A CULTURAL COOLING: TRENDS AND COUNTERTRENDS
With these starting points, I propose that many best-selling advice books published in recent years have become cooler in their approach to intimate life. They reflect a cultural cooling. This does not mean that individuals need one another less, only that they are invited to manage their needs more. The trend also reflects a paradox. Earlier advice books were far more patriarchal, less based on open and equal communication, but, oddly, they often reflect more warmth. More recent advice books call for more open and more equal communication but propose cooler emotional strategies with which to engage those equal bonds. From the vantage point of the early feminist movement, modern advice books reaffirm one ideal (equality) but undermine another (emotionally rich social bonds).4
Two trends in the literature bear on this “cooling.” One supports the observation of cooling but doesn’t link it to advice books. The other analyzes advice books but doesn’t focus on cooling. Christopher Lasch, Ann Swidler, Francesca Cancian, and Mary Evans, among others, argue that “commitment” is a diminishing part in people’s idea of love.’’ Data from American national opinion polls document a decline over recent decades in commitment to long-term love. In their study of daytime soap opera heroes and heroines, Lee Harrington and Denise Bielby don’t observe a shift away from the idea of lasting love, but they note a shift away from social practices that affirm it.(i
Analyses of the advice literature, on the other hand, say little about this cooling. Commentators have instead critiqued the authoritarianism, pri – vatism, and ideology of victimhood implicit in many advice books. In Гт Dysfunctional, You’re Dysfunctional, Wendy Kaminer critiques advice books in the Recovery Movement (based on the twelve-step program of Alcoholics Anonymous) for appealing to individual choice while giving orders and taking it away. In Self-Help Culture: Reading Women’s Wendy Simonds
righdy argues a second point, namely that self-oriented quick-fix books deflect attention from problems in the public sphere that cause people to need private help in the first place. In “Beware the Incest-Survivor Machine” Carol Tavris critiques the cult of victimhood many survivor books seem to promote.7
While there is much truth in all three critiques, I believe something else is also going on—a shift in the cultural premises about human attachment. Although there is much talk about the relative merit of this or that kind of family, current advice books take us down a weird cultural tunnel, which reveals the soil and root system that characterizes them all.
To get a good look at this soil, we can draw an imaginary line through the emotional core of each advice book by focusing on the best and worst “magnified moments” in it, the top and bottom of the personal experience the book portrays. This method works best with the therapeutic, interview, and autobiographical books.
Most books seem to have four parts. In one, the author establishes a tone of voice, a relationship to the reader, and connects the reader to a source of authority—the Bible, psychoanalysis, corporate expertise, Hollywood, or the school of hard knocks. In a second part the author didactically describes moral or social reality. “This is how men are,” or “that’s what the job market’s like,” they say, or “this is the rule” and how it bends under a variety of circumstances. In a third part the book describes concrete practices; for
example, “With your boyfriend, listen, with your girlfriend, talk,” or “Wear blue to a ‘power breakfast meeting’ at work.” In a fourth and I believe most revealing part of the advice book, the author tells stories about personal experience. These stories are based on the lives of patients in an author’s psychotherapeutic practice, interviewees, or the author’s own life. Such stories tend to be either exemplary or cautionary. Exemplary stories tell the reader what to do and cautionary stories tell her what not to do.
Stories of both sorts contain magnified moments, episodes of heightened importance, either epiphanies, moments of intense glee or unusual insight, or moments in which things go intensely but meaningfully wrong. In either case, the moment stands out as metaphorically rich, unusually elaborate, and often echoes throughout the book.
One thing a magnified moment magnifies is the feeling a person holds up as ideal. It shows what a person, up until the experience began, wanted to feel. Thus there is an ideal expressed in the moment and there is culture within the ideal. Magnified moments reflect a feeling ideal both when a person joyously lives up to it or, in some spectacular way, does not. More than the descriptions of the author’s authority or beliefs, more than the long didactic passages in advice books about what is or isn’t true or right, magnified moments show the experience we wish. We can ask many questions about this experience. We may ask, for example: What is it precisely about a feeling that makes it seem wonderful or terrible? Against what ideal is it being compared? Who is on the scene during the moment? What relations are revealed, in reality or imagination? By interrogating the moment, so to speak, we ferret out the cultural premises that underlie it. About the advice to which these magnilied moments lend support, we can ask many questions. About the experience, and the ideal against which it is measured, we may ask further questions. Does the advice support a general paradigm of trust or caution? Does it center on expressing one’s emotional needs or marshaling strategic control over them? Is the book warm, in the sense of legitimizing a high degree of care and social support and offering scope for human needs? Or is it cool, in the sense of presuming the individual should get by with relatively little support and of presuming she or he has fewer needs?