The Word Pretty by Elisa Gabbert / Black Ocean Press / November 15, 2018 / 184 pages / $18.95
The Word Pretty by Elisa Gabbert is divided into three sections and consists of twenty-two short essays. At 184 pages, and with dimensions of four by seven inches, the book is physically compact, which complements the brief and punchy essays within its pages. Written in the first-person point of view, Gabbert is pensive and reflective; her observations thoughtful, her connections between subject matter unique. A nonfiction writer and poet, Gabbert’s interest in media, cinema, and art emerges through her insights about the craft of writing and reading, as well as her observations on living.
Gabbert spends the first section of this book discussing her writing process, which she defines as being lyrical as opposed to linear (3). She prefers to write, “unanchored, on the diagonal” (5). This glimpse into her writing process is a seemingly small detail, but one which holds much information about how she approaches writing. Gabbert doesn’t even like the rigidity of her journal which taunts her with “the letters S M T W T F S, urging me to diarize” (5). From the onset, readers understand that she refuses to follow restrictions or formulas.
Gabbert speaks not only as a writer, but also as a reader. She discusses the particular standards texts need to meet to grab her attention, says she must be in a certain mood to read certain works, and questions why she reads fiction. She portrays herself as an imperfect reader in her essays, “On the Pleasures of Front Matter,” where she admits to sometimes reading only the introductions of books (43), and in, “Seeing Things,” she explains how she habitually visualizes characters incorrectly (50). In both of these works, she confirms that she is unafraid to admit her needs as a reader—no matter how simple they may be.
Rather than berating herself for her lack of understanding poetry, Gabbert believes that “the greatest lines in poetry are infinitely quotable while having no definite meaning” (73). Perhaps this is only true when a text is read through the lens of a reader more so than that of a writer. Would Gabbert be satisfied with writing ambiguous prose? Perhaps not, but as a reader she appreciates the beauty of words in poetry.
In her essay, “Why Read Novels?” she explores reasons for reading fiction. She refutes a point made by David Shields that novels “convey what it feels like to be alive right now” (87), arguing that people already know what this means and don’t need a reminder. She also finds the assumption of the time period Shields’s statement encompasses problematic. How can “right now” be determined? Instead, Gabbert concludes that she reads in order “to gain access to another world” (94). She doesn’t only want a reprieve from her own world but from everything she knows.
In her essay, “The Self-Destruct Button: On the Literary Death Drive” she admits to being “obsessed with books about people who, for unclear reasons, ruin their own lives” (95). Using various texts as examples, she muses whether or not humans would rather self-destruct than improve bad habits. Characters who are placed in undesirable, difficult situations help construct complex, compelling stories. Perhaps this is the reason Gabbert is drawn to this element: the tendency towards self-destruction lends itself to unpredictable character actions, and also reveals layers of character traits worthy of analysis.
Gabbert’s musings about life include observances of different types of crying, discussion of women as objects of the male gaze, as well as the analysis of the definitions for beauty. In, “Variations on Crying,” Gabbert shares that, “There are playlists on YouTube designed specifically to make people cry” (13). While this essay is humorous, she grows solemn when she says, “I have always hated Sundays. Everything seems worse on Sunday nights, just like everything seems worse when you wake up at 3 a.m., each obligation and annoyance in your life a heavier burden” (19). Gabbert is introspective, honest and vulnerable. Her admission probes the question, “What is Gabbert worrying about in the middle of the night?” She ends the essay by informing readers that “looking in the mirror is a very good way to stop crying” (20), providing a full circle, an end to the cycle.
In the essay, “Picture Yourself Happy,” Gabbert discusses the perception of oneself and others and details how this materializes with the male gaze. She informs the reader that she once read that both males and females get aroused when viewing images of naked women (117) and explains that women are believed to be “turned on by imagining themselves in the warmth of the male gaze” (117). She depicts women as being participants in the objectification of themselves and further states that women become participants in “both the power of gazing and the glamour of being a gaze-worthy object” (117). Rather than depict women as victims of objectification, she gives them equal power. Furthermore, even though women participate in the gazing of themselves, they are, according to Gabbert, often unwilling recipients of the male gaze. She says, “the gaze is often unwanted; you don’t get to choose” (131). This prompts the questions, who has the right to comment on a woman’s bodies? Why does anyone have power to approve or disapprove of someone else’s appearance?
How we see ourselves largely determines what we show of ourselves to others. This can be accomplished through the use of photographs, specifically through social media. Gabbert states that, “Photos confirm…that we were: Being took place ” (120). A false life can be easily created. Gabbert states, “What the selfie ad offers is not exactly happiness…but a context for sale, a curated context for the curated self” (125). Even if a happy life is fabricated, the image camouflages reality and for some, that is enough.
Gabbert’s observances have a meditative, non-intrusive quality to them, but there is much strength in their serenity. Her intimate thoughts and subsequent conclusions encourage us to pay attention and find meaning in our habits and interactions.