Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Book-A-Day 2010 # 195 (8/17) -- What Women Want by Paco Underhill

Nonfiction writers come in two general flavors: reporters and experts. [1] Reporters are good at the business of writing, since that's what they do -- they get out there and get the story, and then write it down in prose at least good enough for the job, and often much better. Experts, on the other hand, often require actual writers to turn their expertise into sentences with real verbs in them -- but they have "platform," which means that they're already good at whatever the other thing is that they do, and that people are already interested in what they have to say because of that.

So a book by a reporter is always a gamble -- there's no one out there clamoring for it, so it can (and often does) fall flat. Experts have a more complicated problem: they can, if they're successful enough, and write enough, outrun their expertise before they exhaust the goodwill of their audience.

Paco Underhill, for example, founded the retail consulting firm Envirosell, and used his deep knowledge of that world in his first book, the 1999 bestseller Why We Buy. A few years later, he went back to that well -- this time focusing more specifically on a particular shopping environment -- with Call of the Mall. Both of those books immeasurably benefited from Underhill's years of experience, and his very specific examples and knowledge -- and both were phenomenally successful commercially.

But any successful writer gets a contract to write another book, until he hits his own version of the Peter Principle, as witness Underhill's third book, What Women Want. Women has a much vaguer remit than Underhill's first two books -- it's ostensibly about commerce, more or less, but ends up being a terminally unfocused look at women, primarily as consumers of stuff, but also as whatever else came into Underhill's head as he was writing it. (Or, as the afterword makes clear, as several people were mostly writing it for him.)

Women is organized -- as much as it is organized, which isn't very far -- into various spheres of interest to "females" (as Underhill insists on calling them, most of the time), starting with the rooms of the house (bathroom, bedroom, kitchen) and then wandering through other aspects of life semi-randomly. Along the way, the reader gets anecdotes masquerading as evidence and vague platitudes in place of facts -- Underhill, you see, has worked with women all his life, and really likes women, so he can explain what all women everywhere want and do, not just today but in the future. (He's mostly writing about affluent middle-aged women in close-in suburbs of major cities -- those who shop at the kind of stores that can afford to hire Envirosell.)

Any reader will likely agree with some of Underhill's hazy generalizations and disagree with others -- and probably have just as many anecdotes to back up her disagreement as Underhill did to make the assertion in the first place. I hope Underhill hasn't used up his entirely career's worth of experience on his two previous books, but the evidence otherwise is not strong. What Women Want is a breezy, lightweight book, suitable for beach or poolside reading, but not much more than that.

[1] I may have remarked on this before; if I have, please pretend that this is a new, wonderfully insightful thought, if you don't mind.
Book-A-Day 2010: The Epic Index

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