Sunday, August 07, 2005

Ah, sweet vindication!

No author likes it when a major publication runs a scathing review of his work; some of us, peevish creatures that we are, have been known to fire off angry letters of rebuttal to the writers and/or editors at the heart of the injustice. Some weeks ago, however, the Washington Post ran a review of SHAM, by Congressional Quarterly editor Chris Lehmann, which failed on so many levels that I felt it incumbent upon myself--purely in the spirit of journalistic accuracy--to make Lehmann's errors and oversights known to his editor. (My nemesis began by botching the title acronym, and it went straight downhill from there.) Today, in its Sunday edition, the Post ran my lengthy letter of protest almost in its entirety, a gesture I choose to interpret as a "correction" if not a full-blown "retraction" of Lehmann's original review. Since access to Post content requires registration, which is free but annoying, I've reproduced the letter here, just as they ran it:

Help is on the way

There's an old line about PR that goes something like this: "I don't care what you say about me . . . just spell the name right." Too bad your reviewer, Chris Lehmann, couldn't meet even that low standard in his acerbic review of my book SHAM: How the Self-Help Movement Made America Helpless (Book World, July 10). Lehmann's accuracy problems begin with his mangling of the all-caps title, which is not a "ponderous author-coined acronym for 'Self-Help and Motivation,' " as he alleges, but a natural shorthand for a phrase -- "Self-Help and Actualization Movement"--that was in common usage long before I decided to write SHAM. How does a reviewer get the title wrong? Maybe Lehmann needs to do a bit more background research on his topic before he sits down at the computer in another one of his bilious moods.

A few questions for my intrepid critic:

If the paradoxical truism I argue about the self-help movement's dependency on repeat business is in fact so "obvious," then why hasn't it been documented before, and why does self-help continue to enjoy the hold it has over so many millions of otherwise intelligent, culturally savvy followers?

If my sections on the various self-help gurus are to be dismissed as "thumbnails," why has so little of this information appeared comprehensively in print before now?

How is it "irrelevant" that Suze Orman had a speech impediment as a child? Is it not interesting that someone so afflicted would rise to prominence as a seminar speaker? And why is it "nobody's business" that Orman never married? She talks endlessly about achieving "balance" in life; shouldn't her primarily female audience look at her own success in that area?

The only "proof" I offer of the victimization movement's corrupting effect on American values is the case of convicted Starbuck's embezzler Rosemary Heinen? Are you kidding me? Did Lehmann read the book? I would direct his attention to much of the introduction, all of Chapter 8 ("We Are All Diseased") and perhaps two-thirds of the conclusion ("A SHAM Society").

Further, many of Lehmann's provocative-sounding broadsides can't withstand even the most cursory logical scrutiny. He observes, for example, that the "outrages" I describe are "real enough, but the reader wants some sustained explanation of why they keep occurring." Has Lehmann done his own painstaking investigation of the self-help movement? Or is he just omniscient? If neither of the above, then what was his basis for rejecting the wealth of data and argument that I (and my many firsthand sources) provide? Indeed, Lehmann's review was so full of gratuitous, purposeful venom that I wondered halfway through what his own agenda was, going in.

STEVE SALERNO
Allentown, PA

The Post did leave out my parting shot at Lehmann, which I really enjoyed writing, so I'll correct that omission here: "I hope he is more careful in his portrayals of life in the halls of Congress than he was in critiquing my book." Nuff said.

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