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 [author Elizabeth Gilbert, played by Roberts] 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.)