MetroPolar

Dispatches from a New York City Shrink

No Next New Big Things, Please

A backlash to the philosophical pitch? Yes, please.

The secret to publishing success (at least in the impulse-buy-quick-fix-self-help-non-fiction-cum-memoir market) has been said to be a number. A single digit, 3, 7, 8, or what have you. That digit represents the number of quick and simple steps towards fortune, fame, and total enlightentment. People eat this up, not surprisingly. An eighty page, large type, pocket-sized, preferably with pretty pictures, book of one to nine answers would be the Rosetta Stone, Ten Commandments, or unified field theory of modern life. But the fact that there are gazillions of them out there, and more on the way, betrays one of two points: either 1) each book is tested thoroughly on the public, doesn't quite solve the problems of universal satisfaction and contentment, sending diligent theorists back to the drawing board, or 2) the writers of these books are wells aware of the cash cow that has been the lure of the quick fix.

Take Gwyneth Paltrow. Her new site www.goop.com has been characterized as a dyad of the above two points. The NY Times and others have characterized it as hubristic deigning, scraps of wisdom for downtrodden peasants or lesser celebrities and wannabees. She defends her work as a generous extension of her lessons from a fortunate, fabulous life, for which she is most grateful. I bet the truth lies in the between.

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Why do people write self-help books, memoirs, life, business, relationship manuals. Probably, in part to document their psychological, philosophical, and existential struggle. To validate their path and choices by sharing their model with others, in hopes that it works for them as well (a bit selfless, a bit selfish, but somewhere on a spectrum between harmless and noble/generous). The dirtier reason is out of a deeper need. Perhaps a need for validation via bigger fame, sales and cash, critical acclaim. Whatever the balance of motivations for writing, the market has been thriving.

But I wonder if, in this age of uncertainty, global physical and economic melt-down, are we starting to experience what I welcome as a backlash? No more next new things, please. The unprecedented uncertainty over the global economy (likely padded with deeper repressed fears of a big, fat apocalypse), makes the notions of a stocking-stuffe-salvation seem fairly unlikely.

This, however (with a huge H), does NOT mark the end of trying, but, rather the beginning of reasonable for the right reasons discussion. Books like Alva Noe's Out of Our Heads, which confronts science's presumptive assertion as to the location of consciousness in the brain, and David Eagleman's Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives, a playful thought experiment on alternative models of immortality, offer engagement and discussion while avoiding pitching pat, marketable answers. Sure, if an idea can be packaged, wrapped, and sold at Barnes and Noble, it is not all noble, but perhaps the balance is shifting.

And maybe instead of responding to Gwynnie's site and extra-curricular trajectory with a "who the hell does she think she is?!", we should tone it down to a "hmmm...interesting" (we shrinks are good with that one) and a "I wonder what else is out there?" GD

 

Greg Dillon, M.D., is a psychiatrist in private practice in New York City and an Assistant Professor of Psychiatry and Public Health at the Weill Cornell Medical College. more...

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