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Self-help books get a lot of hate — but there's more to the genre than literary snobs allow

Everyone looks for wisdom and practical advice in what they read — that's comforting and a little disturbing.
Image: Self-Help books, Oprahs Book Club Returns To Promoting Living Authors
Sself-help and recovery books are displayed at a Borders Book store in Norridge, Illinois on Sept. 26, 2005.Tim Boyle / Getty Images file

Cultural critics and academics have long despised self-help books."How-to writers are to other writers as frogs are to mammals," Dwight MacDonald wrote in his 1954 essay "Howtoism." "Their books are not born, they are spawned." A 2011 CBS News article on the genre is forthrightly titled, "Why Most Self-Help Books Suck," and the genre's authors are frequently compared to snake oil salesmen.

Self-help books, critics insist, use mediocre prose to promise impossible transformations to gullible consumers. They tell people they can fix themselves with affirmations and diets, rather than acknowledging that society is rigged against them, and that no life hack can substitute for higher wages and universal health care. They offer bland, glib aphorisms rather than hard truths.

Self-help books, critics insist, use mediocre prose to promise impossible transformations to gullible consumers.

Harvard English professor Beth Blum argues, in contrast, that the dismissal of self-help is itself often too glib, and that the genre is closer to literary fiction than skeptics would have you believe. Her new study, “The Self-Help Compulsion: Searching for Advice in Modern Literature,” is a rare defense of the genre.

Blum points out that the self-help impulse to provide wisdom for real-life use isn't just confined to self-help books. It's everywhere. That makes self-help seem a lot more normal and natural. It also, though, makes the genre seem inescapable.

People have always wanted practical wisdom from their reading, Blum argues. That's why the self-help industry was valued at $9.9 billion in 2016, and is expected to hit $13 billion this year. "Literary critics can learn a lot about the way literature is disseminated, and the way it's used by popular readers, by looking at self-help," Blum told me.

In her book, Blum points out that self-help has long embraced literature, even if literature has not always reciprocated. Scottish author Samuel Smiles' 1859 book “Self-Help,” which Blum says named the genre, featured biographical sketches of working-class men who succeeded despite adversity. But it also included collections of aphorisms and inspiring quotations drawn from literature.

“Self-Help” was a global best-seller, and, Blum writes, was particularly beloved in 19th century Meiji Japan, where its rhetoric of self-improvement was used to promote nationalist self-reliance against Western incursion. Authors who Smiles quoted extensively, like Shakespeare and Benjamin Franklin, were quickly translated into Japanese. Authors he didn't quote were largely ignored.

Smiles' practice of repackaging literary nuggets as inspirational quotations continues to this day. Just as the Japanese learned about Shakespeare through self-help literature, so do most Americans learn about Confucius and Zen principles through self-help books. Even James Joyce, the iconic impenetrable modernist, has been reappropriated for self-help guides.

Self-help may rely on high-brow literature. But high-brow literature also relies on an ideology of personal cultivation and betterment that looks a lot like self-help. MacDonald's books and essays, for example, teach readers how to separate good culture from bad culture. "Howtoism" is a how-to guide about avoiding how-to books; it's what Blum refers to as anti-self-help self-help. A more recent example is philosopher Svend Brinkmann's 2017 “Stand Firm: Resisting the Self-Improvement Craze,” a self-help book that advises its readers to, among other things, read more novels and fewer self-help books.

Along the same lines, Blum told me that many contemporary novelists are "using self-help as a frame for their stories, and earnestly engaging with the genre and thinking about why it appeals to so many people." Blum singles out Sheila Heti's 2010 novel “How Should a Person Be?” and Mohsin Hamid's 2013 novel “How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia.” These books are written in the second-person and offer advice for spiritual and financial success. They include elements of parody, Blum says, but they also see literature as legitimately concerned with the human desire for self-advancement, self-improvement and wisdom.

While writers of literary fiction have embraced the potential of self-help, the academy has been less enthusiastic.

While writers of literary fiction have embraced the potential of self-help, the academy has been less enthusiastic, according to Blum. Scholars of self-help literature often criticize the form for encouraging people to turn inward for happiness, rather than focusing on collective political solutions. Academics also are often trained to focus on the literary and historical value of a text, Blum notes, and are reluctant to boil it down to moral truths or life lessons.

But, Blum says, students actually want books to offer them advice and guidance. People look to Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” to tell them how to be a good person, or to Jane Austen to tell them what to look for in a romantic partner, or to Octavia Butler's “Parable” series to teach them to identify and resist fascism. "I think the humanities in general, and academia, can do more to think about how to respond to that desire for relevance and advice," Blum says.

People do hunger for advice, and writers from Samuel Smiles to Octavia Butler have picked up a pen (or more recently a keyboard) to offer it to them. Blum shows that the self-help compulsion is ubiquitous; it's a reminder that everyone looks for wisdom and practical advice in what they read.

In the great self-help tradition, that's a comforting insight. But it's also (like self-help) a bit disturbing. When all books are urging you all the time to get better and smarter and wiser, you can start to feel a bit hunted. Not just by the self-help section, but the whole literary canon is disappointed at the speed with which you've given up on your 2020 new year's resolutions. When every book and article is a chance to help yourself, every book and article (even Blum's; even this one) is also a chance to fail.