Scull on psychiatry’s problems

Interesting book review by Andrew Scull in the Los Angeles Review of Books. The book is called All We Have to Fear: Psychiatry’s Transformation of Natural Anxieties into Mental Disorders by A. V. Horwitz and J. C. Wakefield. The authors (and the reviewer) are critical of contemporary psychiatry for much the same reason that some of us philosophical types are skeptical of it—empirical evidence is sketchy and many of symptoms of psychopathology are amorphous enough to mean anything. This paragraph is a good synopsis of the review:

This reliance on symptoms, and on the simplistic approach of counting symptoms to make a diagnosis, creates a bogus confidence in psychiatric science. Such categories have an element of the arbitrary about them. When Robert Spitzer and his associates created DSM III, they liked to call themselves DOPs (data-oriented persons). In fact, DSM’s categories were assembled through political horse-trading and internal votes and compromise. The document they produced paid little heed to the question of validity, or to whether the new system of categorizing mental disorders corresponded to real diseases out there. And subsequent revisions have hewed to the same approach. With the single exception of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), which, as its name implies, is a diagnosis having its origins in trauma of an extreme sort, the various categories in the DSM, including the anxiety disorders that preoccupy Horwitz and Wakefield, are purely symptom-based. (The construction of the PTSD diagnosis, incidentally, as the authors show, was every bit as political as the creation of the other DSM categories.) Because so much depends on the wording that describes the symptoms to be looked for and on how many symptoms one needs to display to warrant a particular diagnosis (why do six symptoms make a schizophrenic, not five, or seven?), small shifts in terminology can have huge real-world effects. The problem is magnified in studies of the epidemiology of psychiatric disorders. As Horwitz and Wakefield point out, to make studies of this sort cheaper and allow those producing them to employ laypeople to administer the necessary instruments, the diagnostic process is simplified even further in these settings. They write that psychiatric epidemiologists make “no attempt to establish the context in which worries arise, endure, and disappear so as to separate contextually appropriate anxiety from disordered anxiety conditions [and thus they] can uncover as much seeming psycho-pathology as they desire.”

Scull noted earlier that the DSM was created specifically to standardize psychiatric diagnoses after some embarrassing events in the mid-twentieth century. But as with all standards for complicated and messy phenomena, simplification was necessary. And since simplification leads to abstraction, the symptomologies for various disorders became vague. Vaguely defined symptoms can be matched to any complaint. Are you feeling down? Or very down?

Anyway, a good read.


Defending said bookisms? “Say it aint’ so!” he asseverated.

“Said bookisms” is an expression for colourful dialogue tags and beats in fiction. Instead of following dialogue with he said, she said, etc., the writer uses he demanded, she proclaimed, he hissed, etc. Showing a preference for the latter over the former is said to be a defect in one’s writing—a mark of amateurism.

But it was not always so. Sixty years ago—as my examples below show—it was common to find more colourful dialogue tags and it’s not entirely uncommon today. And I would argue that it’s still not a defect; the defect is the not the choice of words other than said, it’s the misuse of words other than said. An amateur mines the thesaurus for synonyms for said without any regard for the content of a character’s speech. He will write, for example:

“I’m feeling a little woozy,” she insisted.

Clearly, insisted is the wrong word to characterize the character’s words. Not in all cases, of course; this bit might be said by a girl to her skeptical mother. But you get the idea.

Anyway, here’s a delightful example of full-blown, hardcore said bookism use from Percival Wilde (bolded in the text below). The story is called “The Pillar of Fire,” and I believe it was originally published in the 1920s. Notice that some of the said bookisms are a little tortured: asseverated and ejaculated are painful. But others read well.


“Bill,” he repeated, “do you believe in mind reading?”

Bill sighed. “Well, do you believe in it?” he countered wearily.

Tony settled himself in a judicial attitude. “Yes and no,” he admitted.


“I’m a broad-minded man and I’m always open to conviction.”

“And have you ever been convicted—I mean convinced?” inquired Bill.

Tony nodded gravely. “Yes,” he admitted.

Bill nodded with equal gravity.

“Then there’s nothing more to be said,” he declared.


But Tony had barely begun. “Bill,” he commanded, “get your mind on this.”

“I can talk just as well in my sleep.”

“Not to me,” declared Tony emphatically. “We were discussing mind reading,” he recalled, somewhat superfluously, “and I was about to tell you I had seen examples of it.”

“Such as?”

“Well,” said Tony reflectively, “there was a chap I met some years ago who could do a very wonderful trick with three cards. He’d show you the faces before he started—one of them was a king—”

Bill interrupted. “And then he’d shuffle them clumsily, and bet you couldn’t locate it.”


“It was nothing but relying on an old, old maxim,” retorted Bill.

“What maxim?” demanded Tony somewhat angrily.


“What of that?” queried Tony.


“And now for a snooze,” he murmured.


“What happened to the mind reader?” insisted Tony.


“It can’t be done!” ejaculated Tony.


“Quite so,” drawled Bill.


“Don’t you see it yet?” laughed Bill.


“Whew!” whistled Tony.


“I’ll remember that,” Tony promised.


“Your coming will be something of a sensation,” predicted Tony.


“No,” said Tony reluctantly, “I was saving that for a surprise.”


“W-what?” stammered Tony.


“I understand, Bill,” he guessed, “you were afraid of making them suspicious.”


“Why should I lose on purpose?” he countered.


“Without the least difficulty,” asseverated Tony.


“He must have improved,” said Tony idiotically.


“The cards must have been marked,” he suggested.


“That’s all,” assented Bill.


There are some other gems in Wilde’s story too: clucked, ventured, snapped, asked innocently—the list goes on.

But I think you’ll have to agree that not all his said bookisms are not over the top. And the key difference between those that are and those that aren’t is that the verb in the tag fits the dialogue. Countered works when someone is countering; guessed when someone is guessing; admitted when admitting and so on. In fact, I think said after a question is out of place. Consider this example:

“What time should we meet?” she said.

Does that sound natural? One asks a question, one does not say it. I suggest that no tag should be used or asked should be used:

“What time should we meet?” she asked.

None of this comes close to iron-clad argument against the no-said-bookisms rule, but it should cause writers to pause before they follow the doctrine religiously.

Forbes article on indie publishing

There’s an interesting article in Forbes on self-publishing. For once, the author seems to have investigated the case before regurgitating what he heard from someone—usually a disgruntled someone from traditional publishing—who doesn’t know anything. All the same, there are two weak spots in the piece:

1. His take on the Big Six’s business model. I don’t want to get into the analysis. Suffice to say, whenever someone claims to spot a major defect the business model adopted by an entire industry—one that went completely unnoticed by that industry—I call bullshit.

2. He predicts that the slush problem will be fixed by Amazon and B&N hiring reviewers. As if. They’re never going to hire real reviewers to pan books. That’s like Walmart putting a critic next to the greeter to warn people off its less than wonderful merchandise. On top of that, how many authors are going to tolerate being panned by their distributor? None. And how many consumers are going to believe an in-house critic? Even fewer. As it is, the “Vine” reviewers are a joke. They churn out copy to keep the freebies coming.

A third problem is the one ignored by most indies and misstated by most defenders of tradition publishing. The fact is that a large swath of the culture industry lives off the Big Six’s largess. Once they stop investing in books culture—they won’t disappear—the culture around books will probably die.

I hear the objection all ready: “Book bloggers and other social media outlets will take over from traditional periodicals, so don’t get yourself worked up.” Dream on. Book bloggers have no interest whatsoever in panning books—they don’t need the backlash. If they haven’t figured it our already, they’ll stick to books they like and ignore the rest.

But bad books—and criticism more generally—are also part of the book culture. Lose that and you lose everything but puffery and mutual masturbation: “Wow! This book is unbelievable! I wish I could forget it just to experience for the first time all over again!”

Anyway, that’s how I see it.

Stevenson on Realism in Literature

Following is an excerpt from R. L. Stevenson’s “A note on Realism,” Essays in the Art of Writing. The old proverb struck me as I was reading it, the more things change, the more they stay the same. Stevenson rejects as a false dichotomy the distinction between the Aristotelian view of literature as vehicle of perennial truth and realism. The same monster exists today. Gritty realism about anti-heroes and the pathos of the poverty stricken are the stuff of real literature, while the problems of the human condition, when dealt with at all, are treated like social problems in need of state intervention. Anyway, enjoy:


In literature…the great change of the past century has been effected by the admission of detail.  It was inaugurated by the romantic Scott; and at length, by the semi-romantic Balzac and his more or less wholly unromantic followers, bound like a duty on the novelist. For some time it signified and expressed a more ample contemplation of the conditions of man’s life; but it has recently (at least in France) fallen into a merely technical and decorative stage, which it is, perhaps, still too harsh to call survival….After Scott we beheld the starveling story—once, in the hands of Voltaire, as abstract as a parable—begin to be pampered upon facts. The introduction of these details developed a particular ability of hand; and that ability, childishly indulged, has led to the works that now amaze us on a railway journey.  A man of the unquestionable force of M. Zola spends himself on technical successes. To afford a popular flavour and attract the mob, he adds a steady current of what I may be allowed to call the rancid. That is exciting to the moralist; but what more particularly interests the artist is this tendency of the extreme of detail, when followed as a principle, to degenerate into mere feux-de-joie of literary tricking. The other day even M. Daudet was to be heard babbling of audible colours and visible sounds.

This odd suicide of one branch of the realists may serve to remind us of the fact which underlies a very dusty conflict of the critics. All representative art, which can be said to live, is both realistic and ideal; and the realism about which we quarrel is a matter purely of externals. It is no especial cultus of nature and veracity, but a mere whim of veering fashion, that has made us turn our back upon the larger, more various, and more romantic art of yore.  A photographic exactitude in dialogue is now the exclusive fashion; but even in the ablest hands it tells us no more—I think it even tells us less—than Molière, wielding his artificial medium, has told to us and to all time of Alceste or Orgon, Dorine or Chrysale. The historical novel is forgotten. Yet truth to the conditions of man’s nature and the conditions of man’s life, the truth of literary art, is free of the ages. It may be told us in a carpet comedy, in a novel of adventure, or a carpet comedy, in a novel of adventure, or a fairy tale. The scene may be pitched in London, on the sea-coast of Bohemia, or away on the mountains of Beulah. And by an odd and luminous accident, if there is any page of literature calculated to awake the envy of M. Zola, it must be that Troilus and Cressida which Shakespeare, in a spasm of unmanly anger with the world, grafted on the heroic story of the siege of Troy.

This question of realism, let it then be clearly understood, regards not in the least degree the fundamental truth, but only the technical method, of a work of art. Be as ideal or as abstract as you please, you will be none the less veracious; but if you be weak, you run the risk of being tedious and inexpressive; and if you be very strong and honest, you may chance upon a masterpiece.


Niceness Epidemic in On-Line Book Culture

Here’s a link to a good piece at Slate by Jacob Silverman about the utter banality of on-line book culture:

The only fault I find is that it’s hardly limited to on-line book culture. Universities have been caught in the death grip of Absolute Nice for years.

I think I first noticed it about four years ago at a conference. No one wanted to hear any criticism of the papers offered at…a conference. Duh? The point of reading a paper at an academic conference is to get feedback; and you’re there to get the negative kind because it’s mostly from the same people likely to criticize your paper in print. It’s only intensified since then—so much so, in fact, that I refuse to attend such lectures in principle.

It’s sad, really, and I’m not helping anything by staying away. But who needs the flack? I mean the eye-rolling, the groans, the sighs—the usual social signs telling you to shut up and be…nice.

Sean Collins on Bloom’s “Closing of the American Mind”

Not a great piece at all by Collins in Spiked! on the 25th anniversary of The Closing of the American Mind. He starts out with the tired commonplace about how neither the left nor the right understood Bloom—please, this rhetorical posture was always inane, but the commonplace is now so common that can’t be taken seriously anymore.

Of course, Collins doubles down on the clichés with a good ol’ fashioned critique of Bloom’s strategy in Closing. Collins chides Bloom for his elitism, saying it didn’t make him friends on the left. This line of criticism is irrelevant. It says, in effect, that Bloom should have kept his elitism to himself so he’d gain more traction with…egalitarians! Think about how absurd that is: Bloom is being criticized for stating a view that put him at odds with people who espouse a view that he fundamentally disagrees with. Is that a weakness in Bloom’s case or just part of it?

Anyway, I wanted to point out a specific problem because it has the ring of a criticism about it. I think it’s wrong, but at least it’s halfway sensible on the face of it. Collins suggests Bloom contradicted himself by rejecting the Nietzscheanism of the left, on the one hand, while offering an essentially Nietzschean critique of liberal education (qua child of the Enlightenment) on the other. Sounds fair.

But Collins himself explains why it isn’t a contradiction at all in the process of explicating Bloom’s view. Collins says Bloom “is irked because they [i.e., the left] don’t struggle with the Nietzschean existential moment, and join him in re-establishing the questioning spirit of Socrates as a means of grappling with it” because where Bloom finds Nietzsche’s abyss the cause for concern, the left sees it as a license to party.

Where’s the contradiction? Collins says that Bloom and the left share anti-Enlightenment Nietzschean sympathies which run against liberal education. But this is the classic four terms fallacy: being anti-Enlightenment doesn’t make you anti-liberal education. Bloom believes liberal education is the only answer to the Nietzschean abyss, while the left thinks it renders it unnecessary. There’s no contradiction: there two different views of Nietzsche issue in two different views of liberal education.

Come to that, I suggest that Blooms view of the role of liberal education—whether he’s truly anti-Enlightenment or not—dovetails with the Enlightenment view of liberal education, while the left’s view of it is inconsistent with it.  So, not only is Bloom self-consistent (contrary to Collins’s claim), he’s also consistent with the Enlightenment view of liberal education.

A flawed but interesting article on self-publishing and social media

Ewan Morrison has some interesting figures on social media, even if the thesis of the piece is, well, unpersuasive. He claims that e-publishing is a “tech bubble” that will burst sometime over the next 18 months. As if that wasn’t odd enough, he explains the reason as follows:

epublishing is inextricably tied to the structures of social media marketing and the myth that social media functions as a way of selling products. It doesn’t, and we’re just starting to get the true stats on that. When social media marketing collapses it will destroy the platform that the dream of a self-epublishing industry was based upon.

Notice the oddity? E-publishing would normally refer to the industry or market, and self-epublishing to the method of publication (i.e., to e-books). But neither refers to its conventional referent, which is why the thesis makes so little sense and why he’s catching a lot of flak for it from self-publishers. In both cases he means the motivation behind self-publishing. What he’s really saying, in other words, is that writers will stop self-publishing when they realize the social media doesn’t work as a promotional tool.

Just a bit of a stretch. Even if you agree that social media promotion is bunk—and I do agree on that point; more below—it doesn’t follow that self-publishing is no longer a viable option. That’s a whole different hypothesis. Writers will write and seek some form of publication no matter how useless social media is. After all, writers have historically written for next to nothing—some still do—on the off chance that they’d make it big.  Self-publishing is the easiest route, so it’s hard to see why the futility of social media as a marketing tool with deter them.

Anyway, there’s still some interesting figures about social media on offer. Here are some highlights about Facebook (FB):

1. He cites a study by Reuters that found four out of five FB users have never bought anything based on an ad or a comment on FB.

2. GM pulled its ad campaign from FB because it showed no return on investment.

3. FB has lost 26% of its value since IPO (initial public offering).  

Individually, none of these facts is especially damning. But together they should suggest the limited value of FB as a marketing tool. If GM and FB investors see no value in it, chances are it has little or no value beyond the immediate social connections it helps facilitate.

I know many writers think FB and Twitter are great tools. I’ve never personally seen what the value is because I don’t see how they differ from any other saturated medium. Message boards, which have been around much longer, have essentially no value for either readers looking for books because they suffer the same problem as their physical counterparts: they’re cluttered with junk. This lesson was learned before Twitter became a phenomenon, so it’s hard to see why people image the new variation on the medium will work any better than the old.

Finally, I think writers should look closely at the people promising riches and fame through social media and self-publishing (Morrison names a few). I know a lot of them are merely proselytizers, but a lot more are looking to sell them useless services and super-methods for writing success. I also know that a lot of writers desire to be a success will guarantee that these hucksters are the only ones making money.