While browsing for books a few years ago, I picked up a copy of Chloe Caldwell’s debut collection of personal essays, Legs Get Led Astray, and handed it to a friend who had asked me for a few suggestions. She looked cautiously at the little book she’d never heard of, put out by a small indie press, and flipped it over to the back. “Oh look,” she said. “There’s a Cheryl Strayed quote on the back.” Without even looking through the book any further, my friend walked to the register and purchased it. That’s when I first truly witnessed Cheryl Strayed’s impact on publishing, writers, and the book-buying public.
Strayed is the rare type of writer who is both critically and commercially embraced, but also keeps her feet firmly planted in the literary world. Her memoir Wild spent several weeks atop the New York Times bestseller list after Oprah Winfrey made it the debut selection for her rebooted book club. Right after that, a collection of her hugely popular “Dear Sugar” columns, Tiny Beautiful Things, was released to huge fanfare. In a short time, Cheryl Strayed had staked her claim as one of the most well-known writers in America.
Last week, at the New Yorker’s “Page-Turner” blog, America’s blurbing champion, Gary Shteyngart, announced his retirement from the back-of-book praise business. Although Shteyngart’s blurbs, which inspired a Tumblr as well as a short documentary, have been almost as talked about as his books in the last few years, it’s Strayed’s name on an author’s book that seems to have the most power. People relate to and are drawn to her, and the publishing industry knows it; not a month goes by when I don’t see a book out that has Strayed’s name attached to it in some way, normally as a point of comparison. One such book, out this week, is Krista Bremer’s My Accidental Jihad, whose press release tells us its publisher thinks fans of Strayed’s memoir “will eagerly come to it.” The other book it’s compared to is Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love.
Some might tell you that Strayed and Gilbert share a similar formula for success, and they wouldn’t be totally off the mark. These two authors’ most popular books, both memoirs about women overcoming hardships by going on journeys, have just as much capacity to inspire readers as they do to hook them into the story; the theme of self-empowerment is something readers really love. Gilbert was already a successful and accomplished writer with an impressive resume when she published Eat, Pray, Love, while Strayed’s first book, 2006’s Torch, was critically lauded (and reissued after the success of Wild), so she had a leg up on Strayed in terms of pre-blockbuster work (first unpublished author to debut in Esquire since Norman Mailer, plenty of critical praise for her books, and a National Book Award nomination for 2002’s The Last American Man).
But another big difference between the authors is that, unfortunately, we rarely hear about Gilbert’s incredibly strong pre-Eat, Pray, Love body of work these days. And while most writers probably wouldn’t mind her acclaim or bank balance, you don’t hear many people citing Gilbert as an influence. Meanwhile, Strayed remains something of a living icon and inspiration for many writers: just look at the countless selfies of people holding their “Write Like a Motherfucker” mugs, possibly the most famous of all “Dear Sugar” quotes.
There’s another big reason readers are so loyal to Strayed: she remains one of them. I’m not saying Gilbert did anything to betray our trust, and if people imagine that success in itself spoils a writer’s worth, I would argue they’re most often dead wrong. But Strayed keeps lending her name to projects, from the Goodbye to All That collection to an essay in Labor Day: True Birth Stories by Today’s Best Women Writers (which Slate recently excerpted). Strayed has found the success most people will never know, but she working like she still has something to prove. It’s something that keeps readers interested, and even the snobbiest writers can still appreciate her work ethic.
The most interesting chapter in Strayed’s career is yet to come, with the movie adaptation of Wild, starring Reese Witherspoon, on its way to theaters. There is a definite threshold that is crossed when a hugely popular writer becomes a hugely popular writer whose book has turned into a movie. Some have been able to continue putting out quality books, while others just coast for the rest of their careers. Part of the reason people like Strayed so much is that the work she’s done post-fame fills them with hope that she’ll keep going, doing exactly what she’s been doing for the last few years, once the movie hype has come and gone. And in a world full of Franzen-type curmudgeons, Strayed’s positivity and the impression she gives of being a literary every-person make her one of the best things going for publishing right now.