Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Paul Pearsall: The Last Self-Help Book You'll Ever Need

The terms 'science' and self-help' do not often occur in the same sentence, and so when the science correspondent of the UK Times wrote a short piece about Paul Pearsall's latest book, The Last Self-Help Book You'll Ever Need, I decided that it might be worth looking at. So it is; and bits of it are particularly relevant to writers.

Paul Pearsall is the author of at least fifteen other books, most of which, judging by their titles, fall into the 'self-help' category. Unlike many self-help gurus, however, Dr Pearsall is well qualified as an authority in this area: he is an adjunct clinical professor at the University of Hawaii and is an internationally recognised neuropsychologist.

Pearsall's main message is that we really should not accept as the gospel truth the currently fashionable ideas about self-help which are preached by some powerful personalities who have mastered the art of flim-flam. I couldn't agree more.

The acknowledgements section, at the start of this book, makes interesting reading. In it, Pearsall points out that The Last Self-Help Book You'll Ever Need 'takes exactly the opposite view of the ideas that sell millions of books', and he is therefore grateful to his publishers, Basic Books of New York, for taking a risk with him.

His interest in self-help was developed, he tells us, by his experience of severe illness in the late 1980s. He developed Stage IV lymphoma, and was expected to die. Many friends and family, seeking to be helpful, showered him with books about helping yourself to get well: the power of positive thought, and so forth. There were so many books, in fact, that they became a nuisance in his hospital ward. But all these books failed to give him what he wanted; in particular, he decided that they were virtually all thoroughly unscientific.

When Pearsall got well -- against all expectations, including his own -- he decided to try to connect science and self-help once again. And in this, his latest book, he attempts to demonstrate how the self-help movement has seriously lost touch with science, and proposes some means of re-connecting the two. Insofar as the self-help movement seeks to provide people with the means to lead happy, healthy, and successful lives, this seems an admirable aim.

Pearsall regularly addresses audiences of people who are voracious consumers of self-help manuals, and for several years now he has been asking these audiences to complete a questionnaire. He presents them with a list of twenty statements, and invites the respondents to indicate which statements they agree with. I am not going to quote all 20 of the statements here, but set out below are about one third of them; they have been selected because of (what I consider to be) their relevance to writers. I suggest that you read through the list and make a note of how many of them you agree with.
  1. We must never lose hope.
  2. Childhood experiences determine adult feelings and behaviour.
  3. Winners never quit and quitters never win.
  4. High self-esteem is essential to mental health.
  5. Most people are addicted to something.
  6. If you want something badly enough and put your mind to it, you can achieve it.
  7. We must get in touch with our feelings and act on them.
Pearsall comments that, typically, the people who attend his lectures, and who complete this questionnaire, agree with the large majority of the statements that he puts to them. The average score is 18 out of 20, and nearly 50% of respondents score 20 out of 20.

However, Pearsall goes on to argue that the scientific research evidence which is presented in his book suggests that none of the statements is correct. The 'best' score should in fact be 0. He also tells us that a zero score was registered by 20 researchers from the fields of psychology, psychiatry, and medicine, when they took the test. In other words, since these statements all embody beliefs which are constantly emphasised by the self-help gurus, self-help has seriously lost its way.

So, what does all this imply for writers?

Well, what struck me about Pearsall's questionnaire is that many of what he regards as unrealistic, unjustified, and unhealthy beliefs are precisely the kind of thing that many writers do believe, and which are embodied in many how-to books for writers.

For example, statement 6. This is one of the more obviously nonsensical statements, as a moment's thought will demonstrate. A person who is four feet tall and weighs 150 lb may well harbour a desire to be an Olympic high jumper. But they are never going to achieve that ambition, no matter how hard they 'put their mind to it'. The same, I fear, is true of many of those who passionately desire to get on to the bestseller lists. But try telling 'em. Rather than believe you, they will continue to devote years of effort, and not a little money, to trying to write that breakthrough book. Result, as Mr Dickens might say: misery.

It is not, in my view, the hard work and the expenditure of time which do the damage: it is the illusions about the purpose of the work, and the likely results of it. As Pearsall puts it, 'There is no evidence that hard, long, vigorous, fully involved and enjoyable work is dangerous to the health, but there's plenty of research to show that constant striving to be who we're not can kill us.... We must find a way to work that doesn't just enhance our sense of self but causes it to disappear completely.' That is to say, as far as writers are concerned, forget about becoming a celebrity, and concentrate on the needs of the poor bloody reader; because she's so grateful when somebody does.

The Epilogue of Pearsall's book summarises some research from the 1970s, which identified the 'big five' personality traits that are most likely to lead to a sense of well-being. The first of these is Extroversion, on which Pearsall comments that 'reaching out to others is healthier than focusing on yourself.'

I think I might argue with the idea that extroversion always involves reaching out to others, but let us set that aside. The message for writers is, I think, very simple. It is that those with a desire to 'express themselves' through writing fiction should abandon the idea immediately. At least if they want to get into print and stay sane in the process.

As I have argued here more than once -- so often in fact that I could type it in my sleep -- no one in this world is going to be interested if you 'express yourself'. Even your own mother won't care, and your milkman and your dentist certainly won't. On the other hand, if you forget all about yourself, and concentrate on entertaining the reader, there is at least a remote chance that you might actually produce something which might interest an agent, publisher, or reviewer. Which might, in turn, get you into print and in front of a few readers, even if it doesn't make you rich and famous.

Earlier in the book, Pearsall touches upon the issue of narcissism, a characteristic which, he believes, the self-help movement encourages. To be precise, he is concerned about the prevalence of what he calls 'secondary narcissism', the kind of egotistical self-regard which involves self-absorption and a lack of concern for others.

Well, you wouldn't have to go far, I think, to find writers who believe that their own work is streets ahead of that of anyone else, and find it extraordinarily difficult to understand why that view is not shared by others. And the message for writers, at least in my opinion, is that it is only by abandoning the 'look at me, aren't I wonderful' attitude that most writers are ever going to get anywhere. Once again, consistent success will be achieved only by those who concentrate on satisfying the emotional needs of others through the medium of fiction (or drama, for that matter), and ignore the desire for self-expression.

Real self-help, Pearsall suggests, requires a constant questioning of the 'facts'. And here again this is a line which I have preached so often that regular readers are probably weary of it. Basically, what I have said is that the current widespread belief that literary fiction, as admired and taught in the various departments of Eng. Lit., is somehow superior to popular, genre, or commercial literature, is a fallacy. It is an 'accepted truth', or fact, which isn't true at all. (See my piece of 26 May 2005 if you want to take this further.)

And there are many other points on which I find myself in agreement with Pearsall -- points which sometimes relate to writing and which sometimes have nothing at all to do with that art.

As for shortcomings: well, I am not keen, on the whole, on Pearsall's occasionally rather gushy and sentimental way of expressing himself -- for instance when describing the virtues of the family. Neither do I agree with his ideas about reincarnation. And although he provides us with a great many pages of references to research papers, he sometimes leaves me feeling that his opinions are not always based on research-supported fact.

That said, of course, this book is a huge improvement over the average hot-air 'rebuild your life' tomes which occupy so much shelf space. If nothing else, it encourages the reader to question the basis of the bald assertions which are often offered by the gurus in this field.

You can, incidentally, complete a questionnaire on Paul Pearsall's web site which is different from the one mentioned above but which will assist you to decide whether it's worth reading the book.


Carla said...

Bravo! Statement 6 especially annoys me when it turns up in writing advice because it seems so obviously unrealistic in a situation where agents get 50 submissions a day and take on 6 a year. Assuming that Carole Blake meant working days, and assuming that there are 200 working days a year (after allowing for holidays, sickness, etc), this works out at 6 in 10,000, or less than 1 in 1600. Better than the National Lottery, but not something I'd care to set my heart on.

Anonymous said...

At schools around New Zealand they put up posters saying 'Girls can do anything'. At the school I taught, at I used to take great pleasure in standing next to these posters when girls walked past and pointing at my beard. As they say over here, 'Yeah right'.

Chancery Stone said...

"if you forget all about yourself, and concentrate on entertaining the reader, there is at least a remote chance that you might actually produce something which might interest an agent, publisher, or reviewer. Which might, in turn, get you into print and in front of a few readers, even if it doesn't make you rich and famous."

What, in the name of all that is holy, would be the point in "interesting an agent or publisher" to "get in front of a few readers" if you had absolutely no need or desire to "express yourself"? If a need to entertain and be loved is the only reason you are writing I suggest you get a place on a reality TV show, or try streaking, it will get you where you want to go a whole lot faster.

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