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Dear Rita,

Many years ago I read your book Rubyfruit Jungle with great pleasure. It’s not every writer that can make a lesbian Bildungsroman a light-hearted and fun read. Also, if you had never written anything except the title of your first book of poetry, you would have earned my respect, because The Hand that Cradles the Rock is an awesome title for a book of feminist poems.

True, I haven’t followed your later books, largely because most of them were co-authored by your cat, and I am allergic to books which feature animals as either authors or protagonists (or both). So whenever I saw “Murder, She Meowed” or “Claws and Effect” at the library I did nothing except wish you and Sneaky Pie well and move on.

All that changed the other day. I went to the library to pick up R. Crumb’s bizarre rendition of Genesis, which I had put on hold, and happened to see one of your books: The Hounds and the Fury. A quick glance told me it was a murder mystery involving foxhounds and foxhunting, which is exactly the sort of book I always think I’ll like, so I got it.

Well.

Ms. Brown, as someone who has written (according to Wikipedia), some 38 full-length novels, I would have assumed that you had mastered that whole “show, don’t tell thing”. I seem to have been wrong. Not only does this book begin with a detailed description of each character – and why are there so many of them, anyway? – including the foxhounds, the horses, and a variety of wildlife – but peppered through the book are explainy explainy boring statements like this:

Freddie wanted to be like Sister, but she was too concerned with her effect on others. Beautiful as she was, this made her vulnerable. She needed praise to feel feminine, to feel good. Sister woke up in he morning feeling good.

How ’bout something like this instead?

Freddie turned to Jason. “Oh Doctor,” she said, “tell me more about your work.”

Jason smiled down at Freddie, making her heart race with anticipation. Funny, she didn’t even like him much, but his smile made her feel warm. “Well, Freddie, how much do you know about medicine?”

“Oh, not much,” said Freddie, a smile blazing across her perfect face. “I mean, my father was a doctor – but I never took much interest.” Freddie kept her eyes locked on the doctor’s, and her two years of pre-med to herself.

I wrote that last bit, by the way. Yes, it’s horribly cliched and stupid, but at least it gets across the idea that “Freddie is insecure and gets male attention by belittling herself” without a boring descriptive paragraph.

Even when you do actually show a character doing something, you immediately follow up by telling us what that shows about the character. Like this:

“Are you alright?”
“Fine. Tired. […] Sam was in the hospital.” He held back he small detail that Sam had been shot. He was tired and didn’t feel like indulging in speculation with people who weren’t close.

Yes, thank you for pointing out the Gray didn’t tell Iffy that Sam was in the hospital. I would never, ever have noticed that in a million years if you hadn’t pointed it out. No, actually I would have, and I would have thought “Huh, that’s odd. Maybe Gray doesn’t trust Iffy. Maybe he suspects Iffy. Hmm…” and it may have added a modicum of interest to the plot.

There are a lot of other unlikeable things about this book – the constant defense of riches and privilege, the ham-handed and unrealistic race relations, the way you keep sticking references to saints’ days in the middle of things, the fact that you not only anthropomorphized all the animals but made them capable of conversing with each other. (OK, if they could talk, I can see how foxes and dogs would communicate, being closely related species, but why the fuck would an owl be able to talk to a horse? They’re wildly different animals with very different lifeways – horses are domesticated pack mammals, and owls are pair-bonding predatory birds – not to mention cognitive abilities. Both horses and owls are pretty dumb, true, but dumb in different ways: prey dumb and predator dumb, bird dumb and mammal dumb, big dumb and small dumb.)

Also the gender essentialism is pretty disturbing, considering your involvement in the feminist movement. I’m talking about statements like this:

“Once a man takes a position publicly, he rarely backs down or seeks a comprimise. It’s a particular failing of the gender…with great effort, especially from friends, most women can be brought around to seek a comprimise.”

Or like this:

Sybil appreciated Shaker’s thoughtfulness. Her marriage, a disaster, had left her a single mother. She liked her sons to be around real men, and Shaker was about as real as it got.

Never mind that feminists have been trying since the seventies to deconstruct the stifling confines of gender roles, to free us all from the idea that there are sets of behaviours and actions that you must adopt if you want to be a “real man” or a “real woman”. You want your gameskeeper character to be a Real Man, so you make Pathetic Single Mom use him to heteronormatize her sons.

(To be clear, if these two characters – Sister and Sybil, respectively – had said/thought these things as a demonstration of their subtle sexism and hidebound gender essentialism, that would have been fine. If a non-feminist writer had written that, it would have merited an eye-roll or two. But coming from the mouths/brains of the two most sympathetic/lionized characters in a book by an ostensibly feminist writer it makes me think, “What the fuck?”)

Speaking of characters, why, again, are there so many of them? By page 200 I was still flipping back to the list at the beginning to check who Betty was again, and what her relationship to Crawford was. And you do realize that the three private school girls could have been rolled into one? That what they’re there for – to show that Sister is a hip old lady who loves young people – could have been distilled down to a couple of sentences in the middle of the hunt.

But I digress. I read all sorts of awful books, and I could have forgiven all this – it still might have been an enjoyalble read – if it hadn’t been for the egregious Mary Sue that you put at the centre of your book.

I’m sure you intended Sister (Jane Arnold) to be an earthy, fierce, inspiring older woman, full of life and vigour and still sexy in her seventies. You certainly make a point of telling us how fantastic she is on every other page. Sister is perfect. Sister can do no wrong. Sister has a primeval instinct for horses and hounds. She knows everything and can both turn a young man’s head AND beat him up.

Unfortunately, as you have written her, Sister is unbelievable and annoying. I’d like to see her actually interacting with someone without them flattering her. I’d like to see her make a mistake or have a weakness or do something to hurt someone. Because then she’d seem like a human being instead of a slightly older and heterosexual embodiment of Rita Mae Brown’s superego.

I have two possible theories for how this horrible excuse for a book came to be:

1)You have complete and utter contempt for your audience. I’m guessing your publisher’s demographic research has revealed your audience to be privileged but unintelligent women aged 50-75, so you tailored your book perfectly to them, being careful to explain everything clearly so they wouldn’t miss out.
2)You have lost your touch and now write self-absorbed bilge.

I lean towards 2) but the facts could support either case. By the way, the denouement comes totally out of nowhere and there really are NO clues (other than Iffy’s hair not falling out) pointing to who the murderer ends up being. Lazy plotting.

On the plus side, you do say lots of nice things about hounds, which I appreciated, being the owner of two Beagle/Bassets. If my dog Madeline could read I’m sure she would have enjoyed it.

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I’ve been looking forward to reading this book ever since I heard Steve interviewed on a podcast. I have a generally low opinion of self-help and it sounded like the delicious take down of the Dr. Phils of this world that I’d been waiting for. So, having recently paid off my library fines, I got hold of a copy and read it the other day.

Well, I’m glad I didn’t buy my own copy.

There’s lots of good stuff in SHAM, particularly his deconstruction of the twelve-step method, his expose of the ridiculousness of high-priced motivational speakers, and his analysis of the horrific Dr. Laura Schlessinger. (As someone who was forced to listen to her show daily at a summer job I had in high school, I was delighted to learn that she was a bed-hopping twice-divorced unqualified harpy, just as I’d always suspected.) But Salerno consistently overreaches in his conclusions – SHAM (the Self-Help and Actualization Movement) isn’t just a waste of time, it’s responsible for the so-called breakdown of American society. What’s more, he constantly brings the book around to tired Republican social conservative talking points – “People get divorced too easily these days!” “Kids don’t learn anything in school!” “School shootings used to be unthinkable!” (Maybe, but they still happened.) He also supports his thesis with a number of dubious experts, such as:

– David Blankenhorn, professional hand-wringer about divorce and same-sex marriage;

– Sally Satel, a psychiatrist who works for the American Enterprise Institute; she advocates forced medication for the mentally ill and thinks people should be allowed to sell their kidneys;

– the late M. Scott Peck, a Christian therapist who cheated on his wife with women he met at spiritual seminars, was such a successful father that two of his children were not on speaking terms at the end of his life, and used to perform exorcisms

– Myrna Blyth, who, upon retiring from the radical feminist environment of editing Ladies’ Home Journal, denounced women’s magazines as a liberal cabal to indoctrinate American women into being feminists or – GASP! – Democrats.

Right.

Even worse, Salerno supports his conclusions not with data but with anecdotes; he repeats over and over that America is suffering due to the dire social forces unleashed by SHAM, but he never specifies exactly how. Yeah, divorce rates are up since 1960. Who’s getting divorced and why? Can SHAM actually be shown to have anything to do with it? What is it really doing to people, anyway? Instead of providing data (which MUST exist) on the causes and effects of divorce, we get some words of wisdom from David Blankenhorn.  Teaching styles have changed since nuns dispensed whacks with rulers for wrong answers.  But instead of data on the success of different approaches in education, we get sardonic accounts of kids in Portland, Oregan keeping “feelings journals” and hand-wringing about the “feminization” of little boys. (In general, Salerno’s criticisms of education seem very much out of date.  Standardized testing and Skinnerian rote learning seem to be much greater forces in American schools today than touchy-feely hippy stuff.)

In the end, Salerno is guilty of just what he accuses self-help gurus of doing: selling an untested and unproven bill of goods.

…in any meaningful empirical sense, there is almost no evidence – at all – for the utility of self-help, either in theory or in practice.

True.  But there’s no empirical evidence – at least not in this book – of the egregious harm Salerno claims SHAM is doing to us.

What you’re left with is some delicious anti-Dr. Laura and Dr. Phil gossip, some embarrassing facts about Tony Robbins, and some discredited Republican talking points. A definite disappointment.

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