Or you could read fiction, Jane Stafford

A Working Mother’s Handbook. A New Zealand Guide for Expectant and New Mothers
Francesca Holloway
Longacre Press, $24.95
ISBN 0 958 3405 1 X

Improving the Odds: The Remarriage Gamble ‑ a Woman’s Guide 
Averill Richardson
HarperCollins, $24.95
ISBN 1869 50 1373

Women Call, Men Respond: Secrets of Passion and Pleasure
Maureen McDonough and James Rutherford
HarperCollins, $24.95
ISBN 1869 50 160 8

Behold the deconstruction of the book review. For the very first time we take you behind the scenes to where your tireless reviewer works to meet the deadline ‑ well, one of several, generously extended deadlines, granted, through increasingly gritted teeth (now there’s a visual image to conjure with), by the charming, talented, and altogether saintly editorial assistant. Ahead lies the unthinkable: New Zealand Books June issue with a large hole on p9 ‑ The editor regrets that due to mental instability, computer malfunction, and a major earthquake in the greater Wellington area, Ms Stafford’s review will not appear in this issue. What is to be done? There is only one thing for it ‑ reach for the appropriate self-help manual.

But which? There are so many. My Book Review’s OK, Your Book Review’s OK’? The Small Cheque, Limited Fame But a Chance in the Book Awards Syndrome? Or perhaps that perennial favourite, Women Who Review Too Much? It doesn’t in fact, matter. Within the genre there is a remarkable homogeneity and one can be assured that one will find a combination of the obvious and the banal, expressed in trite English and packaged in the language of marketing and corporate motivational psychology.

What we used to know and feel confident about, what our mothers used to tell us as a part of growing up, those values and practices that popular culture used to inculcate from an early age have now become problematic. We distrust the anecdotal and the personal, especially when transmitted orally. Knowledge, to be worthy of respect, must be the subject of a fixed, authoritative text. And at the same time the nineteenth century’s encouragement of self‑improvement has combined with a bastardised and glib form of psychoanalysis, so that every man and woman can be his or her own shrink. Happiness is no longer concerned with personal desire and chance; it has become a moral and social imperative. If you’re not happy, if you have a problem, simply read a book.

How strange, how quaint, to think that individual circumstances could be addressed in an international best‑seller ‑ that, for example, my own inability to get down to writing this review could have been anticipated by a gestalt therapist and family counsellor in the American midwest intent on curing not just me and my habit of procrastination, but the problems of millions of other readers. The novel used to be the genre which made such claims: Pride and Prejudice, Middlemarch, David Copperfield all made a moral lunge towards the unsuspecting reader. They are all to some extent moral fables. But their medium is fiction. They tell a story about individuals. Readers are invited to extrapolate the moral from the events recounted and can choose not to do so if they feel like just staying with the narrative. Pride and Prejudice is a satisfying romance, even if we don’t want to think about either pride or prejudice in our own lives. But now the modern novel has moved into other areas, and tends to resist self‑conscious didacticism. And so we are left with the self‑help books, the moral without the fable to support it, doctrine without narrative.

Perhaps another reason for the importance of reading our way to health and happiness is that old cliché, the rapid pace of change. Traditional knowledge is no longer seen as relevant to today’s world and even the experience of an older generation is discounted and invalidated. It is surely relevant in this regard that two of the three books I am reviewing here address social situations that are (largely) new to this generation. Of course there were working mothers in past, as there were second marriages. But working mothers in the past would tend, I suspect, to have been working class. It is the entry of the middle class woman into the ranks of the employed that has focused attention on the subject. And second marriages in the past resulted from widowhood rather than choice. Perhaps this is the point. We are now making choices about these matters and we are anxious in consequence. We need a book to tell us that it’s OK.

Take Francesca Holloway’s book, A Working Mother’s Handbook: A New Zealand Guide for Expectant and New Mothers. Ever since Dr Spock, new mothers have been turning to the bookshelf rather than ringing their mothers or remembering their own childhood. Spock combined male authority with genial reassurance. But the subtext of his and other baby manuals was surely a worrying one ‑ that traditional practice and biological instinct is no longer enough. You need to read about it.

Holloway has identified a new area of anxiety that the traditional baby manuals either ignore, or are positively hostile to: the fact that mothering practices now often include demands of the office as well as of the baby. This orientation makes her book admirably mother‑centred, unlike the usual examples, of the genre that seem to underwrite the motherhood‑as‑sainted‑martyr myth. The employer is as important a player as the prospective father and must be included in planning. The birth is seen as a biological event, but also a social transition. Relationships with crêche and childcare workers are as important as those with doctors and hospitals. And each section contains subheadings directed at the new mother’s support systems: “How others can help the expectant mother”, “How others can help the new mother”, and so on. Divergences from the two-parent norm are catered for in the final section, “Motherhood in all its diversity”.

Holloway’s book is clear, sensible and realistic. If it is a little patronising in tone, that is an inevitable result of the genre. Self‑help manuals expect the author to know more than the reader. And if it cannot offer a solution for the ultimate problem every working mother faces ‑ chronic, unremitting terminal fatigue ‑ it is because, let’s face it, there isn’t one.

So you have had your baby and returned to work but, despite subscribing to the reading programme (you know ‑ The Cinderella Complex, The Peter Pan Complex, Women who Love too Much, Men Who Love too Little, Smart Women Foolish Choices, What Your Mother Wouldn’t Tell You and Your Father Doesn’t Know, and so on), despite all this, your marriage collapses. Don’t despair, there is a book to help you. In fact there are about 500 books to help you, depending on your plans.

If, after careful reading, you finally decide that you’re not the type to run with the wolves, that you fancy another whirl, there is Averill Richardson’s Improving the Odds: the Remarriage Gamble a Woman’s Guide. The title signals a certain pessimism. The odds, so we are told, for a successful second marriage are not encouraging. You need to work hard (and read) to make a success of it. I feel slightly uneasy about this. First, given that the current high rate of divorce is a recent phenomenon, has there been enough time to verify the failure rate of second marriages? And second, what proportion of the divorced in a new relationship choose to go through the ceremony again? Or even live together? There are new patterns out there the Department of Statistics may not have caught up with. And third, what about the idea of “working hard” at a relationship? It has the same ring to it as “trying for a baby”. At the very least a wilful misuse of the English language, at most an utter misunderstanding of how relationships function.

Richardson is, to quote the jacket blurb, “a relationship counsellor specialising in remarriage and step‑family issues”. She has written a master’s thesis on remarriage, which one presumes is the basis for this book, although her style is by no means academic. She has also been married three times.

Her book is puzzlingly wide-ranging. The first section is a painstaking account of the stages by which one (and despite the subtitle of her book, there doesn’t seem to be any particular emphasis on women) enters the state of remarriage. I am a little uncertain about the stylistic orientation. (Bear with me, I was brought up with New Criticism.) Phrases such as “you may feel… “, “you will want…”, “you do have…” and “you could…”, all of which occur on two randomly chosen pages, suggest a confusion between description and prescription. Is Improving the Odds a sociological account of a social fact, remarriage? Or is it giving advice to those embarking on this process? Perhaps the conflict between the master’s thesis and the personal experience has caused this blurring.

The second section of the book is entitled “Troubleshooting”. Described as “specific problem areas which sometimes affect women in remarriage”, it is an alphabetical compendium from “age gaps” to “violence”, with each enormous and somewhat randomly chosen subject being treated in a manner that is at the least cursory and at times tendentious. Do those in a relationship where there is an age difference need to be told that that difference will persist and that the older partner will reach old age first? And since when was menopause an effect of remarriage?

I don’t mean to say that this book is not sensible, because it is. It is just that its judgments are blindingly obvious and rely on a view of life in which motivation, emotion and expression are all greatly oversimplified. This is the flaw of self‑help. This book is not one counsellor responding to your individual needs. The genre relies on the assumption that experience is common and consequently has to homogenise everything into a world of total banality. If you are marrying for a second time and feel in need of validation, Improving the Odds may provide reassurance that it has been done before. If you want insight, wisdom and realism, try fiction ‑ Carol Shields, perhaps, or Alice Munro.

Back to the narrative. You’ve married, had children, divorced, married again, but due to sloppy reading practices, it hasn’t worked out. How about simply having an affair? Don’t know how to manage it? Self‑help is at hand, in the shape of Women Call, Men Respond: Secrets of Passion and Pleasure. The argument of this book is very simple: if women call, men will respond. Self‑help books often have lengthy titles. I suspect this happens when the content of the book in question is so breathtakingly banal that it can be summed up in one badly constructed but cute sentence.

Elegant English is not McDonough’s and Rutherford’s strong point. Metaphors are a particular problem. For example we are told:

If a woman knows how to turn up the dials to get what she wants she won’t even have to brush her teeth. The men will be there; and they will be the right men at the right time.

I think the dials are metaphorical and the teeth are actual but I wouldn’t swear to it. The love of pain is compared to an ugly sofa in a house which needs cleaning, and men, we are told, are like VCRs ‑ difficult to programme. Sex is the channel that is always on. By the time we get to the training cycle, “the magic interface between your desire and his production”, I’m completely lost and groping for my bike clips. Writing about sex presents the authors with particular problems. “Men,” they state, “simply cannot raise their own penis by an act of will (though they would probably give their arm to be able to).” I’ve no idea what it means, but the visual image is an arresting one, especially in view of the plural “men” and the singular “penis”. “If you’re not at the place where his erection is useful to you,” they warn, “you don’t have to have it.” Well, yes.

The most damning indictment of self‑help books is the fact that the author of the classic of the genre, I’m OK, You’re OK, committed suicide. Obviously he wasn’t OK. You might not be either. But it is going to take more than a book to fix it.

Jane Stafford lectures in English at Victoria University of Wellington.

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Posted in Gender, Non-fiction, Review
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