The Weekend Australian - Review - - Viewpoints - SHELLEY GARE on our love of quick fixes

SOME time ago, I was asked to write an es­say about the phe­nom­e­non of books such as Spot­less and The CSIRO To­tal Well­be­ing Diet . Both have sold in their hun­dreds of thou­sands and spawned best- sell­ing se­quels.

I couldn’t think of any­thing to say ex­cept good luck to their writ­ers. As a first- time au­thor my­self, I find it hard not to gawp in ad­mi­ra­tion and envy at such sales suc­cess. And don’t lis­ten to peo­ple who say Spot­less is an ad­ver­tise­ment for bi­car­bon­ate of soda, vine­gar and el­bow grease or that The CSIRO To­tal Well­be­ing Diet says noth­ing a good nu­tri­tion­ist and a few grams of com­mon sense couldn’t tell you your­self.

Th­ese books pro­vide eas­ily as­sim­i­lated so­lu­tions that work, no mean feat when a slim pa­per­back on peo­ple man­age­ment called Fish! can sell more than three mil­lion copies by telling read­ers to ‘‘ Choose your at­ti­tude!’’ and ‘‘ Make their day!’’ And Who Moved My Cheese? , a tale of mice, men and miss­ing cheese, rates as Ama­zon’s all- time best­seller for the web­site’s first 10 years. That’s for sugar- coat­ing a ba­sic truth about sur­vival in our ruth­less, fastchang­ing times: like, get used to it.

The ad­vice in­dus­try has so flour­ished in the past 20 years that read­ers can feel lost or oddly cheated if so­lu­tions aren’t of­fered. Spot­less and The CSIRO To­tal Well­be­ing Diet are the be­nign face of a grow­ing be­lief that while life has its prob­lems, there are none that can’t be solved with enough dot- point sum­maries.

This fo­cus is slowly af­fect­ing our taste in books and what we ex­pect from them, and from films, doc­u­men­taries and po­etry, too. It’s cer­tainly hav­ing an ef­fect on what makes a pub­lisher or mar­ket­ing man­ager’s heart race. Books of ad­vice can oc­cupy up to six places on the weekly non­fic­tion top 10 lists from Nielsen BookS­can.

It may even ex­plain why lit­er­ary fiction has gone from Cin­derella to cin­ders. Such fiction usu­ally con­cludes by leav­ing us to ru­mi­nate on the sad, mad and bad ways of mankind, the strange­ness of fate or the huge void that hangs be­hind all our lives, like a sheet flap­ping in the wind. The au­thor’s achieve­ment is to make us think harder. It’s only thrillers and ro­mances that wrap up plots neatly and hap­pily, only self­help guides and man­age­ment texts that prom­ise neat and happy so­lu­tions.

There used to be an un­spo­ken ac­cep­tance about just how much a book could do. In his con­clud­ing chap­ter to The Good So­ci­ety, which ar­gued that it is pos­si­ble for a na­tion to be eco­nom­i­cally suc­cess­ful and com­pas­sion­ate, Amer­i­can econ­o­mist J. K. Gal­braith wrote: ‘‘ Books of this mood and genre al­most al­ways end on the same note. Hav­ing de­fined what is good and achiev­able, they as­sume that the nec­es­sary po­lit­i­cal re­sponse will fol­low, if not soon, then in time. Peo­ple have an in­stinct, im­me­di­ate or even­tual, for what is right. Hav­ing spec­i­fied this, the writer’s work is done. It is this op­ti­mism that sus­tains the toil of thought and au­thor­ship; thus is demon­strated the ul­ti­mate power of the ideas.’’ But even by then ( 1996) Gal­braith him­self had recog­nised such op­ti­mism was frag­ile. A quar­ter of a cen­tury ear­lier, David Hal­ber­stam, the Amer­i­can jour­nal­ist and au­thor killed in a car ac­ci­dent in April, fin­ished The Best and the Bright­est, his anal­y­sis of 1960s Amer­ica, power and Viet­nam, with this sen­tence: ‘‘ There was, Amer­i­cans were find­ing, no light at the end of the tun­nel, only greater dark­ness.’’

Con­stant read­ers know the thought­ful glassyeyed state that goes with fin­ish­ing an im­pres­sive book, fiction or non­fic­tion. For sev­eral min­utes, and longer, you ex­ist in a space be­tween the world of the book you have just left and the ev­ery­day world you are about to re- en­ter.

A fine con­clud­ing sen­tence, para­graph or set of para­graphs has a har­mony and right­ness to it, leav­ing us feel­ing we’ve reached ‘‘ the end’’ even though there is still much to ponder.

Re­cent neu­ro­sci­en­tific dis­cov­er­ies may even ex­plain why. In mu­sic, hu­man be­ings are nat­u­rally tuned to ex­pect cer­tain end­ings to cer­tain melodies. Even non- mu­si­cians can recog­nise good and bad end­ings be­cause our brains an­tic­i­pate the chords that fit the pre­ced­ing har­monies. Neu­ro­sci­en­tists call this mu­si­cal syn­tax and it has been dis­cov­ered that some of that is pro­cessed in the same part of the brain, Broca’s area, once thought to process only lan­guage. In April 2001, Science mag­a­zine wrote: ‘‘ The es­say­ist Thomas Car­lyle called mu­sic ‘ the speech of an­gels’. And in­deed, mu­sic and lan­guage are be­ing found to have quite a lot in com­mon.’’ To me, Broca’s area made sense of the fact that good writ­ing feels rhyth­mi­cal and bad writ­ing strug­gles — worse, makes the reader strug­gle — be­cause there is no un­der­ly­ing rhythm to draw the reader on like a bal­let dancer re­spond­ing to the beat. When writ­ers sweat over the per­fect con­clu­sion, again it’s like com­pos­ing mu­sic. But this goes for noth­ing if the reader’s ear is now more at­tuned to the kind of fin­ish that goes: dum didi dum dum, DUM DUM!

A friend notes that when peo­ple come out of a film with an am­biva­lent end­ing or even a non­happy- ever- af­ter end­ing, many are in­vari­ably com­plain­ing, ‘‘ So what was that all about?’’ In The Em­peror’s New Clothes , Hans Chris­tian An­der­sen did not fin­ish neatly when the cleareyed lit­tle boy cries out: ‘‘ But he’s not wear­ing any clothes!’’ In­stead the em­peror hears the lit­tle boy and be­lieves him, but what is he to do? He has an em­pire to run. And so he struts on. His courtiers con­tinue to hold up his nonex­is­tent train. Chi­canery, as An­der­sen shows, is not eas­ily thwarted, al­though he surely hoped that his tale would in­spire read­ers to speak out against bull­dust. That was the so­lu­tion.

Nowa­days, he would be per­suaded by mar­ket­ing to do it dif­fer­ently. The cit­i­zenry would crowd around the lit­tle boy, who would de­liver a snappy Pow­erPoint pre­sen­ta­tion on what to do next. There would be a gen­eral in­vi­ta­tion to blog fur­ther on the sub­ject. The lit­tle boy would start a man­age­ment train­ing web­site and write sev­eral se­quels. And if some­one fol­lowed the ad­vice and it back­fired, the lit­tle boy would be sued. Shelley Gare is the au­thor of The Tri­umph of the Air­heads and the Re­treat from Com­mon­sense. Ex­treme Cui­sine by Shelley Gare — The Week­end Aus­tralian Mag­a­zine

Il­lus­tra­tion: Igor Sak­tor

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