From ‘Writers & Artists Year Book’ — 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015
NOTES FROM A SUCCESSFUL MBS AUTHOR
William Bloom reveals the trials of writing for the Mind, Body & Spirit market
What’s it all about? What’s the meaning of life? What’s my purpose? How am I meant to live? These Big Questions are at the heart of the Mind, Body & Spirit (MBS) movement and its books. Not surprisingly, the quality of answers ranges across a wide spectrum, from self-centred banality to some actual wisdom. It was ever so with philosophy and religion.
Free of the pulpit and the university chair, yet attempting to wrestle with these core issues, the MBS movement — also known as New Age and holistic — is an easy target for critics who question its authority. As a popular movement it does not appear to have gravitas or roots or a secure intellectual method. It is also a very recent phenomenon. Just as each generation tends to decry the next generation’s music, so philosophers and religionists do not like the look of this new creature in their territory. The glitterati, the media intellectuals, are also suspicious.
So, first things first, as an MBS author in the UK, expect no respect!
Almost without exception, the book pages of the national media will not give you any space except perhaps to make some snobbish wisecracks. The media likes to make fun of New Age ideas. But far from being a small niche fashion, MBS is now a nationwide lifestyle approach, which the glitterati themselves may adopt when its design elements (e.g. feng shui) are attractive or its healthcare strategies (e.g. stress control using visualisation) are pragmatically useful. Reflecting this, most newspapers carry MBS sections where the focus is mainly on health and beauty, and with only the occasional foray into anything actually to do with the soul or spirit.
But why is there this scepticism in the media? After years of watching and receiving their gibes — I can think of several times when BBC radio producers have reassured me that it was going to be a friendly interview, only to be met by the usual sarcasm (even once for an obituary piece on the Sunday programme!). I interpret the cynicism as the anxious outrage of peoples whose own worldview and lifestyle are threatened. It is a clash of paradigms and cultures. The quick-witted, speeding, red meat-eating, boozing, smoking hacks do not want to examine how they themselves live or their fixed ideas about the nature of reality and consciousness.
The cynicism of Grub Street is not helped by the number of authors in the MBS field whose work is indeed extraordinarily flaky, opinionated and harmful. One example of these flakes, sometimes called New Age fascists, is the brigade that chants the ‘you create your own reality’ mantra and has the cruelty to tone it towards people with life-threatening illness or, even worse, children caught up in war and famine. These fatalists who suggest that dying children in sub-Saharan Africa ‘chose their destiny’ are often the same people who then go gooey-eyed at angels, fairies and spooks. Not surprisingly the cynics are outraged by these attitudes. But, if you are a would-be MBS author or publisher, you cannot help but notice that books on angels, spooks and creating your own reality are perennial sellers.
On the positive side, however, MBS material often initiates and supports the very best in holistic and integrative healthcare. For example, the increasing awareness of the relationship between emotions, diet, social tensions and health has been pioneered by MBS bestsellers such as Deepak Chopra and Louise Hay. The notion of self-managed healthcare is deeply embedded in the holistic approach. The philosophical connection between the concepts of sub-atomic physics and mysticism, the alliance of feminism and eco-spirituality, the inclusive recognition that all religious traditions share important core features — these valuable elements in today’s culture have all been initiated and nurtured by MBS authors.
As a body of knowledge and cultural movement, MBS presents a general worldview that opposes, to one degree or another, mainstream traditional culture. From an MBS perspective, mainstream culture might be provocatively caricatured as patriarchal, uncomfortable with emotional literacy, devoted to a crude billiard ball model of the universe in which only the solid is real, and peculiarly narrow-minded when presented with any concepts that include altered states of consciousness, metaphysics or the notion of energy/vitality as an important force in human affairs. MBS presents a more fluid model of an interconnected, interdependent universe in which matter, energy and consciousness are aspects of the same spectrum and interchangeable.
No wonder that mainstream commentators may be suspicious. Their worldview is under attack. The ongoing paradigm war in healthcare between scientific fundamentalists and holistic practitioners exemplifies this.
To better understand the MBS field it is useful to place it in its historical context and see it as part of the democratisation of information. It is a cliché now to notice that a few hundred years ago enquirers into the meaning of life would have been severely restricted in their research. Predominantly illiterate and with travel so difficult, their enquiry would have been limited to local authorities. Priests and wise women would have been sources of information and we can only guess at the quality of their answers. We can surmise that their responses would have been clothed mainly in their particular culture. There was no interfaith movement, nor much multiculturalism. To enquire fully into the big questions would have required literacy and travel, both scarce resources. Even if you possessed both, there was no centre of education that housed information on all the world’s religious traditions and their techniques; nor for example was there a body of study which we now call psychology.
The mushrooming of literacy and communications since the 19th century has transformed that situation. Answers to the great questions can be found now in thousands of different sources. Over the last decades, for the first time in human history, the spiritualities, beliefs and philosophies of all cultures are now accessible. The sacred books of all traditions are available and there is at least one website that claims to provide the texts of all of them.
Teachings that were previously passed on one by one, teacher to student — such as tribal shamanic secrets or yoga techniques — are also now part of the public domain. The esoteric strategies of traditional faiths — for example meditation, visualisation, body posture and prayer — historically restricted to the mystics of those traditions, are also on public view.
This is no shallow revolution. Freedom of information has dismantled the dominating hierarchies of restricted information — in religion more than in any other domain of knowledge. Historically the power of religious organisations, of all faiths, was maintained by the claim that only an ordained few had access to the truth. At one level, in terms of literacy, this was indeed a horribly accurate statement. In terms of social status it was also violent and repressive.
MBS can, in my opinion, be seen as the cultural movement that is exploring and expressing this new-found freedom. All the old secrets are now on display. The dominance based on a monopoly of claimed truth or a monopoly of information is dismantled. The holistic movement is young and in its developmental stages. It is so young that it hardly even recognises itself, let alone takes itself seriously, which would be a good first step for a movement that wants others to take it seriously.
In this historical context of cultural upheaval, it is no wonder that traditional religionists survey this scene, despair and decry the smorgasbord, the spiritual supermarket. The books and the general media offerings seem to offer no grounding in a stable community, a trustworthy tradition or a set of ethics.
To a degree these protests are justified. The inevitable forces of commercialisation and popularisation have indeed appropriated some precious spiritual jewels and bowdlerised them, sometimes beyond recognition. The dumbing down and smorgasbord aspects of MBS are easy targets. But that vulgarisation has always existed in the field of belief, from saints’ bones and lascivious monks through to shrouds and cure-all snake oil.
The impression of being a spiritual supermarket is, when looked at more closely, a strength. One of the most positive features of MBS is its willing integration of many domains that participate in the enquiry for meaning. When I edited The Penguin Book of New Age and Holistic Writing in 2000 I organised these domains in a way that is still relevant.
- New Science
- Gaia â€“ The Living Earth
- Holistic Health and Healing
- Feminism and the Goddess
- Shamanic and Magical Traditions
- Mystic and Esoteric Religion
- Modern Prophesy
In one form or another you will find similar sections, located close to each other, in most bookshops. What these books have in common is that they are all accessible to a popular audience and are not academic. Within each of the categories there are substantial bestsellers. Publishers, of course, are looking to repeat them. At the time of writing this article, authors such as Deepak Chopra, Neil Donald Walsh, Caroline Myss and Eckhart Tolle are performing strongly. In the past, writers such as John Grey, M. Scott Peck and Louise Hay have topped the bestseller lists. As I mentioned above, there is currently a fashion for books on angels, spiritualist mediums, positive psychology and how to use the energy of thought for personal success. Previous flavours of the month have included subjects such as relationships, creativity, quantum physics, detoxing, past lives and energy medicine.
But in writing directly for the national media, authors need to pitch their pieces carefully inside the limits of what editors feel they can reasonably accept. The sarcasm of their colleagues and bad science jibes can have a powerful censoring effect.
Is there a secret to success in this field? I once heard a cynical commissioning editor saying that the recipe for an MBS bestseller is to: (a) Tell people what they already know; (b) Wrap it up so that they think they are reading it for the first time; (c) Write it so that the reader feels intelligent for understanding the material and is therefore part of a cutting edge or spiritual elite. This means that pioneering authors, the originators of concepts, may be overshadowed by the more populist authors who transform original and unique material into a more accessible form. So another piece of advice for MBS authors seeking success is to not be original, but to develop the original material of others. (I am of course waiting philosophically for other authors to make a mint out of my work.) This, of course, is not always the case. Fritjof Capra’s ‘Tao of Physics’ and Daniel Goleman’s ‘Emotional Intelligence’ are good examples of bestselling and pioneering books.
So as an MBS author, as in most literary fields, you have a wide range of options. You can offer your work as a flaky mishmash of half-baked truisms laid out on the supermarket smorgasbord of commercialised religion, psychology and philosophy. Or you can be part of an important cultural liberation movement in which adults, free of traditional prejudices and with an open heart and mind, are supported in exploring the most profound questions about life and its meaning.