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On writing self-help books
This year I unwittingly found myself an author of a book stocked in the self-help section, and so I’ve spent some time paying attention to self-help as a genre (and it is a genre), and sorting out my feelings about it, and now that I’m writing a new book, I’m wondering if it too is a self-help book, and what that means, and whether I can study the form in a way so that I can subvert it or put my own spin on it.
Colin Dickey posted a great piece back in October on the history of the self-help book and where it is now.
He points to Samuel Smiles’ 1859 book, Self-Help, as the beginning of the genre. (Dickey notes, with a hint of disdain, that “naturally” it was self-published, but a little research tells me it “sold 20,000 copies within one year of its publication” and by his death “had sold over a quarter of a million.“ Not too shabby.) Self-Help was actually a sort of noble reaction to “various movements [of the 19th century] that promoted panaceas to cure all of society’s ills: phrenologists, teetotalers, vegetarians, hydrotherapy advocates… and on and on—all promising simple, quick fixes that would lead to utopian harmony.”
Smiles rejected all of that; the key to success, he argues in Self-Help, is knowledge and hard-work. “Men must necessarily be the active agents of their own well-being and well-doing,” he writes, “and that, however much the wise and the good may owe to others, they themselves must in the very nature of things be their own best helpers.”
Dickey says the problem with self-help today is that it has returned to the very quick-fix pseudoscientific snake-oil cures that Smiles (what a perfect name) was reacting to: enter the world of pop neuroscience books by Malcolm Gladwell and Jonah Lehrer, which Isaac Chotiner called: “laboratory-approved self-help…self-help for people who would be embarrassed to be seen reading it.”
Indeed, Put Some Neuroscience On It!™ is the easiest way to add credibility to what is, essentially folk wisdom, as is pointed out in my review of Imagine, “The Neuroscience of Bullshit), and this juicy bit from Steven Poole’s piece, “Your brain on pseudoscience: the rise of popular neurobollocks”:
[H]ere is a recipe for writing a hit popular brain book. You start each chapter with a pat anecdote about an individual’s professional or entrepreneurial success, or narrow escape from peril. You then mine the neuroscientific research for an apparently relevant specific result and narrate the experiment, perhaps interviewing the scientist involved and describing his hair. You then climax in a fit of premature extrapolation, inferring from the scientific result a calming bromide about what it is to function optimally as a modern human being. Voilà, a laboratory-sanctioned Big Idea in digestible narrative form. This is what the psychologist Christopher Chabris has named the “story-study-lesson” model, perhaps first perfected by one Malcolm Gladwell. A series of these threesomes may be packaged into a book, and then resold again and again as a stand-up act on the wonderfully lucrative corporate lecture circuit.
It’s interesting to note that while Smiles’ book started out “in a speech he gave in March 1845 in response to a request by a Mutual Improvement Society,” nowadays, self-help is usually used as a way of getting to give speeches. Ryan Holiday in his piece, “Why Books Are Now The Ultimate Business Card”:
Faced with declining sales and the disappearance of book retailers like Borders, authors have diversified their income streams, and many make substantially more money through new business generated by a book, rather than from it.
Today, authors are in the idea-making business, not the book business. In short, this means that publishing a book is less about sales and much more about creating a brand. The real customers of books are no longer just readers but now include speaking agents, CEOs, investors, and startups._
(It’s a sad truth: talking about being creative can be way more lucrative than, you know, actually being creative.)
But back to Dickey: he pulls out what could, very possibly, be the formula for a self-help book proposal or dust jacket flap:
This is the foundation of self-help, after all: unlock the secrets that make me better, and then tell me what to do. Give me actionable intelligence, make me more creative, increase the percentage of solutions I’m able to devise. Give me a plan because I’m incapable of making my own; give me a plan because mine isn’t working.
(Sidenote: one of my favorite things about criticism is that it’s actually great ammo for the criticized: for instance, reading criticism of self-help can actually make you a better or more successful self-help author, with formulas revealed and alternate possibilites suggested. Whether you use the knowledge for good or evil, whether you try to improve or harness and amplify what’s already there is up to you…)
Is there hope for self-help? Dickey suggests that because it is so largely untapped by folks with literary or artistic ambitions, self-help is actually a genre ripe for experimentation. He points to Cheryl Strayed’s Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar as a kind of cross-genre beast of literary essays masquerading as self-help:
Strayed… deals in—if not clichés, then slogans. “Trust yourself,” she writes in one column, “It’s Sugar’s golden rule. Trusting yourself means living out what you already know to be true.” Another 2,000 word post features the maxim: “Write like a motherfucker”—helpfully available now on mugs and t-shirts.
What’s interesting about Strayed’s column, though, is that these slogans and maxims are, as often as not, near the beginning of the column rather than the end. The best posts dispense advice almost perfunctorily, before moving into long personal essays—essays that at times can seem like digressions.
As long as humans feel the need to improve themselves, to get better at life and work, self-help, whether it’s called that or not, is not going away. What self-help needs is authors willing to fuck with it, to mix it with other forms and breed mongrels, to give it equal doses of honesty and weirdness.
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