Help yourself

Giving a f*ck about self-help books

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THERE’S A MEMORABLE scene in Sex and the City where Charlotte, recently separated from her husband, browses the self-help section of a bookstore. Among the closely packed shelves, she reaches for the title she’s been looking for – a relationship manual called Starting Over Yet Again – as Carrie’s voice-over intones: ‘She couldn’t bear the thought that she belonged there.’ Tentatively scanning the blurb, Charlotte immediately notices another woman slumped on the floor. ‘That really helped me,’ the woman says, nodding towards the hardback in Charlotte’s hands before letting out a shuddering sob. Charlotte, visibly embarrassed, replaces the book on its shelf, wipes her palms on her jeans and pretends she’s merely lost on her way to the travel section.

SELF-HELP BOOKS and their readers are often treated with suspicion, even derision, in popular media. Long denounced as a lowbrow genre, self-help is a bit like the non-fiction equivalent of the Harlequin Romance: millions of copies are sold, yet nobody will own up to buying them.

Writing in 1910, when industrialised book production was making self-help steadily more available to the masses, American suffragist Frances Maule Björkman was already antagonistic: ‘Most of it,’ she insists, ‘is of a character to repel persons of critical taste. Its language is crude. It makes assertions in regard to scientific matters that cannot be proved – or, at least, have not been proved. It is mixed up with spiritism, astrology, mind-reading, vegetarianism, reincarnation, and all sorts of other “crank” doctrines and fads – and with a few actual “fakes”. The very names of its publications are enough to make sophisticated persons smile.’

More than a century later, Steve Salerno, an essayist and educator, was no less vicious, citing an ‘enterprise wherein people holding the thinnest of credentials diagnose in basically normal people symptoms of inflated or invented maladies, so that they may then implement remedies that have never been shown to work’.

At a glance, the array of titles on offer at your local bookstore may confirm this alarming state of affairs. (Where else, I ask, would an author seem so reluctant to discover themselves, such as Dan Russ, whose 10% Happier is a ‘spiritual’ book supposedly ‘written for – and by – someone who would otherwise never read a spiritual book’?) ‘The smartest writers and publishers,’ Boris Kachka writes in New York magazine, ‘shun the obvious terminology.’ Often more covertly or optimistically branded as something, anything, else – ‘popular psychology’, ‘health and wellbeing’, ‘mind, body, spirit’ – self-help continues to mark an organised chaos in which Chicken Soup for the Soul (or any of its countless sequels) sits comfortably alongside Unf#ck Your Brain or Quit Like a Woman. Volumes relating advice about interpreting body language or harnessing the introvert’s ‘edge’ jostle for space among nutrition manuals, meditation how-to guides and mindfulness colouring books.

Well into the twenty-first century, where the professionalisation of ‘help’ grows more and more pervasive, where the vices of old are recast as the diseases of modernity, where the language of therapy permeates the contemporary imagination, post-nominals such as ‘PhD’ and ‘MD’ package health and happiness in increasingly scientistic terms. All manner of experts now exhort the more discerning reader to ‘retrain their brain’ or ‘reverse the course of depression, one small change at a time’ – approaches that, as writer Andrew Solomon points out, are as susceptible to trend as any other science and in which ‘one year’s revelation is the next year’s folly’. It’s almost as though, beneath so many bright, glossy covers, lurk all our roughest edges, our uniquely human hang-ups, whether too shy, too sad, too lonely, too scared, too untidy, too hungry, too distracted, too sensitive, too burnt out. (And if, as Tom Butler-Bowdon suggests, self-help is as much about possibilities as problems, then the solutions, of course – whether silver bullet or snake oil.)

BUT ISN’T IT right here, in all its sprawling, perplexing circularity, that self-help deserves a second glance, maybe a more flattering appraisal? If we cannot live in the world and escape self-help, as the memoirist Jessica Lamb-Shapiro so wryly observes, we can hardly condemn its virulence without also being struck by its sheer resilience. At best, self-help might broadly inform, inspire and instruct, representing one of the most obvious – though not the most auspicious – mechanisms through which psychological and philosophical insights diffuse to a generalist audience. At worst, it pathologises, patronises, undermines and over-promises – epitomising an industry that perpetuates the very problems it purports to solve. But either way, more than anything else, self-help insists upon itself. Problems are solvable. Flaws are remediable. Selves are helpable. No wonder, then, we’re still taking the road less travelled, awakening the giant within and not sweating the small stuff (because it’s all small stuff).

When Professor David D Burns attributes the runaway success of his own bestseller Feeling Good (in print since 1980) to not only its ‘intuitively appealing ideas’, but also to the many other self-help books that have created a ‘strong popular demand’ for his ‘particular brand of psychotherapy’, he inadvertently acknowledges this porous boundary between supply and demand. Books don’t just reflect the culture in which they circulate. They propagate it, too. And in the case of self-help, its endurance speaks to the overwhelming amenability of print to the ways in which we cannot help but help ourselves. As Clarissa Pinkola Estés, author of Women Who Run with the Wolves, implies, it’s in the safety, affordability and generative unpredictability of reading that we’re able to make our own sense of the mess: ‘Some combinations are bomb materials,’ she concedes, but others ‘create seed stock.’

By accepting that quantity is inevitable and that quality is subjective, what emerges is an audience rather more ambivalent, or even savvy, than mindlessly adrift on the ceaseless currents of marketing hype. Reflecting in The Guardian on the origins of her self-professed ‘addiction to self-help books’, for example, crime novelist Sophie Hannah explains: ‘I fully understood that there was a strong chance that some of the books I read might be nonsense, but that only made my adventures in self-help all the more exciting. With each new book I thought, either this book will be right and I’ll learn something amazing and life-changing, or it’ll be dead wrong and I’ll be able to prove it and still learn something, only in a different way.’ 

Who knows, at the end of the day, what really helps?

For some, it might be Seneca; for others it’s CBT. For this reason alone – that there is no one, homogeneous ‘self’, no limit to the ways we might address its flaws and suffering – it’s unlikely the self-help market will ever slow. Nor will it outgrow its characteristic cringe. Yet to find self-help unbearable is to underestimate our knack for being in on the joke, bringing method to the madness, finding treasure among the trash. Maybe we all belong there, in one way or another – but if you want my advice? Feel the fear and read it anyway.

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