Book review: Big Magic

Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear
Review by Kylie Thompson

Genre: Self-help, creativity

Elizabeth Gilbert is a polarising figure in the literary world. While some revere her memoir, Eat, Pray, Love, others loathe it with a heady sort of passion. Gilbert’s newest foray into memoir and self-help, Big Magic, has the potential to be just as polarising.

The thing is, Gilbert seems nice enough. If you’ve had a chance to watch her TED talk, it’s clear she’s a gifted storyteller with a witty turn of phrase and a knack for engaging with her audience. So why do so many people hate her work, and by extension, Gilbert herself?

Gilbert’s crime, for the most part, was having a self-help journey paid for by a publisher’s generous advance. That great and sacred journey? Technically, it was a work trip. Add to that an undercurrent of accusation around the idea of clearly privileged sorts telling the world the secrets to success (the secret: find a publisher who’ll pay you to ‘find yourself’, according to the cynics out there), and haters were inevitable.

That cynical overtone means that more than a few people are rolling their eyes at Gilbert’s latest addition to the self-help genre, even without reading it.

To say it’s a bad book is disingenuous, but Big Magic does have issues. Probably the largest, at least for me, was positioning. I find that I relate best to stories where the narrator (fictional or real) has learned their skills or lessons through trial and error. Yet, according to Gilbert, that’s not been her experience.

It’s forgivable, generally. Not all heroes are baptised in fire and brimstone. But the way Gilbert talks at times, you’d be forgiven for thinking she sprung from the womb, her
understanding of the nature of creativity and survival within the creative industries fully formed and perfect. While those around her struggled to define their creativity, she was able to sit back, watching with detached interest and knowing the answer to the eternal questions devastating those around her. Those parts of her story felt awkward and when teamed with the occasional rant about the right way to do things? More than a little self-aggrandising.

It’s a shame, because the majority of her ideas are practical, and helpfully realistic. It’s less a vague book of platitudes than a brisk reminder to sit your butt down and get creating. Even those ‘right way’ rants aren’t actually wrong, irksome though they may be. In a world where the tortured artist shtick is held up as the one true way to create, it’s important to have reminders that it’s really not true.

There are some quotes worthy of a visit to Canva, which isn’t surprising for Gilbert. And
there are a wealth of ideas that will likely help you move beyond fear and perfectionism in your creative endeavours, which is the entire point of the book. But if you’re looking for a modest teacher, and an escape from mentions of Eat, Pray, Love you’re probably not going to be thrilled with Big Magic.

Eat, Pray, Love is her go-to example to showcase the points she’s making, so if the bestseller leaves you feeling particularly ranty, it’s probably good to know that going in. But for those with a fondness for Gilbert’s most popular work, who don’t mind some well-meaning mother-henning from the author, Big Magic has the real possibility of being a life changer.

Big Magic is published in Australia by Allen and Unwin, and is available through the publisher’s website, at leading booksellers nationwide, and at the usual online haunts.

Rating: 3 stars

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