Wednesday, January 1, 2014

The Healing Power of Fiction: "The Novel Cure" by Ella Berthoud and Susan Elderkin

"This is a medical handbook -- with a difference," begins the introduction to The Novel Cure, a comprehensive guide to bibliotheraputic treatments to help alleviate physical and mental pain.

What is bibliotherapy?  "The prescribing of fiction for life's ailments," is the definition provided by The Novel Cure authors Ella Berthoud and Susan Elderkin. Berthoud and Elderkin are both members of the faculty at The School of Life, a London-based international organization founded in 2008 by essayist and philosopher Alain de Botton, that is devoted to developing emotional intelligence through the help of culture.

Suffering people have long turned to non-fiction self-help books for assistance. But fiction? Can reading fiction really help cure what ails you? Berthoud and Elderkin unequivocally say yes. "Our belief in the effectiveness of fiction as the purest and best form of bibliotherapy is based on our own experience with patients and bolstered by an avalanche of anecdotal evidence," they write in The Novel Cure. "Some treatments will lead to a complete cure. Others will simply offer solace, showing you that you are not alone. All will offer temporary relief of your symptoms due to the power of literature to distract and transport."

Ella Berthoud (left) and Susan Elderkin, authors of
The Novel Cure.
The Novel Cure offers an alphabetical list of ailments and problematic situations that starts with "Abandonment." The prescription is Plainsong, Kent Haruf's tale of small town Coloradans stepping up to support neighbors let down by loved ones. "If you have been abandoned, don't be afraid to reach out to the wider community around you -- however little you know its inhabitants as individuals. They'll thank you for it one day," write Berthoud and Elderkin.

The list ends with "Zestlessness" and the suggested cure is Ragtime, E.L. Doctorow's lively, panoramic story of early twentieth century America. "Put yourself in a place where change is a given, and feel the zest flood back in," Berthoud and Elderkin advise.

In between A and Z are a host of physical and mental conditions both serious and whimsical. For example, under C there is both "Cancer, Having" (prescription: chose from a list of good novellas since you may not have the energy for a full-length novel) and "Coffee, Can't Find a Decent Cup of" (prescription: The Coffee Story,  a fictional memoir of a failed coffee entrepreneur, by Australian writer Peter Salmon).

This "bracing tonic" of a novel may
help the overly sentimental.
Feeling like a failure yourself?  H.G. Wells' The History of Mr. Polly, about a despairing, middle-aged draper who sets off to find a more joyful, fulfilled existence, may help. "Align yourself with Mr. Polly. Turn your supposed failures on their head. Stand tall," say Berthoud and Elderkin. Or perhaps you are too easily moved to cheap sentimentality? Try Richard Hughes' A High Wind in Jamaica, a "bracing tonic" of a novel in which neglected children cold-bloodedly contend with being kidnapped by pirates. "Perhaps even too disillusioning in its portrayal of the loss of childhood innocence, the novel will nevertheless be the perfect counterbalance to your gooey nature," say Berthoud and Elderkin.  

The A to Z list is peppered with some forty top ten lists, including the Ten Best Novels to Cure the Xenophobic (e.g. Once Upon a River by Bonnie Jo Campbell, Cities of Salt  by Abdelrahman Munif), the Ten Best Novels to Cheer You Up (e.g. Fever Pitch by Nick Hornby, I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith), and the Ten Best Novels to Make You Weep (e.g. Kiss of the Spider Woman by Manuel Puig, A Lesson Before Dying by Ernest J. Gaines).
Though centuries old classics are occasionally prescribed (e.g. the "electrifying" Don Quixote for lethargy) Berthoud and Elderkin mainly stick to more recent works. Their recommendations show a deep knowledge of English language novels of the last hundred or so years and makes The Novel Cure a worthwhile resource even for those who don't buy into the value of bibliotherapy.  

Cheer up with Fever Pitch
Gavin Francis of The Guardian calls The Novel Cure  -- "[A]n exuberant pageant of literary fiction and a celebration of the possibilities of the novel...Though there's plenty of flippancy it nonetheless contains the sort of grounded, practical advice that GPs are trying to pass on every day."

Here's more information --

Philip Marchand. "Open Book: The Novel Cure." National Post. 15 November 2013.

Talitha Stevenson. "Book Review: The Novel Cure." Wall Street Journal. 4 October 2013.

Noreen Tomassi. A Conversation with Susan Elderkin. (video) The Center for Fiction. 25 September 2013.

The Committee Room.  Time Spent with TCR is Never Wasted.

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