Rating:Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America, by Barbara Ehrenreich. Metropolitan Books (2009), 235 pages.
Ehrenreich is making all kinds of really excellent points in this book. Yes, being told you must face your chemotherapy treatment with optimism and good cheer would be extremely annoying. And yes, it must be very tiresome to work for a company that makes its employees attend conventions run by manically energetic motivational speakers. And it is without a doubt truly nauseating to listen to prosperity theology evangelists speak about God wanting them to be rich.
I find myself agreeing with pretty much everything Ehrenreich writes about in Bright-Sided, and yet, at the same time, her larger thesis strikes me as completely wrong. We are not a nation of delusional happy people who believe we can “manifest” whatever we wish, but even if we were, is being negative, disdainful, and sarcastic an improvement? I can’t help but notice that Ehrenreich has made a career out of sharing with us all that is wrong with the world (she is the author of over fifteen books on misery: war, greed, sickness, poverty, etc.) and in the one exception, a book on joy, she criticizes us for not having any. She also seems to be almost uniformly contemptuous of and patronizing toward cheerful people. Anyone who is happy, according to Ehrenreich, is either a greedy, self-satisfied, wealthy person who cares nothing about the suffering of others, or an ignorant poor person, to be pitied for believing that their situation could improve.
I have enjoyed Ehrenreich’s books in the past (particularly the scathing Nickel and Dimed) as she is a very good writer—clever, smart, and often enjoyably sarcastic—but I am beginning to tire of her relentlessly negative point of view. I will, however, join her in her fault-finding mission by noting that the cover of Bright-Sided is one of the most unappealing, uninspired, ugly covers I have ever seen. There is nothing about it that works. Not only is this shade of yellow migraine-inducing, but it is also too literal, as is the smiley balloon. It is a disaster, a nightmare, a blight upon my bookshelf. Despite my unhappiness, I will be applying positive thinking to this book (you can thank me later, Ms. Ehrenreich) in hopes of manifesting a new and improved cover when the paperback is designed.
Everything in mainstream breast cancer culture serves, no doubt inadvertently, to tame and normalize the disease: the diagnosis may be disastrous, but there are those cunning pink rhinestone angel pins to buy and races to train for. Even the heavy traffic in personal narratives and practical tips that I found so useful bears an implicit acceptance of the disease and the current clumsy barbarous approaches to its treatment: you can get so busy comparing attractive head scarves that you forget to question whether chemotherapy is really going to be effective in your case.
Reviewed by Cindy Blackett