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When the Internet becomes a best-seller and Oprah gives her blessing


Love Warrior

By Glennon Doyle Melton

Flatiron Books

272 pages, $25.99

By Emily Simon

Some books are just … books. Others are publishing events. Still others have become a kind of hybrid of undetermined nature and origin, encompassing social media and real-life drama that is all of a piece with the philosophy being peddled from within the book.

Glennon Doyle Melton’s “Love Warrior” is such a phenomenon. It is a book, to be certain – a specific number of printed pages, bound between two covers, containing a story with a beginning, middle and end. But it is also a chapter in a larger story, and a marketing arm for a brand, and so many other things.

It rose from Melton’s extremely popular “Momastery” website: formerly just her blog, now command central for a movement of “truth-tellers and hope spreaders” featuring guest posters and calls for activism and big reveals about Melton’s personal progress.

For many years now Melton’s web presence has resonated with a wide swath of readers and most importantly, has included them. Her audience feels seen and heard by her, and in fact, often is (one can comment on her posts, or re-tweet them, and occasionally she’ll respond). This type of confessional/inspirational writing/relationship-building has become common in the modern era, and has been identified (correctly) as income-generating by those paying attention to the intersection of web-publishing and book-publishing. In short, expect more social media stars with book contracts.

Where did this all begin … Elizabeth Gilbert? Anne Lamott? Emily Dickinson?

Well, Elizabeth Gilbert (best-selling author of “Eat Pray Love”) has blurbed “Love Warrior.” So has national vulnerability czar Brene Brown. And as the buzz around “Love Warrior” has grown in volume, one can distinguish within it the invocation of an even Holier Name: Oprah. “Love Warrior” has been chosen by Oprah Winfrey’s recently revived Book Club, and Melton appeared with Oprah on OWN’s “Super Soul Sunday” (previously host to both Brown and Gilbert).

Melton has triumphantly embraced Oprah in return and has asked her millions of followers to welcome Oprah to the “tribe.” To round out the drama, Jennifer Weiner (another best-selling author and reluctant “chick-lit” gadfly) has had her feelings hurt by all of this and has come back with a Cheryl Strayed blurb for HER memoir. Strayed (best-selling author of “Wild”) incidentally takes credit for coining the phrase “love warrior” in the first place, and has not conspicuously touted Melton’s book though she, Gilbert, and Melton have all collaborated on activism in the past. Is there intermural conflict within the cabal of Inspiring Woman Writers? More information needed.

In short, this group of highly successful women – Winfrey, Gilbert, Strayed, Brown, Weiner and up-and-comers like Luvvie Ajayi (whose book “I’m Judging You: The Do-Better Manual has just hit stores to great acclaim from a related subset of readers and has been blurbed by Shonda Rhimes) are surely part of a “tribe” of some kind. They are indisputably selling books to ardent repeat customers, which is no easy feat.

Now on to “Love Warrior” itself. It is a well-written, soulful, engaging page-turner mostly about Melton’s marriage: one begun from a shaky place, massaged into strength as Melton and her husband grew and faced challenges and raised children, threatened by his infidelity and her intimacy issues, and eventually, by the book’s end, congealed into an admirable dented stability. “Love Warrior” is a good book, an interesting book, an honest book, and even an inspiring book. Melton has been through a lot and offers us solid, well-written wisdom.

But wait, there’s more: A week before the publication of “Love Warrior,” Melton announced (via her website) that she and her husband were separating.

Does this post-print, prepublication reveal affect the book’s truthfulness? Validity? Inspiration score? Does it queer the message? Hard to say, and perhaps these questions are moot, but Melton herself rushed to address them. And when the lines between memoir, confessional, brand and marketing blur in this way, something relevant is happening in there somewhere. Perhaps the most salient question is: has Melton’s late-breaking marital pivot affected the sales of her book about marriage? If so, has it skewed them up or down?

The idea that raw truth-telling is brave and revolutionary is not simply floating around in the Oprah-sphere … it is its oxygen. All news is good news on a “personal journey of self-discovery,” to quote Melton’s publisher. And so to Melton’s target audience, hers is a book of gospel. Its existence is a product for them to consume on multiple fronts: it is a thing they can buy, and also an event in Melton’s life (which they assiduously follow) and by consuming it everywhere they find it they are supporting her.

The book made the blog post about the separation a necessary coda, the blog post promoted the book, and chatter with her tribe promotes the book … all while Oprah is kvelling about the book, guaranteeing at minimum that if you buy it you certainly won’t lack company in which to discuss it. It’s all win-win for Melton.

At this point, it becomes hard to repel encroaching cynicism. Is it reasonable to think that Melton timed her life to promote her brand? Of course not. She herself will insist that her life is unruly and occasionally painful in the most mundane ways. But when your life is your subject, and you chronicle it in real time, the sword of scrutiny can cut in interesting directions.

Recently, in a Facebook post, Elizabeth Gilbert announced that the true reason for her separation from the husband she met in Bali (a big “EPL” plot point) was that she had fallen in love with her best friend, a woman, who also has cancer and might be dying.

Is all of this true? No reason to doubt it. Is it also quite dramatic? Yes. And has the world responded with “well, we know what EG’s next book will be about.” Yes. Is this fair? Good question.

Gilbert’s last book (“The Signature of All Things”) was not memoir, but instead very strong and well-reviewed fiction that was certainly more than a thinly veiled series of well-crafted blurts about her own emotional journey. It was … a book. A complex, old-fashioned bit of doorstop historical fiction. Yet that book will never be what she is known for … her tombstone will likely mention “Eat Pray Love,” which was a juggernaut that has now settled into a cultural punch-line. And so the natural reaction to a dramatic new reveal in Gilbert’s personal life is “here comes the next book.” As though the silver lining to any personal event within this community is actual silver: in the form of book revenue.

Memoir thus becomes a literary version of reality TV, presented in installments (in stores or online) and enslaved to Nora Ephron’s mother’s legendary truism: “everything is copy.” Ultimately the book’s value – as a story and/or a product – will depend on how badly each individual reader/consumer feels she needs it, and how deeply she’s willing to dive into someone else’s guts, looking for herself. Do we all have an insatiable appetite for intimacy that doesn’t require anything from us but our eyes and our money? Or does one, at some point, hit a wall of solipsistic revulsion and turn back?

We all respond to feeling seen, heard and understood … by our loved ones or by art. But when certain people become celebrities for offering themselves up as gongs we bang repeatedly, simply to listen for an echo … by what standard do we judge their output? Perhaps only Oprah can say.

It may surely be petty and ungracious to be cynical about such high-octane sincerity. But when that sincerity is so heavily and masterfully marketed, the sheen it acquires as it passes through the machine looks less and less like truth.

Melton’s legitimate, hard-won wisdom has become her brand, her philosophy, and – when heard in chorus with her fellows – something of a religion. Its allure is powerful and its promises seductive, but it’s never a bad idea to bring a healthy skepticism to the table any time we’re offered salvation at the same time we’re asked to open our wallets.

Emily Simon is a Buffalo-raised writer now living in California.

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