldn’t have gone ‘home’ and applied it to the ‘real-world’.
Moving from the ‘real-world’ and on to Hollywood, Holdengräber brings up the film version of Eat, Pray, Love. “Are you referring to the movie, Eat, Pray, Love?” teases Gilbert,”The major motion picture?” Gilbert deals with the surrealism of the whole thing with her trademark sarcastic wit.
Gilbert’s character, ‘Liz’, is played by Julia Roberts, a woman who hugely impacted the success of the book by telling Life magazine her plan to buy a copy for all her girlfriends as a Christmas present.
The only time Gilbert made contact with Roberts about the ‘character’ was in writing when she sent her the prayer beads she had worn the entire journey. “Now they’re yours, and the story is yours” Gilbert had written, and was then happy to let Roberts spin the character in whatever way she wished. Using the analogy of a house you sell and then have to allow its new owners to furnish it as they please, Gilbert knew that selling her story meant she needed to let it go; ”It wasn’t mine any more, anyway,” she said, “it had outgrown me. It had flown out of my hands and if it wanted to go to be a movie it could go be a movie.”
Gilbert tells us how she first saw the finished movie in a private screening, just her and her husband; “I didn’t want to be watched, watching it.” She tells how she was trembling as she saw her story unfold, getting caught off-guard when the invented ex-husband ‘character’ had “moments of accidental intersection when the character felt right” and reeling at the memory of “crying hours and hours a day for months on end”. Apparently, the wonderful character of Richard from Texas is portrayed perfectly and, more interestingly, tells a story of why he finds himself at the Ashram. It’s a story, recreated pretty much word-for-word, that Richard himself imparted to the director but had never told to Gilbert, or even his own sons, whilst he was still alive.
Gilbert asserts that she is delighted with the fact her book is now a film, claiming it is ’sanity inducing’ because it’s a spotlight shift, a magical moment of misdirection; “Now Julia Roberts is Liz Gilbert, and she’s welcome to be!”
The evening is rounded up with an emotional reading of Jack Gilbert’s (no relation!) poem Failing and Flying, which nicely ties up a lively conversation that has been intimate, jovial and inspiring. Perhaps not the grilling I would have liked but, hey, some of my niggles have been assuaged slightly and there’s no denying Gilbert is a wonderfully motivating presence and a fantastic speaker. Perhaps I shall become an Eat, Pray, Lover yet!
Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love seems, to me, to be one of those Marmite-like dividers of women. Whilst the Sunday Times has declared the memoir to be some sort of feminine gospel, saying ‘Eat, Pray, Love has been passed from woman to woman like the secret of life’, there are still those who are reluctant to fall for its charms. Bitch magazine, for example, accused the book of being ‘priv-lit‘ - saying that Gilbert’s path to enlightenment is greatly smoothed by her wealth – which is fine for her (and her equally privileged readers) but rather annoying for anyone else who can’t afford to traverse the globe to find themselves.
And then there are those who, like me, seem to be almost allergic to the self-help genre. When a considerate friend kindly offered up a quote from the book, in a bid to help me through a break up, my cynical soul simply refused to take it in – I refused to become one of those simpering women who find quotes that ‘resonate’. An ‘Eat, Pray, Lover‘, if you will.
Still, there’s obviously something about Eat, Pray, Love that attracts readers time and time again; The book has sold over 7 million copies and is about to be unleashed on to our UK screens as a major motion picture (starring saccharine sweetheart Julia Roberts, natch) on September the 24th.
It is for this reason that Gilbert finds herself on a new journey that will bring her slap bang into the spotlight for an event hosted by Intelligence Squared (IQ2) on September the 15th. Speaking with host Paul Holdengräber, Gilbert is sure to pass on plenty of pearls of wisdom from her travels… but I am also expecting a little light grilling too. Is ’spiritual journey’ travelling a new form of colonialism? Does self-help culture perpetuate selfishness? And where can us poorer gals go to eat, pray and love?
In readiness for the talk next month, I have finally bought a copy of the book (online, to avoid blushes at the book shop!) and I can actually admit that I’m glad to have the excuse to read it. Perhaps I am being overly negative. Perhaps a little Eating, Praying and Loving will be good for me… I’ll be sure to let you know in my review of the IQ2 event!
Elizabeth Gilbert speaks at Cadogan Hall, London, on Wednesday September 15th. The event will begin at 7.00pm and finish at 8.30pm. Tickets are from £20 and all details can be found here.
Ooh, and before you see the film, take a look at these great reviews over at Bust and The Salon!
Intelligence Squared is a global forum that believes in ‘knowledge through debate’ and hosts fantastic evenings of contest and conversation. I attended their Fashion Maketh Woman debate at Westminster’s Methodist Hall, full of excitement and nerves (had I worn the right thing?) and not knowing what to expect.
The title was a bit baffling, and I was baffled further still when I was accosted by a woman with a clip board as I entered. “Are you FOR or AGAINST the motion?” she asked, to which I felt a bit too stupid to be in attendance as I muttered “Err, I don’t think I understand the motion.” Of course (ahem) it was all just a question of semantics; “Do you think fashion makes women what they are?” the helpful woman spelt it out for me, “God no!” I answered and hurried inside to find out I was in the minority; the pre-vote showed 335 For the motion, 318 against and 256 ‘Don’t Knows’.
Paula Reed, looking exquisite in pre-collection AW10 Oscar de la Renta, was the first to take to the stage. Arguing in defense of fashion (well, she is Grazia’s style director after all!) she put it to the audience that “Fashion is the clearest expression of all the most fundamental things in life” and that it is “A delicious relief in a dirty world.” Speaking of her humble background and wide-eyed delight for all things fashion, Reed came off as very like-able and relate-able - quite different to how she has appeared at times when judging on Project Catwalk!
Describing those who focus on the negative elements of fashion as “Purse-lipped puritans” she went on to say “They set themselves up as high-minded – and often as feminists – but there’s a hint of misogyny in there, I think.”
Still, Reed did accept that fashion isn’t always without fault; “For the rise of ‘porno-chic’ fashion, fashion editors have come under fire” she said. Also, on the topic of fashion’s relationship with eating disorders, Reed talked about how she had sat on the board of a recent model health enquiry and that all she was sure of was “how many different opinions” there were on the matter and that thin models will soon be going “the way of the padded shoulder”. I admired her bravery for addressing these areas of concern, but it still felt like Reed missed the point somewhat by pointing to the rise in obesity as proof that fashion imagery doesn’t affect how people see themselves.
Ultimately, Reed reminded us that fashion can be a joy and, whether we choose to partake in trends or not, we are always making our own satorial statements. “Looking around this room,” Reed said, gleefully, ”I see lots and lots of Grazia fashion pages from over the past 6 months… you’re looking good, by the way.”
Up next was Stephen Bayley and, although he was arguing against the fashion industry, I just knew I wouldn’t enjoy his speech quite so much.
This is because Bayley is the author of Woman As Design, a book that angered feminists (including Germaine Greer) upon its release last year due to its portrayal of idealised and objectified women. Now, I may have been tempted to pick up the book (if it didn’t cost a whopping £50!) because maybe, just maybe, it might offer an interesting glance at how women’s bodies have influenced design and how beauty standards have transformed over time. I lost any inclination to do just that, however, upon reading Bayley’s Guardian rebuttal Why My Book Is Not Sexist in which he seriously described Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour as ‘a sexist ghetto’ and asked why there was no Man’s Hour. Pssch.
As an intelligent and eloquent speaker, Bayley came out with some cracking quotes (most of which have been included in the ‘best bits’ IQ2 video). He expressed his bemusement at an industry that demands innovation without need and asks people to imitate it without reason. This “cycle of utter folly” also adds to the confused gaze in which we view women’s bodies, Bayley asserted; “Some moments parts of the woman’s body are sterilised and at other times eroticised.”
Still, any great points Bayley made became tainted upon his argument that, whilst the fashion industry says “Buy this and you will look more attractive”, most women would actually look more attractive if they “got a tan, trained for a marathon and lost 30 pounds.” Sorry, Bayley, but you lost my vote right there.
Finance executive turned fashion designer Britt Lintner was keen to tell us how her clothing range for career-minded women has aided them in their professional lives; “We wanted women to celebrate their differences and their individuality,” Lintner said, “Whether a size 6 or a size 16, we’re all about real women.”
She went on to tell the audience, through the aid of Power-Point and a rather fun collection of old photos, how she had used clothing to help her compete as her career evolved. “The psychological impact is undeniable,” Lintner said, stating that clothes give you “the confidence to strive for whatever you want.”
Good points aside, Lintner did herself no favours by pulling out a quote from Margaret Thatcher to back up her points. Good though the quote was, you could almost hear the clenching of teeth in the auditorium as Lintner described Thatcher as “the greatest working woman in the whole world.”
As I had expected, Turner Prize winning artist Grayson Perry was a fantastic speaker. Passionate to the point of anger, Perry brought up many good points about the waste and exploitation ingrained in parts of the fashion industry. “Fashion maketh woman?” Perry all but spat, “I don’t agree with that… Fashion maketh money, fashion maketh waste, fashion maketh carbon, fashion maketh lazy!”
Talking about trends, Perry stated that “The world’s biggest industry is set up to make you dissatisfied with what you’ve just bought” and he wondered whether trend-followers ever actually considered what suited them. He also speculated whether “If this machine of power didn’t exist, would people be more creative?”
Wearing a dress designed for him by a CSM fashion student, Perry lamented the speed at which fashion runs; “It hoovers up ideas and then spits them out half chewed.” He also touched on the throw-backs to colonialism that fashion seems to parade around every so often like an embarrassing souvenir; “This year we’re doing Tibetan…but what if you’re actually Tibetan?”
Lastly, Perry likened the Hot or Not pages of fashion glossies as “The judgement of the playground” and went as far as saying that the fashion industry as a whole is the industrialisation of playground cool; “And cool,” Perry chided us, “is the new straight.”
Madeline Levy, editor-in-Chief of fashion and arts magazine Bon International, was last to speak about the merits of fashion. Throughout the debate speakers on both sides of the fence had agreed that, whilst fashion can come under fire, style is all-well-and-good. Levy, however, put it to the audience that style doesn’t push boundaries or move aesthetic levels in the same way that fashion does. Fashion, Levy said, is an “art form which concerns us all” and it can even allow us to dress up and above the positions we were born into.
After Perry’s attack on the fashion industry, Levy came back with the statement that “The pharmaceutical industry is pretty corrupt but that doesn’t make medicine bad.” She also agreed with Paula Reed, saying that those who hold disdain for fashion may also hold disdain for women; “When men are passionate about something it’s a hobby. When women are passionate about fashion, they’re vain.”
I had been really looking forward to hearing Susie Orbach, author of Fat Is A Feminist Issue, speak against fashion – but her melancholy, emotionally centred speech didn’t really sit well after the passionate demonstrations, peppered with facts, that had gone before.
“You’re ten years old,” Orbach started, “your breasts are little buds. You check out your pose in the mirror, just as you’ve seen Mum do. You’ve seen her sigh in the mirror when she doesn’t quite fit. Still, she’s your yummy mummy.”
Orbach’s imagining was based in the realities she had collected for her latest book, Bodies, and yet the approach felt rather ill-at-ease in a debate setting. I much preferred her speech which followed on from the personal intro, as it felt more effective. “Ask a woman what she’d like to change about her body and she will have a list,” Orbach stated, “Ask her what she likes and she will struggle.”
After all speakers were heard and we were called to vote again, there was still confusion as to what we were actually voting for. If we are FOR or AGAINST fashion, are we talking ‘Fashion’ as an industry (and all that entails) or are we talking clothing, style…fashion as art?
I know that I would like to see the fashion industry grow in more ethically and environmentally friendly ways; it needs scrutinising and it needs to take responsibility. I also know that I welcome it as a creative and empowering force on an individual level. But ‘Fashion Maketh Woman’? I don’t think so. It’s not that gendered – everyone is affected by fashion and trends! Plus, women aren’t one dimensional – it takes more than fashion to make a woman!
A new final vote was taken with the results of 293 For the motion, 468 Against the motion and a nervous 44 ‘Don’t Knows’… how nice to no longer be in the minority! Still, if it had come down to voting only on the basis of speakers, I would have voted for the fashion clan! They came off as much more positive, open to change and eager to confront fashion’s problems, whilst all the while being non-judgemental and fun!
Watch IQ2’s Best Bits from the debate here and find out more about their Autumn season of debates here.
Donning my glad-rags to celebrate the Reclaiming The F-Word book launch, I couldn’t help but have second (and third, and fourth) thoughts; Is a satin, sapphire-blue pencil skirt and a customised Kylie tee shirt really what I should be wearing to a feminist book launch? Luckily, I know that feminists are a friendly, fun and understanding lot… which is why I went along in exactly my original choice of clothing and no-one gave two hoots about my appearance!
With such diverse and passionate speakers, it looks set to be a really lively and intelligent debate! As the blurb says on the IQ2 website;
Woman is born free, but everywhere is fashion’s slave. Her choices are an illusion: the fashion companies and magazines dictate her purchases to her. She feels compelled to own the latest must-have handbag, believes the key to happiness is the new bondage boot; they’ve told her she’s worth it and without her fashion fix she feels worthless. This, at least, is the story told by those who scoff at fashion. But isn’t that just sour drapes? Isn’t it rather the case that the world of fashion defines the spirit and mood of the age? That the brilliant designers in the fashion houses bring vim and vigour to an otherwise pedestrian world? And that those who somehow think they’re above it all just end up looking drab and dull?
As per usual, I’m firmly perched on the fence! Still, I’m really looking forward to being forcibly swung this way and that by the evening’s speakers. There’s only one thing on my mind until then… what outfit should I wear?
Fashion Maketh Woman takes place on Thursday, the 17th of June at the Methodist Central Hall Westminster. Doors open at 6pm and the debate is scheduled to finish at 8.30. Tickets are £25 (or half price for students) and can be bought here.