The profit motive (or, the prophet motive)

Recently on my Facebook/Twitter feed I posted a bit of Roger Ebert’s review of the new Julia Roberts movie, Eat Pray Love: “[To like the movie] I guess you have to belong to the narcissistic subculture of Woo-Woo.” I quoted it because I found it funny, and should make clear right now that I have neither read nor seen the book/movie in question.
In his review Ebert also said, “She

About the Author


funds her entire trip, including scenic accommodations, ashram, medicine man, guru, spa fees and wardrobe, on her advance to write this book.”  This got my attention, so I checked around.  Sure enought, the New York Times book review confirms it: “Her trip was financed by an advance on the book she already planned to write, and Eat, Pray, Love is the mixed result.”

Really? Gilbert gets an advance (significant enough to allow international travel, yet) to write a book about her spiritual quest prior to setting out on it? So before starting she knows that a) the quest isn’t really going to cost anything materially, and b) she’ll need to create a narrative of it compelling enough to justify the investment. Clearly she did the latter. But my question is, doesn’t the existence of the former invalidate the whole thing?

Consider another literary account of a real-life spiritual quest, Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. Its protagonist exists barely above the poverty line, and suffers numerous indignities (many of them self-induced) as a result. His quest has no real agenda, no goal, and his insights occur only at his lowest points. His conclusion is that to live in that society he has to abandon the very things that drove him to the quest in the first place–i.e., grow up. He then writes about it, and only then is he rewarded materially for it.

The obvious difference between the two is one of gender, but I don’t think that’s the crucial one. I think it’s more about the integrity of intent. I don’t believe you can embark on a spiritual quest intending to profit from it, at no substantial cost to yourself, and emerge with any meaningful insights. All great quests, from Siddhartha to Moses, from Ghandi to On the Road, begin from a level of desperation that goes much deeper than, as the Washington Post says in its book review, being “a plucky blond American woman in her thirties with no children and no major money worries” who “is going through a really bad divorce and subsequent stormy rebound love affair.”

Or, to put it more concisely, On the Road inspires people to emulate it. Eat Pray Love inspires a Julia Roberts movie.

To be fair, I’ve often been accused of cynicism when it comes to other people’s motives, particularly famous and/or successful people. So what do you readers think? Is this a valid point, or just sour grapes from a writer who hasn’t yet gotten a big enough advance to finance a fun week in Wisconsin Dells,* let alone an epic journey into the meaning of existence?

*(Okay, that’s an exaggeration for effect. My average advance would buy me quite the time in the Dells.)

13 Comments on “The profit motive (or, the prophet motive)”

  1. I made it through 50 agonizing pages of EAT PRAY LOVE…..and still have my battered Signet/NEW AMERICAN LIBRARY copy of ON THE ROAD (COST $.75!!)….EAT PRAY LOVE was a white girl whine-fest (plenty cheesy) that had little to do with spirituality..and a whole lot to do with "potential earnings"..which it reaps daily..It is dreck of the worst sort, but in our society where gurus can be found on Cable TV….we get what we deserve…and most folks are too lazy to seek, or delve too deep into their psyches (black holes?)

    ON THE ROAD was gritty and none too sure of itself..truly "interactive" in that the reader had to bring something to the table besides a pair of bloodshot eyes. it was poetry, philosophy, and travelogue in one scruffy, dusty package

    Market Share be damned! i guess you know on which side of this table i place my cards….deal Ms EAT PRAY LOVE out…..and, by the by, her new MegaBlockbuster is all about her current marital Bliss..oughta be a…..*urk*


  2. Oh. Good. Lord.
    I had no idea. I feel a little gullible, to be honest. I haven't read the book either, although I had been thinking of seeing the movie.
    But this feels to me like a deliberate lie on a lot of parts…what a bummer.

    And could I please have a big advance so I could take an exotic trip? I was thinking of someplace really exciting, like the grocery store, and maybe the pharmacy. You know, for tranquilizers.

  3. Yes! You're right. A preconceived, prepaid, contrived "spiritual quest" is nonsense. Although I hear there's much spiritual enlightenment to be gained in Dallas.

  4. I'm on the other side of the fence. I enjoyed the book Eat Pray Love, and haven't read On the Road. I'm skeptical of any spiritualism, particularly when it insists that one must have the right credentials. It's like those who insist you must be a starving alcoholic to create great art. Art, and spiritualism, is achieved despite poverty, not because of it.

    I enjoyed Eat Pray Love for two reasons. One, it was a travelogue of places I'd like to visit (though I'd like to see the Wisconsin Dells too). Two, while I was reading the book, I felt immersed in the author's "God loves me, the universe wants me to be happy, and everything will be just right if I let it happen" mentality. It's an illusion, of course, but escapist fantasy is all about illusions.

  5. Wow. I had no idea. Now I really don't want to read the book.

    But I'm glad I saw this post, because your blog is ten shades of awesome! (I especially love the post about squeezing writing time into the 23 minutes of Ni-Hao Kai Lan. I feel your pain, buddy.)

  6. I am reading Eat, Pray, Love right now and just passed the part where she says in the book that she was able to fund her trip because of the advance for the book — so it's not a secret.

    Gilbert knew she'd be taking a trip to different countries, and *hoped* to get some spiritual enrichment out it, but isn't it plausible to say that she would write a book based on whatever actually happened to her?

    For example, if she didn't find enlightenment or whatever she was looking for, she could write how she went to all these places and still didn't find it. So what I'm saying is, she knew her goal, but didn't know the process or outcome in advance.

  7. There were parts of the book I found interesting, and parts I found ridiculous.

    The jury is still out if I will see the movie or not. I am kind of curious how they will do it, and I like Julia Roberts.

  8. Hey Alex! I have to say, I think that maybe if you read the book, your view might be more charitable, even if it wouldn't totally change.

    One thing that I don't like about the criticism of EPL is this constant drumbeat of, "Her worst problem is that she was getting divorced!" That can be an extremely painful process. High-class problems are still problems, and some of Gilbert's most valuable insights come at low meoments, too. A lot of people talk as if she couldn't possibly have really suffered, or have anything to say, just because she's a right white female. I reject that idea.

    At the same time, you are not wrong. I was aware of the publishing advance, but I hadn't really thought about how that might color the outcome. I certainly hadn't thought to compare it with "On the Road". Thank you for this post.

  9. Hi! I followed a link from Twitter.

    It's an interesting point (and true that it most likely influenced the outcome), but to be fair, Elizabeth Gilbert was a broke, hardworking journalist (who also wrote short stories, essays, and novels) for many, many years before Eat, Pray, Love. She got the advance because she earned it the old-fashioned way: hard work.

    And divorces are never pretty.

    She did a GREAT pre-EPL (1998!) story for This American Life about windfalls of money, which is well worth a listen:

  10. It's hardly unheard-of for a published writer to plan a travel book, and finance the trip on the book's advance. And, as someone's already pointed out, this is hardly a James Frey level of deception: Gilbert was open about where the money came from.

    People might have their knickers less in a knot about EPL if they'd drop the whole "spiritual journey" thing and think of it as a good solid travel memoir in which the writer uses her trip to work through some of her personal issues (again, hardly revolutionary) and explores Indian meditation alongside other subjects such as learning Italian, eating pasta, and buying a house in Bali.

  11. First, thanks to everyone who's commented on this post.

    The defense of Elizabeth Gilbert's economic status has gotten me thinking as well. The same sort of criticism has been levelled against filmmaker Henry Jaglom, who tends to tell stories about the people he knows: well-off Californians dealing with their crises. I love Jaglom's films, and while I understand the critics who say they deal with people whose problems are (compared to poverty, disease, war, etc.) pretty insubstantial, he does a good job of making you see that these are, in fact, for these people, real problems.

    (See his website here. My favorite of his films is Last Summer in the Hamptons,, but his "problem" trilogy–Eating, Babyfever, and Going Shopping–is more germane to this discussion.)

    But perhaps the best comment on this issue comes from John Lennon, in a letter he wrote 34 years ago to a folksinger worried that success would destroy his songwriting ability:

    "Being rich doesn't change your experience in the way you think. The only difference, basically, is that you don't have to worry about money — food — roof etc. But all other experiences — emotions — relationships — are the same as anybodies, I know, I've been rich and poor, so has Yoko (rich — poor — rich) so whadya think of that."

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