Thursday, September 14, 2006

Yeah, but at least I spell my name normally.

IN HER AUGUST 14 Amazon review, "SHAM is shameless," reviewer Cari Lynn Vaughn took me to task for my book's lack of a solution component. "For all of his complaining," complains Vaughn, who awarded me one star, and probably only because she had to, "Salerno offers little in the way of solutions. (Which is what College Freshman Composition 100 should have taught him.) He hints at things, but doesn't create any clear ideas for his readers of what needs to be done." This isn't the first time someone has said such a thing, of course, and I have addressed that criticism before--albeit in passing. Because the same issue came up during a radio interview I did just this morning, I think it behooves me to go back to that well again. Especially since Ms. Vaughn felt compelled to add her little gibe about "Freshman Composition 100" (which, for the record, I have taught. Many times).

What's interesting and ironic about Vaughn's attack is that it demonstrates how steeped we are in SHAM*-based thinking, and how self-help authors (who act as if they have the answers to everything) have conditioned us to expect the same from serious-minded social critics who are tackling extraordinarily complex subjects--and who don't bear the burden of providing answers in the first place. Let's remember that I went into this as a journalist, not a would-be guru. It's not the journalist's job to present solutions to the problems he uncovers, but merely to expose and, to some degree, elucidate them for his audience. Do you expect network correspondents to solve the dispute between Israel and Hezbollah? To rejigger American health care so that it works smoothly and fairly for all? Indeed, as I've observed in opinion pieces for The Wall Street Journal and elsewhere, the fastest way for a journalist to lose all credibility is for that journalist to start reporting as if he or she knows, going in, what the "right way" is.

Which explains why my editor and I decided to ditch what originally had been planned as SHAM's final chapter: "Where to find real help if you need it." Even though I foresaw the chapter as more of a glorified list than a poor-man's imitation of Dr. Phil, we didn't want to risk leaving the skeptical reader with the impression that the first 90 percent of SHAM was just a long, coy set-up to my own program. (Devious SHAM artists have written books like that before.) Also remember that in any scientific or journalistic analysis of a given thing, the burden of proof is on the individual making the claims. It was never my job to present a self-help program that works (or even to prove that the gurus' programs don't work). It was the gurus' job--as the people making the claims--to demonstrate convincingly that their programs do work.** The distinction is subtle, but critical to understanding my book, as well as (honest) journalism and even, I dare say, life itself.

Finally, Vaughn ends her caustic review by saying, "Have you noticed most of the positive reviews are mostly from males and not females?" I think that's supposed to have some deep rhetorical meaning, possibly related to my criticism of aspects of the women's movement (which she dramatically oversimplifies in another section of her review). But I'm wondering if anybody has any other takes on that? I have one, though I'd prefer to keep it to myself till others weigh in. If they so choose.

* Regular readers know that when I use the word in regular black-and-white type, I'm referring to the movement, not the book.
** which, of course, they can't do.


acd said...

Given that Vaughn spent a fair portion of her review talking about your alleged anti-feminist approach, I thought her closing remark, as well as her entire review, was just a way of indicating that you're an ethnocentric male chauvinist. That's all. :-) But I'd be interested to here your take on it, Steve.

Anyway, regarding the expectation that you should provide a solution--I absolutely understand what you're saying. Anyone who--after reading SHAM--expects you to give the real answers to everyone's problems is completely missing the point. I'm sure that's how the book got some of its bad reviews: Some people purchased it assuming the message was, "Hey, this is why the self-help you're used to is BS, and now this is what will really work for you..."

Of course, the book also got some bad reviews merely because people resented the idea of someone debunking their self-help demi-gods. It's just that kind of book. Inevitably, people are going to hate it, and that judgment will not necessarily have anything to do with the quality of the writing, research, reasoning, etc.

Cosmic Connie said...

These are interesting points, and even more interesting when you look at the reader reviews of the book Amazon is currently marketing along with SHAM. That book is "Self-Help, Inc.: Makeover Culture in American Life" by Micki McGee. Apparently a few folks were disappointed with McGee because she didn't provide any solutions either (although one person did admit that offering answers might have placed her in the category of a self-help author).

And at least one person complained of the book's feminist slant, so I guess you just can't please everyone. :-) Actually, come to think of it, that person gave SHAM a five-star review.

I really do think a large portion of the reading public has become so accustomed to books that provide answers, even half-assed answers, that they feel shortchanged if they don't get them. As Steve suggested, these people need to learn that the purpose of an exposé is to define the problem, not solve it.

RevRon's Rants said...

Some years ago, I wrote what I believed to be a rarity - a valid self-help book, titled "You Can't Get There From Here (But That's Okay; You Never Really Left)". It's focus was upon the individual's efforts to appropriately deal with their own life, sans the dogma, wizardry, and guilt so inherent in most spiritual growth programs. I had a number of people read it - evan those whom I knew would be brutal in their assessments), and the responses I got were all very positive. After sending it out to a number of publishers (and getting either rejection letters, postcards, or silence), I decided it would best be left for my loved ones to read after I died.

In retrospect, part of the reason for its rejection (aside from the possibility that it was poorly written, of course!) might well be that it didn't offer any magic pills or promises, but rather, a means of more objective introspection. Certainly a death knell in the New Age / Self-Help market!

Like you, Steve, I am very weary of "gurus" whose books and programs offer all the answers, when upon looking more closely, one discovers that they haven't even figured out what questions to ask. Even worse are those who claim that their questions are the only ones worth asking. So don't be bothered by people who resent the dearth of "answers" in what you offer. They obviously haven't finished coming up with their questions. :-)

Trish Ryan said...

I wonder if part of the frustration with any book profiling problems without suggesting solutions is the general sense most of us have that there must be SOME way to make our lives better when we find ourselves horribly off-track. And there is. For all the fanatical self-promoters on the self-help shelves, there are programs that actually helped people. For example Alcoholics Anonymous has helped many people stay sober and live good, fun, joy-filled lives. The Bible (despite all the negative press) has done the same. I know you're not a fan of AA or God, and that's a fair choice, certainly. But I think it's just too grim a position to say that nothing works; in my experience at least, it's just not true. Perhaps that's what some of the reviewers are responding to, the idea that agreeing with you is tantamount to saying, "it's hopeless." And I hope that's not your point :)

rodjohns said...

You know, you've said that the solutions to sham are the very things people would rather ignore. A reality check, if you will.

Rewriting and improved version of SHAM, a sequel that offers real life discusions that posit plausable solutions to the TR's of the world just might be how you'll break through the noise of SHAM, the movement not the book.

Then market the hell out of it. Use viral marleting and word-of-mouth. Tactics the TR's of the world fail to use, at least honestly.

Your post seems to have hints of victimization in it. "Oh, if X worked, then Y would have happened." -- which deflects any responsibility that you may have in the success of SHAM, the book not the movement.

Get busy finding solutions.

Steve Salerno said...

Trish, re your assumptions about my feelings on AA and God: You're half-right. I'm not a big fan of AA--but mostly because they lie (or at least, majorly distort the truth). Please keep in mind, I never said that AA is useless; it may surprise you to know that I too know people who claim that AA turned their lives around, and who in fact say they probably wouldn't even be alive, were it not for AA. I'm simply contending that AA is not as useFUL as it claims, that the medical "literature," as it is known, casts a lot of doubt on AA's methods, and finally that when you're dealing with a public-health nightmare like alcoholism (which accounts for about $200 billion A YEAR in direct and indirect costs), we need to KNOW what works best.

As for God... I happen to believe in God, despite myself. By which I mean, the logical side of me resists the idea. But I can't help it. It's "in there." And yes, Trish, I even pray.

Steve Salerno said...

P.S. I actually dated Jesus for a while, but gave it up because he thought he was "all that." (Note to the rest of you: No, I haven't lost my mind. Not entirely, anyway. You just have to follow the link to Trish's web site to get this.)

Trish Ryan said...

Steve - nicely done!

I'll be sure to send Jesus a copy of "He's Just Not That Into You" to explain why he hasn't heard from you in awhile :)