Search

How not to do bibliotherapy


Merriam-Webster defines bibliotherapy as ‘the use of reading materials for help in solving personal problems or for psychiatric therapy’. That’s a fairly standard definition. I personally prefer to use the term a bit more expansively. Bibliotherapists, in my sense of the word, might prescribe other kinds of literature too, kinds that are not necessarily read – plays, for instance; or films, which are after all not a million miles from plays. They might also prescribe songs, for not only but still crucially their lyrical content. They might prescribe lectures or stand-up comedy routines. Basically, I understand bibliotherapy as deriving its potency from the wisdom, of whatever kind, contained in words – though often words in concert with other means of expression. (That is pinning things down for the sake of pinning things down, mind you. My imagined bibliotherapist might sometimes prescribe a piece of music with no lyrics, or a film without dialogue, or a painting, or a ballet. They would just, in those cases, be veering momentarily away from bibliotherapy, as I define it. I can live with that though. A medical doctor is, similarly, veering momentarily away from medicine, as standardly defined, when they prescribe regular walks, or a more active social life, or indeed a book.) Bibliotherapy seems a fantastic idea to me. Books and films and songs have helped me a lot, and in many ways. Maybe the larger part of that help has actually been more in the way of preventative healthcare – they’ve imparted to me something of their wisdom, and so, I really think, increased my general ability to do life, and avoid running into problems in the first place. Certainly they have, however, also played important roles in enabling me to solve or overcome problems I have had – especially emotional/psychological problems, and the big confusions or uncertainties in life. They’ve helped me get my thinking clear, or break out of unhealthy ways of thinking. They’ve forcefully reminded me of what really matters in life, inspired and motivated me too. They’ve given me examples to follow. They’ve given me the words to express myself, or the explanatory stories to tell myself or others. They’ve made me feel understood, and not alone. They've helped me better understand other people as well. They’ve calmed me, distracted me when I’ve needed distraction, cheered me up, put things well and truly in perspective for me. And they’ve stimulated me – not told me things directly in every case, but sometimes just got me thinking in helpful ways I almost certainly wouldn’t have been thinking in without their prompting. I hope that you also have had these kinds of benefit from them… from books, series, stand-up comedy routines… I tell you what, when not distinguishing, I’m just gonna call them ‘works’ (as in the 'the Collected Works of William Shakespeare/Oscar Wilde/whoever'). So, novels, essays, all those things bibliotherapists might prescribe, are, in the terminology I'm going to use, ‘works’. Anyway, if you haven’t particularly had such benefits from them, you are, I think, far from alone. Bibliotherapy is, after all, not an entirely established term, let alone practice. While there are such things as self-help books and wellness courses and blogs and so forth, and while some religious texts and things like sermons are of course of great therapeutic value to some people, our societies seem generally to draw a firm distinction between therapy, on the one hand, and entertainment or aesthetics or culture industry goods, on the other, and pretty much dump even all of what you might call ‘classic literature’, as well as canonical works of philosophy and psychology, in the latter category. This seems to me a mistake, and very regrettable. I want to see bibliotherapy gain a whole lot of ground. It does seem to be gaining some ground, steadily. Among the things that have done most to raise its profile recently is the book The Novel Cure: An A-Z of Literary Remedies by Ella Berthoud and Susan Elderkin, along with the TEDx talk the latter gave summarising some of the thinking behind it. I was reading this book recently. I’m sad to say it struck me as very bad... It recommends many amazing novels, and it gave me a warm feeling in a way, as Berthoud and Elderkin’s obvious love of these novels washed over me, but there are just so many things about the book that I found troubling. I fear it doing more harm than good, not just for the cause of bibliotherapy, but for its readers, its intended beneficiaries. Maybe I’m overreacting. I note the book has generally positive reviews on Amazon. Anyway, I’m going to put down my concerns here, partly so that anyone who wants to answer them can, and partly because thinking out and articulating the concerns I have about bibliotherapy as practised through this book helps me clarify how I think bibliotherapy should be practised. I start with an almost preliminary point that really calls into question the whole idea of practising bibliotherapy through a book. Obviously the bibliotherapists, in this arrangement, never meet or have any direct or mutually responsive interaction with the subjects. They know nothing (or almost nothing) about the subjects as individuals, let alone about their unique experiences of the problems they’re seeking help with. Instead Berthoud and Elderkin give a very brief sketch of a problem, and then they offer a one-size-fits-all literary cure for it – but one size doesn’t fit all, does it? And there are at least two basic reasons for that, as I see it. First, what’s, on the surface of it, the same problem may in fact be two very different problems in two different people’s cases. Suppose two people say they have the problem of just being completely lost in their lives. They might even use the same kinds of expressions in expanding on that – they might say they don’t know what to do, what to be, where to be, who or what to turn to for help. Dig a little deeper though, and the problems might start to appear very different. Maybe one of these two people has a problem of motivation, of interest, of attachment – they cannot feel that anything matters much to them, nor have any idea what could help them with this, nor even a particularly strong impulse to get help with it. Maybe the other has plenty of strong motivations and interests and attachments, but just sees insurmountable obstacles in every direction – no matter what they might want to do or want to be, they feel they just can’t, as the obstacles are too big. In their case, at least at this point in the analysis, it appears to be more a problem of uncontrollable fear, or of self-confidence, or it could be a series of very different practical-emotional problems, specific to the different paths they want to take. In any case, you surely need to establish what the basic mechanics of a particular person’s particular problem are before you start the business of prescribing them things to help them with it. Second, the ability of a book – or any kind of work – to help you with a problem does hinge, in rich ways, on the kind of person you are. For instance, I’ve known some people who simply never read or watch anything very sad or disturbing, because it gets them too upset; there’s a kind of distance that most of us can keep and that they seemingly just can’t; whereas for most of us, reading or watching these very sad or disturbing things could still be an overall very positive experience, for them... OK, there might be some faint educational silver linings, but the experience could only ever be a seriously negative one. Surely that’s the kind of thing that’s important to know, before you go prescribing Thomas Keneally’s Schindler’s Ark as an inspiring read. Equally, some might find the enigmatic language of, say, Djuna Barnes’s Nightwood endlessly intriguing, while others might find it just confusing, irritating and demotivating. Or some could easily read through Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov in a few weeks – they’ve got the vocabulary and reading stamina and relevant literary proclivities necessary to do that; while others would be tired and bored and seriously struggling to remain engaged after the first few pages. And sure, you can tell your subject that some effort or sacrifice is going to be needed from them, and you can hope that this prescription will occasion some exercise and expansion of their capacities and tastes, but it would surely be naïve to think a certain prescribed work is going to have the same success independent of how well different subjects’ capacities and tastes already match up with it. I actually imagine bibliotherapy, in its ideal form, normally involving far more than a one-off consultation. I imagine many therapy sessions, in which the bibliotherapist and the subject work together to tease out the relations between the subject’s problems and selected works, most of them presumably prescribed by the bibliotherapist but any number also potentially brought in by the subject, and in which they have some conversations that take these works as springboards and/or touch on them at points but that are free to stray far from their contents. New works could of course be added to the therapy at any point, with the subject often being advised to engage with some particular new work between sessions, in preparation for discussion focussing on it in the next. Basically, I imagine bibliotherapy, in its ideal form, as a kind of mix between, on the one hand, counselling and, on the other, literary analysis as practised in Language and Literature classes in universities and secondary schools, and, in some cases, in book clubs too. I imagine the counselling very much the dominant of those two elements, but nevertheless, you can see how bibliotherapy of this kind would really be apt to exercise and expand your capacities and tastes. Even so, differences in different people’s receptiveness to the same work are not necessarily things to be overcome through guided learning – they are often just manifestations of those people's fundamentally different natures. For instance, I think it’s quite well established that there are different types of learner: some of us learn best by seeing things, some of us learn best by doing things, some by writing things down, some by hearing or discussing things, etc. For these kinds of reasons, I’m inclined also to question Berthould and Elderkin’s exclusive focus on novels. Their subtitle is ‘an A-Z of literary remedies’, but the literary remedies in question are all novels – as their main title does, in fairness, suggest. I might have just accepted this. They’ve got to limit themselves somehow, somewhere. If they have a particular love or feeling for novels, why shouldn’t they restrict themselves to novels here? But that’s not their rationale. They make the claim that novels have more therapeutic potential than other media. Now, that may be true for some people, but it doesn’t seem to me likely to be true for everyone, given just how diverse people are. In her TEDx talk, Elderkin even lists Netflix as just a thing – like any other – that might take away valuable reading time; the idea that, for many people, films and series on Netflix could be alternative or even better routes to the same essential goods doesn’t seem to occur to her. It’s difficult for me to avoid the feeling that Berthoud and Elderkin are just expressing an establishment bias, similar to the one novels, in their early days, were subject to, by an establishment that then viewed poetry as the highest or only true literary form. They do give a brief account of why they think novels have more to offer than other media:

‘Sometimes it's the story that charms; sometimes it's the rhythm of the prose that works on the psyche, stilling or stimulating. Sometimes it's an idea or an attitude suggested by a character in a similar quandary or jam. Either way, novels have the power to transport you into another existence, and see the world from a different point of view. When you're engrossed in a novel, unable to tear yourself from the page, you are seeing what a character sees, touching what a character touches, learning what a character learns. You may think you're sitting on the sofa in your living room, but the important parts of you – your thoughts, your senses, your spirit – are somewhere else entirely. “To read a writer is for me not merely to get an idea of what he says, but to go off with him and travel in his company,” said André Gide. No-one comes back from such a journey quite the same.'

I might quibble with how they’ve chosen to express a few of these points, but on the whole this is a nice account of various truly wonderful things about novel-reading. Still, what is there that they have to say about novels here that couldn’t be said, at least more-or-less, about other media? The story of a film or series can charm, of course, and the rhythm of the dialogue or narration can work on the psyche; with a film or series too, an idea or an attitude can be suggested by a character in a similar quandary or jam, etc. And you can get every bit as engrossed in a film or series, be every bit as transported by them into a different life, a different world – at least in my experience. Don’t get me wrong, I think there are things that novels tend to do better than other media – take you deep into the thinking of a character, for instance – but those things are not always what a therapy requires. Maybe it’s the visuals and viscerality with which a certain message is delivered in a film that are just the ticket in some case. And especially if you’re prescribing for someone who has great trouble reading… Of course, I’m making a case not only for not prescribing works that subjects are ill-equipped to engage with, but also for looking, in prescribing, to harness particular interests and sensitivities they have. If some people are used to watching series all the time, and love doing so, that’s something that can be taken advantage of. Just as, if someone loves reading murder mysteries, that’s something to use, potentially. What’s a series that’s great on the problems they’re seeking help with? What’s a murder mystery that is? Of course you can prescribe other things too, but it might be an idea to spearhead your prescription with this. A danger that Berthoud and Elderkin don’t seem to reckon with is that someone will consult their book, earnestly or even quite desperately seeking help with a problem they have, and will find the relevant entry and prescription, and will then read the prescribed novel and find it, for whatever reason, incapable of speaking to them at all, just totally dull and a chore to read, and, on the basis of that experience, will effectively dismiss the idea, which was new and strange to them anyway, that novels could have any real ability to help them, or will even feel shit about themself, thinking they’re too stupid to understand, or something like that. I find it extremely easy to imagine that happening with The Novel Cure, actually. And not just because what Berthoud and Elderkin understand by ‘being lost’, say, is quite likely not what some reader of theirs understands by those words. The fact is, we live in a world where most people would struggle to read something like Mark L. Danielewski’s House of Leaves. I wish Berthoud and Elderkin would face up to that, and, in making that remark, I don’t mean refrain from recommending House of Leaves necessarily. I do mean, at least acknowledge that House of Leaves isn’t gonna work for everyone, and do some thinking about why exactly it wouldn’t work for some and what might work for them instead. But then, I suspect it’s a pretty diverse assortment of people for whom House of Leaves would not work, such that thinking about them as a group, or even a bunch of groups, would also be a bit of a fool’s errand. Isn’t it a general principle of medicine not to diagnose or prescribe without direct consultation? Why shouldn’t that same principle hold here? Here too the practitioner needs to first clarify what exactly the problem is in this subject’s case, and what other elements of this subject’s profile might have a bearing on what kinds of treatment could be effective (or counter-effective) for them. I don’t necessarily object to bibliotherapy books like this existing – this book itself is a good resource for bibliotherapists, I’d say, and I don’t doubt some people have found, with the help of this book, novels that really have helped them with their problems. But it seems to me there needs to be a big caveat right at the start – a caveat to the effect that these recommendations, because totally impersonal, are inevitably going to be pretty hit-and-miss. There isn’t any such caveat though. There also, surely, needs to be humility in the offering of the prescriptions, each and every one of them. And here’s another thing that really bothered me about the book! At the end of their short introduction, in which they explain the idea of the book, Berthoud and Elderkin say:

‘We wish you every delight in our fictional plasters and poultices. You will be healthier, happier and wiser for them.’

Now, telling me how I will, as a matter of fact, be affected by their prescriptions rubs me the wrong way. ‘We shall see!’ I want to reply, ‘And, in any case, I’ll be the judge of that.’ (I also find myself simultaneously irritated and satisfied by the fact that one possible reading of the expression ‘fictional plasters and poultices’ is plasters and poultices that are not real.) Then, a few pages in, there’s their entry on ‘Adolescence’. Is that an ailment, to be cured? Is it helpful speaking of it in those terms? Well, let’s just go with it for now. They prescribe J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. They list a bunch of difficult experiences one is liable to have in teenage, and then say 'The Catcher in the Rye will carry you through’. I read The Catcher in the Rye as a teenager, when many of those things were happening to me. It certainly didn't, in any sense, carry me through, nor did it leave me wiser, happier and healthier. It bored me, and annoyed me, and probably set back my interest in reading, or certainly my interest in capital-L Literature, by some months or even years. I haven’t since re-read The Catcher in the Rye; maybe I’d appreciate it a lot more now, but that’s irrelevant, isn’t it? – Berthoud and Elderkin are prescribing it to help teenagers with the difficulties associated with being a teenager. It was, I remember my English teacher explaining, revolutionary at the time it was first published in the mid-40s, because of its serious engagement with what was then the in-some-sense new phenomenon of teenagers, given rise to by societal changes like the increasing of the age at which people tended to end their schooling and start work (and, in the case of women, get married off), a general, if mostly quite slight relaxing of the family and community expectations and oversight the young were subject to, the steady replacement of one-room village schools, where small numbers of students of diverse ages were taught together, with larger schools often reached by car and bus, where comparatively large numbers of students were put in classes according to their ages, and the rapid growth of a media and consumer culture and marketing machinery targeting these younger people and defining them for that purpose. Probably The Catcher in the Rye is then of great historical significance, and I imagine its qualities are of many kinds. But certainly it’s not revolutionary today. It’s very normal now for books and films and TV series to engage seriously with teenage experiences. Teenagers will have seen and perhaps read many of them before they get round to The Catcher in the Rye. And also the nature of teenage experiences has changed, no doubt – especially since the advent of the internet and social media. I’m doubtful The Catcher in the Rye could speak to young people today in anything like the way it did back in the 40s, 50s and 60s. And, in any case, my main point here is just that it definitely didn’t speak to me when I read it as a teenager, and so Berthoud and Elderkin’s unqualified claim that it will speak to teenagers riles me a bit. What would be the harm in a little more caution here? A little more humility? If Berthoud and Elderkin’s professed confidence in their literary cure for adolescence seemed unjustified to me, their professed confidence in other literary cures for other specified ailments struck me as downright bizarre – or comic, rather. Having read Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, they say, 'you will be cured of your anal retentiveness forever'. Really? What? Is that even remotely plausible? Isn’t an anally retentive disposition likely to be something with pretty deep psychological/neurological roots that the reading of a book could never alone excavate. James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice, meanwhile, will singlehandedly cure you of apathy:

‘By the end, you’ll be up and about with a bounce in your step, throwing caution to the wind in your determination to have a hand in fate, setting you on a more spontaneous and proactive – if slightly reckless – new tack.’

The combination of Ismail Kadare’s The Successor and Patrick McGuinness’s The Last Hundred Days will cure you of being a dictator:

‘Whether you run a war-torn state, an international corporation or a semi-detached house inhabited by a family of five, you will surely see reason, abdicate in a hurry, and invite a democracy to be installed in your place.’

And in their entry 'determinedly chasing after a woman even when she's a nun’, they prescribe Michael Ondaatje's In the Skin of a Lion, and proclaim 'you'll get your nun'. I won’t even go into their prescribing of novels to help with essentially physical ailments like appendicitis… I don’t know what to even think of that. Is it just a joke? Madeline by Ludwig Bemelmans, in case you were wondering. If I’d read that novel, perhaps I’d understand better. I used the word ‘comic’. It is comic, isn’t it? In a way that they’re surely aware of… But they’re not simply joking, are they? Not all the time, anyway? In some cases, they’re completely serious about their prescriptions, I guess – completely serious in their stated belief that those books can significantly help with the problems they prescribe them for. In other cases, they can hardly be serious at all – as, for instance, when they prescribe Samuel Richardson’s Pamela as a cure for premature ejaculation! And yet, as the professed complete certainty that these books will solve these problems is consistent throughout, it’s hard to determine which is which. It seems to me a dangerous tack to take. Some of these problems, for some people, are extremely serious problems – problems that are wrecking their lives. Addressing them seriously is perhaps the least Berthoud and Elderkin could do. Whereas they often come across here as glib, flippant. Then also, especially because we’re in the territory of healthcare, of treatment of maladies, this professed certainty in the success of the cure has resonances. It brings to mind – or at least it brings to my mind – the miracle treatments you find advertised online that claim they will cure your chronic weight problems with one simple tablet, or whatever. There’s a vast industry out there that preys on the desperate by claiming with complete confidence to be able to easily and entirely solve whatever terrible problems are afflicting them. Approximating that industry’s rhetoric and tone, especially in an interaction that approximates the one that industry has with consumers, does not seem to me a good look. And, actually, is the end result certain to be so different? I mentioned already what I see as Berthoud and Elderkin’s failure to give much thought to the danger of someone reading a novel they prescribe for a serious problem they have and being totally unmoved and unhelped by it, such that they feel disillusioned with the whole idea of bibliotherapy. Let me now describe that scenario in a little more detail. Imagine a person with a moderate and somewhat latent interest in reading and a handful of the problems addressed in The Novel Cure spotting the book in a shop – they pick it up and examine it, they flick through some of the pages, searching for and finding entries on one or two of these problems they have, and then they skim through those entries, noticing, with a growing feeling of hope, the novels prescribed and the confidence the bibliotherapists have that these novels will solve these problems. So they buy The Novel Cure. £10. Thank you very much. And a day or two later they order one of the novels it recommends for one of their more serious problems. And they get, in all, maybe halfway through it, getting through most of that in the first week or two, and then progressing more slowly, until they stop. The novel was doing nothing for them. It was difficult to read for them, and they lost their motivation. In the process, they felt some disappointment of course, though perhaps no great surprise, and wondered whether it was their fault for reading it wrong. Anyway, soon life’s moved on and they’ve largely forgotten the whole thing. It’s not so different from the person with the chronic weight problems being lured by the promise of the miracle tablets, buying them, trying them for a while, noticing no meaningful difference, and giving up – with some feeling of disappointment – as life moves on. In recommending Helen Garner's The Spare Room in their entry ‘Cancer, caring for someone with’, Berthoud and Elderkin recount: ‘Hel is furious with the 'quack' Theobold Clinic for taking Nicola's money so freely and giving her false hope.’ Don’t they see that they’re running serious risks of doing the same thing for some people? It would seem harsh to use that word ‘quack’ in describing Berthoud and Elderkin, but they are not formally qualified in any branch of healthcare, nor in counselling or life coaching or anything like that. They do not claim to be, in fairness to them. It does, however, seem to me an open question whether the project they undertook in writing The Novel Cure required that – and then whether the practice of bibliotherapy invariably requires it. What does seem to me quite obvious is that, to do bibliotherapy well, you need a lot of psychological knowledge, you need a deep understanding of how human beings work. I’d stop short of saying that you couldn’t acquire that except through formal study. But you definitely need it – because basically you need to really understand people and their problems and the wisdom concerning those problems that has been captured in writing and other verbal media over the years. Unfortunately, another negative experience I often had reading The Novel Cure centred on the feeling that Berthoud and Elderkin were holding forth on topics they had way too little understanding of. In quite a few cases, it seemed to me they had not grasped the very basics of the problems they were describing. Take their entry on being broke. They do passingly refer the reader to their other entries on extravagance, unemployment and economic depression, but of course, while those are among problems that may or may not play into the problem of being broke, none of them are the problem of being broke, nor the problems typically resulting from being broke. They then specify the problem of being broke as follows: ‘you're convinced that if only you had a bit more money in the bank, all your problems would be solved’. As they see it, the problem of being broke is, in other words, at least in large measure, the problem of having this conviction – which is, they imply, a false conviction. And they seek to address this problem by prescribing three novels, all of which show that being rich is not all it’s cracked up to be, and does in fact come with its own set of problems. They dedicate most of the entry to expanding on this point. … Um... Is it just me, or is there something extremely off here? To be broke is to have no money. To have no money is, typically, to have a series of horrendous problems – the inability to pay for somewhere to live, for food, for healthcare, for anything; strains on relationships as money is begged, borrowed or not available to be returned; severe knocks to reputation and self-esteem; the threat of having children taken away, perhaps; stress; fear; almighty pressure to get back out of the red ASAP. And frankly, ‘if only you had a bit more money in the bank’, you wouldn’t have those problems. This is precisely a money issue – by definition. And there’s a huge, huge, enormous difference between having enough money to meet all your basic needs, and being rich. Berthoud and Elderkin seem to acknowledge this much themselves at one point in the entry, so I struggle to see how it still escapes them that the problem of being broke is just not the problem of wanting to be rich and not being so. They’re not even particularly related problems. That’s clear, isn’t it? If not, maybe read Knut Hamsun's Hunger or Orwell's Down and Out in Paris and London, or just go and ask some actually broke people. Maybe I should move on now, but I feel I can’t without first quoting Berthoud and Elderkin’s own words:

‘[…] our cure comes in three parts. First, read Money by Martin Amis to remind yourself of how money can taint and corrupt. Then read Young Hearts Crying by Richard Yates to see how an inherited fortune can obscure the path to a life of purpose and a sense of self-worth. Finally, return to The Great Gatsby and do what James Gatz should have done: inhabit and accept your impoverished self and find someone who loves you as you are. Then quit wasting money on lottery tickets, downsize, and learn to budget. If your job still doesn't bring in enough for the basics, get another one. If it does, stop whingeing and get on with living happily ever after within your modest means.’

They do miss the whole point of the problem in the way I’ve just described, don’t they? But then, also… Again, am I the only one to whom their closing words of advice seem highly questionable, glib and condescending? As if such major life changes were all easy and purely a matter of choice. And don’t they even seem to take a snappy, bullying tone at the end? Like they’re saying, in the manner of some Dickensian villain, just pull yourself together, it’s a matter of willpower, and, if you don’t, well, it’s your own damn fault. I really think Berthoud and Elderkin are better than this, but it's how it reads, at least for me. Then there’s their entry on being too busy. They prescribe John Buchan’s thriller The 39 Steps:

‘In fact, this novel will make you question whether you have taken on enough. Surely you could fit in a bit of code-solving? Farmer impersonating? Can't you get out and save the world? Until you meet Hannay, you didn't really know what true busyness was.'

Again I find myself confused. It’s not as if being too busy – being overworked, overcommitted, overstretched, overwhelmed… – isn’t a real problem. There are plenty of these people about, aren’t there? People who work too many hours, and have a million things they’re trying to do in their ‘free’ time. They’re heading for strokes, a lot of them. Or burnout or breakdown of some kind. And perhaps diminishing their lives in the meantime. But Berthoud and Elderkin say to them: read this obviously completely unrealistic thriller, and discover, by comparing yourself to the example of its hero, that you’re relatively unbusy and should be doing more. What are we to make of this?! It's like a darkly positive spin on that standardly bad bit of counselling, 'What are you whinging about? Other people have it much worse!' Or there’s their entry on broken dreams. At the start, they suggest you may just have gone about trying to achieve those dreams in the wrong way. Following on from that thought, they prescribe Hubert Selby Jr.’s Requiem for a Dream. Having summarised its plot, they distil its wisdom as follows: ‘Think of a practical, realistic way to achieve your dreams – one that doesn’t involve the sale of Class A drugs. Keep your eyes on the dream, but also on each rung of the ladder’. OK, that’s fine, I guess. A little on the glib side again, but fine. It’s not, however, any kind of help with the problem of broken dreams. It’s a help, potentially, with the far simpler problem of how to pursue live dreams when there are certain familiar obstacles in the way. But it gives you no clue of what do to, or what to read, if you have genuinely broken dreams on your hands. Granted, it can, in some cases, be difficult to judge whether certain dreams are broken or not – hence, again, the value of direct interaction between bibliotherapist and subject. But in other cases dreams just are clearly irrecoverably broken – for instance, if you dreamed of being a pro footballer, and you’ve lost your mobility in a terrible car accident, or you loved someone, hoped to live your life with them, and now they’re dead, or have just revealed themself to be totally different from how you’d always seen them. Broken dreams can hurt us unbearably, weigh us down, make our lives feel meaningless, incapacitate us. They can be very big problems. But it seems none of this is grasped here. It’s no use to that now-immobile person who always dreamed of being a pro footballer to show them, even through so brilliant a novel as Requiem for a Dream, that there are better ways to pursue dreams than through the sale of Class A drugs. And then there are other points in the book where, even if nothing strikes me as amiss in their understandings of what the problems they’re seeking to address are, I’m troubled by particular claims they make – normally claims of a moral and psychological nature. For example, at the start of their entry on being accused (which they gloss as ‘accused, and you know you did it, but you don't think what you did was wrong'), they make the following claims:

'If you're accused of something and you know you're guilty, accept your punishment with good grace. If you're accused and you didn't do it, fight to clear your name.'

They don’t trouble to defend these claims. I want to answer: what about when, for instance, you accept you’re guilty, but the punishment seems disproportionately and unbearably harsh to you? What about when accepting that punishment (life-long imprisonment, say) will imply reneging on other moral obligations or sacred duties you feel you have (protecting and raising your child, say)? I want to suggest things for Berthoud and Elderkin to read: A Heart So White by Javier Marias; If Beale Street Could Talk by James Baldwin – I actually only watched Barry Jenkins’s wonderful film adaptation, but I guess they’d appreciate the novel more. Maybe I'm being a bit pedantic here; it seems to me though that one of the great things about literature is its ability to show us how there's so much variety and complexity in life that these simple moral pronouncements cannot hold. Not in reality. For almost any you could come up with, situations weird enough to discredit them occur, and normally they’re not nearly as weird as you might think – they’ve just never really featured in your thinking up to now, as your thinking up to now has actually, despite very normal delusions to the contrary, only covered a tiny amount of what’s possible in life. Then there’s their entry on adultery. Again, I wonder whether it isn’t problematic to – without any qualification – classify adultery as a malady, to be cured. Again I put such concerns aside. Berthoud and Elderkin start by observing:

'The temptation to have an affair generally starts when one half of a pair feels dissatisfied with who they are – or who they feel themselves perceived to be – within their current relationship.'

OK… I wonder how on earth they’d know such a thing. I can certainly think of other things the temptation to have an affair could start from. Still, it may be true, and if it’s not, it’s an innocuous enough claim, right? But then they begin talking about Flaubert’s Madame Bovary:

‘For Emma Bovary, the temptation to stray comes almost immediately after tying the knot with doctor Charles, stuck as she is in her adolescent preconceptions of what a marriage should be. Instead of the calm existence she discovers, with a husband who adores her, she had expected love to be ‘a great bird with rose-coloured wings’ hanging in the sky. These absurd notions, we are slightly embarrassed to admit, were picked up from literature – Sir Walter Scott is named and shamed – for at the age of fifteen Emma swallowed down a great number of romantic novels, riddled with tormented young ladies 'fainting in lonely pavilions' and gentlemen 'weeping like fountains'.

Did these notions only come from literature, I want to ask? The literature spoke to her, latched on to something in her. I personally think Emma’s desire for dramatic romance should be taken more seriously, and respectfully, as expressive of something important in her. I don’t deny that there’s some naïvety in her view of things, but this dismissive and sneering line Berthoud and Elderkin take (‘adolescent preconceptions’, ‘absurd notions’) doesn’t seem helpful to me.

Finally, take their entry on dissatisfaction. They’re referring to enduring or recurrent dissatisfaction – over, say, not having enough or ideal possessions, or not having enough time, or being ‘emotionally, intellectually or spiritually incomplete’, or being in the wrong romantic relationship or the wrong job. Having given these examples, they announce:

‘We hate to break it to you, but if you keep looking for the answers outside yourself, the dissatisfaction will stay. Clichéd it may be, but the answer lies within. And often the only way to see this is to stop chasing those butterflies and stand still for a while and take stock.’

Reading this, what came to my mind was one of the central arguments of behavioural scientist Paul Dolan’s book Happiness by Design. This perhaps isn’t the ideal quote, but it gives you an idea:

‘If you recognise that much of what you do is governed by contextology and not just your own internal psychology, you can approach situations that will make you happier and avoid those that will make you unhappy. We have some control over the situations we place ourselves in and much less control over our predisposition to act in particular ways once we are in those situations.’

Of course there are situations when you have to look inside yourself to find a solution to dissatisfaction, but Berthoud and Elderkin speak as if long-term dissatisfaction must mean that the solution lies essentially or even exclusively within. I seriously doubt that’s true, and Dolan seems to say, not just in this quote but throughout his book, that the academic literature supports that doubt. Dissatisfaction can endure because of how damn difficult it is to change our circumstances in the necessary ways, or even to work out what the changes to our circumstances that are necessary are – for all that difficulty though, making such changes is surely often the only realistic or healthy way of escaping dissatisfaction. To take two of their examples: ordinarily, no amount of internal reflection and no change of attitude is going to save you from the enduring dissatisfaction resulting from being in a romantic relationship with or in the employ of someone that’s ruthlessly – if slowly and subtly – exploiting and belittling and constraining and thus destroying you. You’ve just got to find a way out of that, basically. Note that, in making this last point, I cited the work of a prominent behavioural scientist, which in turn cites a lot of recent research on how people can change their lives and improve their well-being. It’s possible some of that research is mistaken, and many of its conclusions have no doubt been reached by various more-or-less wise people or groups by less scientific means. It seems to me, in any case, important stuff for a bibliotherapist to have in mind. A term you sometimes find used synonymously with ‘bibliotherapy’ is ‘biblioguidance’. I attended a wonderful course recently entitled ‘biblioguidance in a confusing world’, as part of which, incidentally, we looked at The Novel Cure. Throughout that course, we used the terms ‘bibliotherapy’ and ‘biblioguidance’ interchangeably. In discussion after the course, however, one of the other participants, the social worker and writer Linda Skranda, suggested drawing a distinction between the two, according to which bibliotherapy is, by definition, practised by someone who is in some appropriate way qualified as a therapist, while biblioguidance can be practised by anyone, though of course still in better and worse ways. This does seem to me a wise distinction to draw. We must be ever-mindful of our limitations. To know some books and films that seem to us to have useful things to say on a particular psychological problem is not to know how to treat that problem, or even necessarily how to discuss it with someone who has it. Show a rape survivor a film on rape survival, and you might find you’ve just triggered them, and you have no idea how to help them deal with the feelings that have come up. In recent years, I have sometimes done what I’ve called bibliotherapy; I’ll keep doing it, but I’ll call it biblioguidance from now on, until such time as I consider myself appropriately qualified as a therapist. Using that different name will, I think, help me remain mindful of the caution I need to exercise in what I prescribe, when I prescribe, and where I take any discussions I have with subjects. A final set of concerns I want to raise are also about, for want of a better term, psychological literacy – though now it is specifically the psychology of reading novels that I want to concentrate on. Berthoud and Elderkin seem to me to be short on understanding of the psychology of reading novels, and to in consequence prescribe novels in ways that actually undermine their ability to do readers good. Some ways, or potential ways, I’ve touched on already – I can see their glib and judgmental tendencies having an effect here, for instance. The most clear and systematic way in which they seem to me to undermine the ability of the novels they prescribe to do their readers good is, however, through their summarising of the entire plots of those novels. I say ‘the entire plots’ – in some cases, it’s not quite that bad; in some cases it’s only like 70%; and in a small number of cases, they hardly say a thing about the contents of the novels they prescribe. But then in some cases it really is the whole basic plot they reveal, including all the twists – and with no warning of spoilers. They do that when they prescribe Abe’s The Woman in the Dunes as a cure for agoraphobia, for instance. And again when they prescribe Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea as a cure for anger. When they do the same in prescribing Pamela for premature ejaculation, they apologise at least, although perhaps only because it gives them the opportunity to joke: ‘We regret that we have hereby revealed the happy consummation of the novel. But in truth, dear reader, we are not very good at holding in that which excites us ourselves.’

I’m not certain of why it is, really, that they give away so much of the plots of the novels they prescribe. Are they trying to fill out the book, I find myself wondering cynically? But I don’t think they are. I think largely they just want to explain how these novels can help with these problems – they don’t expect it to be taken entirely on trust that they can; they make cases that they can, and doing that requires some disclosing of plot details. Sure, OK, but I think often they could make at least equally strong cases and disclose a lot less. And then when it comes to explaining why, for instance, Pamela can help with premature ejaculation… when it comes to all those joke prescriptions – well, it’s hard to see what the justification for divulging so much of the plot could be in those cases. I mean, as those books can’t really help with those problems, it wouldn’t make sense to divulge their plots for the purpose of explaining how they can help. Perhaps the explanation in those cases, and generally the other explanation for the extensive plot-revealing, is actually the one they give in that joke about Pamela and premature ejaculation – basically, they just enjoy recounting these wonderful stories. It comes at a cost though! I think revealing the plot comes at a cost in three basic ways. First, there’s what people generally have in mind when they complain about spoilers. In reading novels, we enjoy surprise, suspense, puzzle-solving, predicting and discovering what will happen... These activities engage us when we’re reading, make us invest our attention more. Tell us in advance what’s gonna happen, and you undermine those causes of joy and engagement – along with any potential by-products of them. Second, you undermine the ability we have to take the opportunity that many novels offer us to journey with the characters. Generally, characters in novels don’t know what’s going to happen to them next – if you don’t know either, you’re in the same position as them, at least in that respect. When they’re shocked by some development, you quite likely will be shocked by it too. If it’s a delightful or disappointing development, chances are you’ll feel that delight or disappointment more keenly if you’ve been on the journey with them up to that point, and didn’t know in advance that this was always going to happen, as well as what will happen in the end. Berthoud and Elderkin themselves talk about this thing of journeying with the characters. Remember that bit in their introduction:

‘When you're engrossed in a novel, unable to tear yourself from the page, you are seeing what a character sees, touching what a character touches, learning what a character learns.’

Again, not terms I’d use, but let’s go with them. Suppose, at the start of the novel, a main character sees an apparently sweet and kind young woman in the town he’s just arrived in, but you know that by the end of the novel she will have been revealed to be a psychopathic murderer – you won’t be seeing what the character sees. A lot less so, anyway. I could go on but you get the point. Thirdly and finally, by telling someone, before they’ve read a novel, how that novel’s plot plays out, you undermine their ability to form an independent interpretation of how that plot plays out. Perhaps, left to their own devices, they would have come to quite a different view of what happens in the novel. Granted, plots normally have a basic level at which there’s not much room for either misunderstanding or diversity of interpretation, but only just below that level, there’s another at which there’s plenty of room for both. So, it may be quite clear, at the end of a novel, that one of the characters chooses to end her extramarital affair and stay with her husband and children, but it may be at least less clear why she does that, and whether she should – one reader may confidently answer those questions one way, another may answer them just as confidently another way. A large proportion of the plot details Berthoud and Elderkin give away concern this lower level – not the tip, but the bulk of the plot iceberg, so to speak. Suppose that you start to read The Great Gatsby fresh from their Novel Cure entry on being broke, and therefore with, still ringing in your ears, their verdict that what James Gatz (a.k.a. Gatsby) should have done right from the start is, as they put it, inhabit and accept his impoverished self and find someone who loves him as he is. Wouldn’t that be likely to have an effect on how you’d then interpret, as you were bit-by-bit exposed to it, his already astonishingly successful pursuit of wealth and status, and his on-going pursuit of Daisy, as well as on how you’d view him and the story more generally? I, for my part, did not feel this moral that Berthoud and Elderkin draw was particularly there to be drawn, nor even that the novel had any strong moralising element to it. What do they even mean by 'inhabit and accept his impoverished self', I wonder? Maybe Gatsby developed in some non-ideal ways, but self-development is not an inherently bad thing, surely, and, even if he needn't have bothered getting quite so rich, accepting poverty – and the extreme limitations to safety, freedom, etc. that it entails – doesn't sound to me like an obviously right move for anyone, let alone him. Was Gatsby wrong to be who he was? is another question I feel I want to ask them. Of course I read Gatsby (twice, in fact) before reading The Novel Cure, so had my own interpretations of it before I was given theirs. There are many reasons that could be given for which it’s important that people have more rather than less opportunity to form their own interpretations, but, in this context, a particularly important one perhaps concerns the role agency often plays in emotionally overcoming and recovering from major problems. Another, no doubt related, is just that we’re generally more likely to form the interpretation that can help us than anyone else is, Berthoud and Elderkin notwithstanding, especially given they’ve never met us. As for those two other kinds of harm I’ve said result from spoilers… Well, doesn’t it seem likely that a significant amount of the impact of a novel, of its ability to move us, or shock us into a different view of things, is sometimes dependent on our going on that journey with the characters, learning their fate only as they do? And if we’re less engaged in a novel, because we already know where it’s going and so there are no intriguing puzzles for us to solve there, isn’t it likely some of its affect will be lost on us? Perhaps we won’t even feel motivated to finish it.

I said the reviews of The Novel Cure on Amazon were generally positive. However, I didn’t see a single one in which someone said the book had helped them solve a problem in their life. As I said earlier, I’m sure that’s been some people’s experience of the book; but I doubt it’s a pure and unfortunate coincidence that not one of those who’s troubled to share their experience of it on Amazon has had that experience of it. Those who gave any detail in their comments seemed to appreciate the book as simply a source of recommendations or summaries of great novels, or just to vaguely like the idea of it.


Before ending what I suppose is effectively a review, I should confess what the eagle-eyed reader will have deduced, which is that, although I skipped forward to check a few things, I only read up to about the middle of D – or page 136 in the edition I was looking at. I do not have my own copy of the book, nor do I have much money to spare right now, nor was there an English-language library near me when I was writing this. I read the book while I had access to it, which was while I was on the aforementioned course. For obvious reasons, I wanted to write this piece soon after the course, which is what I’ve done. I considered ordering a copy of the book, but decided against doing so, as I felt I’d about got the measure of it, and couldn’t see how the basic concerns I had could be addressed in its remaining pages – at best, I might discover that I didn’t need to have those concerns about the entire book, I thought. Maybe I was overconfident there though. I stand to be corrected. I do believe that generally if you’re going to review a book, you should read the whole thing first.

0 comments