‘How to Win Friends and Influence People” has generally been viewed as the self-help mother ship. But long, long before the 1936 publication of
guide to self-betterment and reinvention (30 million copies sold and counting), the untutored and insecure had a choice of reading matter for the lowdown on how to live well and prosper. In fact, such books date back to antiquity, according to
author of “The Self-Help Compulsion.” What is Ovid’s “Ars Amatoria,” she asks, “but an ancient Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus?” As for one of the major works of the Stoic philosopher
it is “cognitive behavioral therapy before its time.”
Age has apparently not withered the appeal of the genre. In the past 30 years, notes Ms. Blum, an assistant professor of English at Harvard, the self-help category has been among the most lucrative in publishing. It’s easy to understand why. Self-help makes the sort of claims and promises—a whole new you! a whole new in-control, wise, cultivated, savvy, beautiful you!—that readers find it hard to resist.
The Self-Help Compulsion
By Beth Blum
Columbia, 328 pages, $35
A recondite, sedulously researched monograph, “The Self-Help Compulsion” traces the evolution of self-help books, places them in historical context, and, perhaps most strikingly, suggests that they’re worthy of more respect than they get. Mr. Blum also discovers a kind of cross-pollination between literature and self-help, certainly liberal borrowing. The wall separating the two genres, she argues, has been frequently breached, sometimes mockingly, sometimes admiringly, sometimes to teach a moral lesson. The titles of several works of literary fiction—among them,
“How Should a Person Be?,”
“How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia” and
“How to Set a Fire and Why”—cunningly ape self-help language.
Ms. Blum offers a close analysis of works by
offering a compelling argument for “Ulysses” as a self-help manual par excellence. Joyce, she says, employed proverbial advice in his works as “an anchor for his more experimental, esoteric formulations.” One particular favorite: “Let bygones be bygones.” She notes that Flaubert drew on a popular contemporary manual, fittingly titled “Self-Help”—by Samuel Smiles, a Scottish writer and reformer—to lampoon the foolish aspirations and failed DIY projects of the title characters in his posthumous novel “Bouvard and Pécuchet.” Flaubert, Ms. Blum says, showed how self-help advice “can’t account for the infinite particularities of real life” and “needlessly meddles with the natural order.” In Wharton’s novel “Twilight Sleep,” meanwhile, the main character is so ensorcelled by the latest self-help guru that she doesn’t notice her husband falling in love with their daughter-in-law.
Amusingly, Ms. Blum observes that “Miss Lonelyhearts,” Nathanael West’s bleak novella of an anguished advice columnist, was simplistically dismissed by real-life syndicated advice columnists and twin sisters Abigail Van Buren and Ann Landers. For them, Ms. Blum says, the main character’s moral crisis was merely a “temperamental flaw.” He let his readers’ problems “get to him to the point where he couldn’t function himself,” Ann Landers noted disapprovingly. Dear Abby’s diagnosis: West needed to lighten up. But as Ms. Blum points out, West didn’t “forget the saving grace of humor,” as Dear Abby claimed. He simply feared its “anesthetizing effects.”
There are some decidedly strange bedfellows here. Who would have thought that the relentlessly upbeat self-help guru
would make common cause with a pessimistic avatar of postmodernism? Ms. Blum cites Mr. Ferriss writing in “The 4-Hour Workweek”: “I deal with rejection by persisting. . . . My maxim comes from
a personal hero of mine. ‘Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.’ You won’t believe what you can accomplish by attempting the impossible with the courage to repeatedly fail better.” Arguably, Beckett’s point was a bit more fatalistic and despairing than anything the chipper Mr. Ferriss could ever conjure.
Unfortunately, the people who really need help are Ms. Blum’s readers. Her style ranges from the clumsy to the downright opaque: “ ‘Self-help’ is a term perched upon the reticent tip of Flaubertain criticism’s tongue.” And far, far too often “The Self-Help Compulsion” reads like a parody of a scholarly journal. Of Smiles’s “Self-Help,” Ms. Blum writes: “The book’s reception furnishes a portal onto the mechanisms of literature’s transmission through vernacular genres around the globe. Self-help not only transmits literary culture but also introduces an element of taxonomic confusion into preexisting institutional bibliographic arrangements.” As for “Bouvard and Pécuchet,” it “points to the textual codependency perpetuated by early self-help manuals as an overlooked referent for modernist autonomy.”
By the end of the book, readers may feel less enlightened than worn down. “Self-help’s most valuable secrets are not about getting rich or winning friends but about how and why people read,” Ms. Blum claims. If she says so.
—Ms. Kaufman writes on culture and the arts for the Journal.
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