Everything I Say Is True! [Self-help]

Rohit Khare (khare@mci.net)
Thu, 21 Aug 1997 23:21:21 -0400

Recently, I was advised to check out the self-help section of the
bookstore. Even by a FoRKer who recommended M. Scott Peck, which is about
as bland as 600 weeks on the NYT bestseller list can get.

Now, I'm not entirely unfamiliar with this shelf, since it's only a skip
down from my fav section on brain chemistry and personality disorders. I
was shocked at the sexism I found there. I wrote back:


<excerpt>So much to learn, eh? ... I perused the groaning shelves on
healing and self help that were just down the aisle from the books on
psychiatry and neurochemistry I tracked so avidly. The sheer banality of
all these tales of woe and rejection helped me place this in perspective.
Once I got over that, I started tapping back into my discontent. Almost
all of this literature is a) aimed at women and b) grossly sexist. Even
the books on 'accepting overweight' are 97% female anecdotes. And the
traditionalist line is being pushed on women by... other women!

Now, to be sure, there are oodles of religious non-gendered tomes, too,
and I won't claim to dismiss the category out of hand. Nevertheless, as
one who hasn't spent much time consciously contemplating what society's
gender expectations are (any more than I care for its ageism), it was
illuminating to read this stuff. Even more amusing to see the few volumes
aimed at 'men-only'. How shallow their conception of workaholism is!=20

That said, I don't know if I want to be 'healed'. I *like* my inner
passion, even if it has to be kindled by the inferno of Moloch. At 28,
where do I see myself? I *want* that breakthrough degree, that startup
company, to be sitting on the verge of a blockbuster IPO by 2002. Not for
material things, really -- I can already have what my limited desires
encompass -- but to take my life as a shooting star. I have the rest of
my life after that to deal with the cleanup :-)=20


Today, there's a good bit in Salon on Dr. Laura's latest entry into the
fray and one Regular Guy's take on the phenomenon. First, the Regular


<excerpt>Manly advice books these days come in varying testosterone
levels. Dwight Garner straps on his reading jock and checks them out.

Like a lot of guys I know, I have zero tolerance for the self-help
industry and the sad weenies who buy into it. I can't help it. When I
climb into someone's car and there's an eight-pack of Anthony Robbins or
Barbara De Angelis cassettes rattling around on the floorboards where the
Freedy Johnson and Lucinda Williams tapes ought to be, all my warning
bells start a-clanging. I'm convinced I'm in the presence of either Biff
Greedhead or someone who, at any moment, is likely to turn to me with a
lunar grin and declaim: "Hey, man, strap on these black Nikes, have some
punch and we'll wait here in my mini-van for Hale-Bopp to swing back
around!" Either way, I want out.=20

It's not fair to lump self-helpers in with cultoids. I know this. Yet
it's hard not to notice that most self-help books, like most cults, do
aspire to the level of religion. Read me carefully, their authors intone,
voices heavy on the apostolic reverb, and I will show you the true path.
Want a promotion? Better sex? Respect from your peers? Follow me and
we'll go there together. The threat of quitting these programs in
midstream is like the threat of quitting Rogain: You're back to square
one, and that spiritual bald patch is beginning to take over your inner
rain forest.=20

There is a funny flip side to my mistrust of the self-help industry,
however. Like a lot of atheists, I secretly want to believe. My life is
fucked up in a number of minor ways that don't seem beyond repair, and
when I'm reading self-help books -- usually after an editor orders me to
write a piece like this one -- I often find myself genuinely (and
humiliatingly) jazzed by them. I catch myself taking their advice and
making little goal-oriented lists for myself: Write that novel! Exercise,
you tub of lard! Call your poor Aunt Doofus in Ohio more often! Quit
sleeping till noon! Don't whack off so goddamn much! This enthusiasm
lasts about a day. By then I've sunk back into a slough of despond and
have ordered enough greasy Chinese take-out to medicate myself into the


Aside from a sound and well-deserved thrashing of the men-for-men
subgenre (particularly sports coaches), he reminded me of an excellent
work I would do well to reread:


<excerpt>I've always been an admirer of Franklin's "The Autobiography," a
self-help essay couched in the form of a letter to his son. Franklin can
sound a tad stuffy at times ("I never went out afishing or shooting; a
book, indeed, sometimes debauched me from my work, but that was seldom,
snug, and gave no scandal ..."), but his work is so full of wit and
wordplay, good humor and good sense that it's just about irresistible.
It's everything a book of advice should be.=20


Now on to the main course, which triggered all this thought. Schlesinger
is a 'personality' and profits are always foremost in discussing the
'thoughts and musings' of same. Thus, there must be SOME marketing niche
for guys like me, who WILL read piles of books when in crisis. Not a
large one, though, or even one enough to merit quality writing. So I
guess I'll stick to the neurochem sections...

As a postscript, the NYT on Monday had a piece on the declining fortune
of 'midlist' writers: whose work is good enough, but not bestselling
enough to make money for the house. That kind of trimming is all well and
good, but what's the magic number? a mere 15,000.

Shit, with the plans for the XML issue of the Web Journal, my editorship
could hit 'midlist' by next year alone!

Still pondering 'Postcards from the Web: A Self-Help Guide For The

Rohit Khare

PS. I'm now down 35 lbs...


Can talk radio's tough-talking moralist sell self-help to men?=20


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Dr. Laura Schlessinger, the radio talk-show host and bestselling author,
kicks off her third book, "Ten Stupid Things Men Do to Mess Up Their
Lives," with a story from a listener who says, "An old Oregon rancher
once told me, 'There are three types of men in the world. One type learns
from books. One type learns from observations. And one type just has to
urinate on the electric fence himself.'" With her new book, Schlessinger
is betting that there are plenty of the first type of man out there, but
she's betting against long-standing book industry wisdom about who buys
relationship self-help books. If she's wrong, she (and HarperCollins, her
publisher) may wind up feeling as shaken as the third type.=20

Schlessinger represents a new breed of author, what publishing industry
marketing executives call a "franchise." John Gray ("Men Are From Mars,
Women Are From Venus") personifies the franchise author. With seven books
and dozens of cassette tapes, video tapes, CD-ROMs, seminars, even a new
cruise program based on his Mars/Venus concept, the mountains of cash
Gray rakes in dwarf the molehill takings of any "serious" writer, even a
bestselling author like John Berendt ("Midnight in the Garden of Good and
Evil"). Self-help books like Schlessinger's and Gray's (and, to a lesser
degree, Jack Canfield's "Chicken Soup for the Soul" series) are the
blazing stars in a market that feels like it's a universe apart from the
rest of the beleaguered publishing industry. One thing publishers have
always believed, though, is that all the inhabitants of that universe are

That belief, it turns out, is based on very little direct observation.
While the most market-savvy publishers may be able to gauge how many
copies of which book have sold in which parts of the country, nobody
really knows who's buying them. Probably the people who shelled out 20
bucks for "Men Who Hate Women and the Women Who Love Them" and "Women Who
Love Too Much" -- bestsellers in the 1980s -- were female, but what about
less gender-specific franchises, like Leo Buscaglia's paeans to love and
John Bradshaw's ministrations to the inner child? Who bought those?=20

Publishers still assume that those books were bought primarily by women,
and so Carl Raymond, director of brand marketing at HarperCollins, isn't
burning any bridges to self-help's bedrock following with the promotion
for "Ten Stupid Things Men Do to Mess Up Their Lives." "There's
definitely a wink to women in this campaign," Raymond says. "The copy for
the radio ads will be something like, 'If you're a man or trying to be a
real man, this book is for you and the women who love and struggle with

Theories about why men supposedly shy away from the genre range from the
cynical (they don't care enough about their relationships to "work on
them") to the sociological (they've been trained not to deal with
emotions) to the quasi-scientific (evolution has selected men who cut to
the chase and have no patience for all that circular talk). Or perhaps
men just don't, for some reason, view books as a particularly appealing
resource, no matter what's bugging them. "When a man's going through a
crisis," one book editor observed, "whether it's a divorce, a health
problem, whatever, you don't see him coming back and saying, 'I just read
such and such about it.' Women are the ones who like to go out and
collect piles of information on the subject."=20

Others, like Raymond, suspect that while men may indeed read such books,
they often don't want to be seen purchasing them, and so women still
remain a primary target of self-help marketers. "Who buys this kind of
book and who reads them are two different things," says Raymond. Still,
if "Ten Stupid Things Men Do to Mess Up Their Lives" must rely for its
sales on female buyers seeking pointed gifts for their male friends,
relatives and lovers -- well, chances are it's not going to sell over a
million copies, as Schlessinger's first title, "Ten Stupid Things Women
Do to Mess Up Their Lives," did. Not even close. HarperCollins must
believe that the gender gap in the self-help book market is narrowing, at
least a little.=20

Gray's mammoth success suggests as much. A popularization (really a
vulgarization) of the theories of linguist Deborah Tannen ("You Just
Don't Understand"), Gray's Mars/Venus philosophy states that men and
women come from fundamentally different "cultures," and can only
communicate successfully if they bear this in mind. Like the work of most
franchise authors, all of Gray's books iterate endlessly on this fairly
basic theme -- sort of like a Phillip Glass composition. The simple
genius of this notion (if it can be called that, and 10 million copies
sold of Gray's first book alone tend to foster talk of genius) lies in
the absence of blame. The relationship self-help genre is seen by most
men as rife with male-bashing. A "Saturday Night Live" sketch once
described an angry female character as the author of a book called "Women
Good, Men Bad."=20

But women could drag their partners to Gray's bash-free seminars (he
estimates that the attendees are 75 percent couples) with some hope that
the men would be receptive. Even better, Gray's approach is essentially
practical and results-oriented. He recommends basic, discrete strategies
for ironing out conflict -- he can buy her more little presents, she can
refrain from pestering him with demands for conversation the minute he
walks in the door -- rather than vaguely insisting that men "become more
sensitive" and "talk about their feelings." Instead of harping on one
partner's preferences as the most correct or virtuous, he blandly
attributes all conflicts to a clash between two beings from radically
different societies: He's the multiculturalist of intimacy.=20

If Schlessinger seems poised to garner even more male readers for the
relationship self-help genre, it's not because she shares Gray's
namby-pampy relativism and abstention from fault-finding. In fact, Dr.
Laura's fans revel in her frankness. "She has no problem telling you that
you are an idiot if you've acted like one," as one listener put it. Blame
-- or, in Schlessinger's terms, "moral accountability" -- is the
cornerstone of her technique; she doesn't hesitate to condemn the
ethically unfit as "sluts" and "bums." Schlessinger's hard-hitting,
snap-judgment style betrays her roots in talk radio, a medium that feeds
on exaggerated conflicts and often cartoonish moral polarities. Gray is a
seminar kind of guy, tenting his hands and speaking in the smooth,
pablumy tones of a corporate consultant or a minister to a wealthy,
Protestant congregation. Schlessinger, on the other hand, runs roughshod
over her flock.=20

And they love her for it. With a daily audience of 20 million,
Schlessinger has the kind of regular mass media exposure that makes
publishers salivate. Men make up 53 to 57 percent of her audience
(estimates vary), and in Internet discussion groups they're some of her
most avid fans. "I have a colleague that listens to her show while
driving around with sales reps," says Raymond, "and they cheer her on.
Her forthright, aggressive, no-nonsense approach appeals to men." She
seems to have won many of them over to a concept -- radio psychologist --
that they had previously regarded with suspicion and boredom.=20

Schlessinger appeals to them for precisely those reasons that the burly
sex usually avoids self-help: She's action-oriented, bearish on emotions
and uninterested in endless talk and analysis. "To Dr. Laura, 99 percent
of life's situations are black or white," marvels JaChri Taylor, a "loyal
listener for almost two years." She'll cut off callers who strike her as
making excuses or rationalizing, slicing with an Old Testament
ruthlessness to what she sees as the core issue: What is the right thing
to do? Her moral code -- based on her own conservative Judaism, with a
strong emphasis on family unity, sexual restraint and child welfare --
has an almost geometrical consistency; like Sherlock Holmes, she attacks
every problem in exactly the same way, and the spectacle comes from our
own surprise at not seeing how she'd do it from the very start.=20

"Tell me what you think, not what you feel," Schlessinger is famous for
saying, promising a life where the messiness of emotions, while not
eliminated, can be conquered by the force of pure reason, backed by
iron-clad values. While more traditional radio talk-show shrinks get
bogged down in callers' incredibly labyrinthine masses of personal and
interpersonal detail, she champions the lean, abstract absolutism that
makes the decision to finally do something possible.=20

In both her new book and "Ten Stupid Things Women Do to Mess Up Their
Lives," Schlessinger also champions men themselves, while insisting on a
distinction between mere "males" and real "men." "Within the context of
your maleness, you should be able and willing to explore the
possibilities which elevate you males to men," she writes. She's like the
regular guy's Robert Bly, less interested in drumming and initiation
rituals than in locating a clear-cut path to virtuous masculinity firmly
rooted in traditional ideas of husband and father. Key to that effort are
her frequent condemnations of feminism and the rest of the self-help
tradition, which she derides as "whining about how men are unwilling to
commit to women after minutes or millennia of dating." Any theory that
allows anyone to attribute their problems to disease, dysfunction or
oppression -- that is, factors they can't control -- Schlessinger roundly
dismisses as "rationalizing their self-destructive behavior by
identifying themselves as 'sick.'"=20

Ironically, most of the changes Schlessinger urges on her male readers --
become more responsible, available, emotional fathers and husbands; stop
defining yourself through work; admit to a healthy need for intimacy;
abandon the use of intimidation and passive aggression to control your
partner; treat sexuality with more respect and quit expecting women to
take care of you -- turn out to be pretty much what most women and, yes,
even feminists (the reasonable majority, usually ignored on talk radio)
have been requesting for years. By leading with fiery denunciations of
the worst excesses of sob sister support groups and feminist separatists,
and adopting the tough love mannerisms of a boot camp drill sergeant,
Schlessinger manages to prevent her male fans from seeing such changes as
a concession to man-haters and nagging wives. Instead, they become an
affirmation of manhood. And by insisting on the incontrovertible,
biological roots of masculinity, she finesses the fact that she's
instructing men to act more like women, and avoids suggesting that some
of their previous bad behaviors might be the product of social injustice.=20

Schlessinger's radio program can be exhilarating to listen to when she's
in top form, blasting through a caller's impacted self-delusions and
resentment to the essence of his or her problem. She's certainly right
when she describes many Americans as severely lacking in personal
responsibility. Unfortunately, she also caters to the all-too-American
tendency to see morality as a matter of other people's behavior, an
opportunity for self-righteousness rather than an impetus toward
self-examination. Like much of talk radio, her program makes a spectacle
of our fellow citizens' chagrin and humiliation at failing to live up to
a ferociously stringent code of conduct.=20

It's one thing to listen to Dr. Laura harshly attack that unwed teenage
mother -- it's another to apply her daunting standards to one's own
infidelity, parental neglect and terror of vulnerability. But any man who
buys a copy of "Ten Stupid Things Men Do to Mess Up Their Lives" as much
as admits that he has, in fact, messed up and probably needs help. If men
do that (and right now, that's still a big "if"), it will be because they
find certainty in Schlessinger's book, a fail-safe formula for
understanding life's dilemmas handed to them, intact, by a stern maternal
figure (often called "Mother Laura" by her listeners) who's famous for
pronouncing, "Everything I say is true!"=20

There's more than a whiff of authoritarian fanaticism to the Schlessinger
formula, an elimination of doubt and questioning that's reassuring in
precisely the same way that religious and political fundamentalism can
be. What she shares with other advice mavens is her appeal to a group of
people who have spent decades ricocheting from one prescribed lifestyle
to another, ears tuned to a parade of experts, each telling them what
they're "supposed" to be. At the moment, many are listening to
Schlessinger as she hectors her followers to assume the mantle of full
adulthood by taking responsibility for their lives.=20

Whether the best way to become a "full adult" is really to place oneself
in the hands of a scolding, infallible radio host (or anyone else, for
that matter) is one of those questions that never gets asked.=20

Aug. 20, 1997=20


Rohit Khare /// MCI Internet Architecture (BOS) /// khare@mci.net

Voice+Pager: (617) 960-5131 VNet: 370-5131 Fax: (617) 960-1009