The Genteel
December 5, 2020


Julia Roberts as Elizabeth Gilbert in the film, Eat, Pray, Love (Source:

Earlier this month, Joan Didion's new book, Blue Nights, was (finally) published. It's the long-anticipated follow-up to her 2006 bestseller, The Year of Magical Thinking, a memoir about the time following her husband's death. In her latest work (that I'm only hoping will be equally as beautiful), Didion dissects the relationship she had with her daughter, Quintana Roo, and the effects of her passing, especially in proximity of her husband's death only a year earlier.

In Blue Nights, Didion also addresses the question of privilege. Do you know what that means as an accusatory tool? The standard dictionary definition of the word is usually a variation on, "A special right, advantage, or immunity granted or available only to one person or group of people." In criticism - literary or otherwise - this, more often than not, translates into a lack of perspective or knee-jerk reader/reviewer skepticism. I've had this discussion about supposed privilege for what seems like a year now. I've also had the intense annoyance of being bestowed the moniker in reference to my own writing; the stink of one's perception of another's level of privilege is surprisingly difficult to wash off. 

So why the fuss about what these women have, or have not had - before, now, or ever? Would their experiences and words become any less beautiful, or any less valid?

Yesterday, Didion was in Toronto to promote her latest work as part of the International Festival of Authors. I haven't read Blue Nights yet. I mean, it just hit Amazon's best seller list, but then so did Haruki Murakami's 1Q84 a week earlier - and I just started dining on that daily. But the Internet is an unwavering beast of opinions, and the early essays, reviews and criticisms of Didion's Nights have been quick, smart and feverish. But they're interesting for other reasons, too. So far, it appears that Slate has done one of the most objective examinations of the responses to Didion's points on the subject of privilege, in her references to housekeepers, lifestyle choices and Quintana Roo's childhood. The Slate writer thinks it's odd that Didion "has waited this long to address a charge that is hardly new." I think it's time we put the issue to rest.

I first began to seriously question the politics surrounding privilege when Bitch magazine ran a story last year called "Eat, Pray, Spend" about Elizabeth Gilbert's bestseller-to-big screen memoir Eat, Pray, Love. It was also the first time that I began to consider the idea of "priv-lit," or privileged literature. The Bitch piece points to a central problem that seems to want to divide and define the "real" reality of non-fiction with fiction, based solely on the perceptions of the differences between the haves and have-nots of the writer and the audience. I've read Gilbert's memoir, and since then, I've also flipped through pages of her follow-up, Committed. I'll admit that I took issue at first with the mass-media depiction of Gilbert's "fearless and courageous" story. I mean, really? She used a book advance to travel around the world - an advance given to her to write a book about a journey that hadn't even happened yet. Was it fair? Did it make the end result more egregious? Contrived, even? Well, what's fair? Life isn't. Publishing isn't either. There are some who would vehemently argue that Gilbert wouldn't have even been able to go on that fateful trip in the first place without money, and the experiences of living and lounging in Italy (or even India) would be very, very different as a result. Yet in Gilbert's follow-up to EPL, Gilbert explains her financial situation, of being poor in Asia, out of money, but, yes, so in love. And Gilbert is a beautiful writer, as is Didion. So why the big fuss about what these women have, or have not had - before, now, or ever? Would their experiences and words become any less beautiful, or any less valid? 

Joan Didion speaking at Tulane University

Frankly, the need to call out "privilege" as a reason to discredit something, or someone, is too easy and aggravating. It's also a bit... pointless? Privilege, in its simplest meaning, exists (in some form or another) within everyone. I'm gay, but you're heterosexual. But my skin is white, and you're a visible minority. The layers and complexities can go on and on if we let them; it's contextual, and relative. And should we? Somehow, right now, there's a growing misconception that the only opinions worth considering - or of merit - are the ones that are the "realest," i.e. the ones that don't originate from money or access because that doesn't traditionally breed authenticity and legitimately as the "99 per cent" see it. I get it, I really do. No one wants to hear about how great someone else's life is - or that Didion had a housekeeper, or that Gilbert's travel is a by-product of her advance - especially not in a forum where authors proceed to scrutinize and comment on the world as they (and sometimes only they) see it, and eventually self-actualize beyond the rest of us. It's here where the problems arise, and why I can see that people get defensive in their world views. Defending your own privilege isn't necessary, but if writers (or politicians, etc.) refuse to understand it in relation to the rest of the world, they face the possibility of being irrelevant and out of touch. I'm not saying this applies to either Didion or Gilbert specifically (that's for you to decide), but it's evident that this is where perceptions and receptions can become problematic.

I hate to break it to you, but there are industries built upon the problems of rich people. Tabloids, the best example, survive on these problems, and on the fact that we are only too eager to read about them. It's precisely the same reason I get annoyed when singers and rappers release songs about the relentless paparazzi or how hard it is to be the new, famous version of themselves. And, just for our entertainment, the quasi-reality of television shows like Gossip Girl rely on everything but the satire of their own "world." Since the dawn of the nuclear family, consumers have been bred on aspiration; a sad fact that's made even more prevalent with each new reality show given to some group of "rich kids," and the imbalances that media like magazines have been struggling to correct for as long as the middle class has had less and less money.

So, no, it should never be a question of privilege. Sometimes, it can appear ignorant, and sometimes it is. But it's more a question of experiences, and the differences between them. More importantly, the focus should be on correcting imbalances or providing "alternate" realities that counter the privileged experience; in short, it doesn't need to addressed, it needs to be modified. Sure, we've had Didions and Gilberts throughout history, but we've also had blunders like James Frey, the supposed antithesis to a rich white girl traveling around the world, even though she's honest about her "journey." Being able to relate to an audience is the biggest aspiration of all these days, but being realistic remains the hardest challenge yet.



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