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16 August 2023

Jordan Peterson’s rules for selective quotation

A paperback edition of Beyond Order: 12 More Rules for Life made the best of its mixed reviews – and not all critics are happy.

By The Chatterer

When the New Statesman critic Johanna Thomas-Corr (now literary editor of the Sunday Times) reviewed Beyond Order, Jordan Peterson’s follow-up to 12 Rules for Life, in 2021, she did not pull her punches. It was, she wrote, a “lumpy soup” of trite observations and digressions that reads like “a compendium of stodgy Sunday sermons”. When the paperback edition came out in 2022, it somehow escaped critics’ notice that, despite the divisive nature of Peterson’s world-view and the dubious quality of his prose, the back cover was plastered with glowing reviews.

When it came to Thomas-Corr’s attention, she called the publisher out online, arguing that the quotation they had used was a “gross misrepresentation” of what she wrote. Closer examination reveals that it is not only the New Statesman review that was selectively mined for positive phrases – the crafty marketing team at Penguin Random House managed to fillet a series of ringing endorsements from what was, in reality, a much more mixed bag of reviews. Here’s what the book jacket quoted, and what the reviewers wrote.

The New Statesman

From the paperback: “Genuinely enlightening and often poignant… Here is a father figure who takes his audience seriously. And here is a grander narrative about truth, being, order and chaos that stretches back to the dawn of human consciousness”

From the review: “It is a lumpy soup of bromides about marriage, Old Testament commentaries, Jungian archetypes, Mesopotamian myths and endless deconstructions of Disney movies. There’s also a long, nerdy digression on the ways in which the golden snitch in Harry Potter is a metaphor for chaos. It reads more like a compendium of stodgy Sunday sermons delivered by a fire-and-brimstone preacher than a conventional self-help manual or political polemic. There’s much in it that’s genuinely enlightening and often poignant, particularly Peterson’s conviction that we need to be ‘alert, awake, attentive’ in our lives. Being a good citizen, he says, takes ‘genuine moral effort’ and storytelling is a vital moral-ethical tool in his armoury: ‘To know your story, you must tell it.’

“But as you plough on, you occasionally find a shard of something unnerving: petty jibes at young environmentalists, censorious judgements about women who want babies after the age of 29, and hypocritical tutting at couples who cohabit before marriage…

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“He repeatedly urges his listeners and readers to ‘think of our lives as stories’. In an age of moral relativism, here is a father figure who takes his audience seriously. And here is a grander narrative about truth, being, order and chaos that stretches back to the dawn of human consciousness. It is, however, a narrative filtered through Peterson’s prejudices…”

The Sunday Times

From the paperback: “Part quest, part adventure… masses of passion, masses of wisdom”

From the review: “As in 12 Rules for Life, the result is part quest, part adventure, part lecture and part polemic. Yet the feel is different. The witty gentleman of the Grand Tour now often seems to have been replaced by a kind of prophet fulminating in the darkness and urging us to repent before we are lost…

Beyond Order lacks the wit and sizzle of 12 Rules for Life. There’s too much esoteric musing, too much ponderous explication of Harry Potter novels and Mesopotamian myths, too much abstraction and not enough of the gripping case histories that bring his principles to life. But there’s masses of passion, masses of wisdom and a deep, deep yearning for us all to seek the beauty, truth and meaning Peterson has sometimes glimpsed and is desperate for us to find. He has had tens of thousands of letters from people who say he has helped them to find it. How many writers can say they have done that? I just hope that knowledge brings him more of the joy this book so sadly lacks.”

The Times

From the paperback: “A philosophy of the meaning of life… the most lucid and touching prose Peterson has written”

From the review: “This licenses Peterson (Dan Brown-style symbologist of the western canon) to hunt down these clues to construct a philosophy of the meaning of life.

“The predictable flaw is that Peterson’s readings of these myths are shaped by his idiosyncratic personality. Harry Potter, the Bible, Egyptian myths and Sumerian legends are polished into flattering mirrors for the Jordan Peterson view of the meaning of life, which, unsurprisingly, is just the sort of pessimistic heroic individualism you might expect from a baby boomer who grew up in remote Canada in the 1970s reading too much Nietzsche… 

Beyond Order is characterised by the same atmosphere of grinding undifferentiated portentousness you get in big-budget superhero movies where the plot is almost incomprehensible, but every fight is a fight to the death and requires inevitable, endless, wearying CGI explosions. Relating a whimsical anecdote about how after 20 years of marriage his stepfather unexpectedly complained about the size of the family dinner plates, Peterson chides: ‘If something happens every day, it is important, and lunch was happening every day.’

“Rule VIII: Try to Make One Room in Your Home as Beautiful as Possible (in my opinion one of the most sensitive and lucid passages of prose he has written) concerns art and interior design.”

The Daily Telegraph

From the paperback: “Wisdom combined with good advice”

From the review: “It is again hokey wisdom combined with good advice.”

[See also: Goodreads is degrading our literary culture]

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