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The Best Self-Help Novels

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The Self-Help Compulsion: Searching for Advice in Modern Literature by Beth Blum

The Self-Help Compulsion: Searching for Advice in Modern Literature
by Beth Blum


Since the publication of Samuel Smiles' Self-Help (1859) in Victorian Britain, self-help has become a billion dollar industry—and its influence is even felt in the contemporary novel, says Harvard literary scholar Beth Blum, author of The Self-Help Compulsion, a new history of the rise of self-help narratives in modern literature.

Interview by Stephanie Kelley

The Self-Help Compulsion: Searching for Advice in Modern Literature by Beth Blum

The Self-Help Compulsion: Searching for Advice in Modern Literature
by Beth Blum

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We’re here to talk about self-help novels. One of the most delightful discoveries in your new book The Self-Help Compulsion was that you begin by outlining self-help’s history—not just the etymological history of the term’s first use but further back to manifestations of the concept in the tradition of commonplace books and even as early as Boethius. I wonder if you could introduce us to your two-pronged definition of self-help, and tell us a bit about how self-help came to be.

The book is employing two different understandings of self-help. One is as an extension of this tradition of conduct literature, and really of the practice of reading for advice, which as you say goes back very far. You see it having a golden age in the Renaissance with the rise of conduct literature and the interest in plucking quotations from different literary texts and reassembling them in what was called a commonplace book, a kind of scrap book that collects wisdom to live by.

So there’s this lengthy literary practice of looking to texts for advice. But there’s also this much more modern commercial industry of self-help that I trace to the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century. This is when you see the rise of a genre of book that’s marketed specifically as a guide to channeling success, positive visualization and will, and learning to harness one’s desires to achieve what one wants out of life.

So it becomes individualized in the early 20th century—why do you think that happens?

I think it becomes individualized as a result of the influence of this late Victorian culture that I trace back to Samuel Smiles in his 1859 Self-Help, which was a book for working-class men, offering advice on how to persevere and teach themselves in order to rise above their conditions and strive after a better life and better working conditions. You see between the time when Smiles first began thinking of this book and when it was published and became a huge international sensation that the idea of self-help shifted from something that was more communal and a tool of working-class unification to something that was much more about just working on yourself and adjusting as best you can to the conditions you’re in. You see a kind of individualizing of that more communal spirit happening at the end of the Victorian period and into the early 20th century.

In the 20th century, there was a reaction from thinkers like Adorno and Foucault, who aligned self-help and its dictums with the agenda of capitalism. You argue quite cogently in your book about why the study of self-help is important, and in itself not necessarily an affirmation of the practice. But can you explain how this reaction against it started, and why self-help has such a bad rap today?

There’s a lot going on there in the intellectual derision towards self-help. Part of it has to do with the fact that the very category of the individual and the self came under attack with the rise of post-structuralism, the notion of ‘the death of the author’ and ideas like that, which caused people to question whether there was even such a thing as a unified self to help in the first place.

“Two important conceits of self-help—individualism and also the idea of the power of agency or the will—are constructs that come to be questioned by intellectuals as the 20th century progresses”

Two important conceits of self-help—individualism and also the idea of the power of agency or the will—are constructs that come to be questioned by intellectuals as the 20th century progresses, because so much intellectual and cultural studies work of that time is invested in showing that people don’t have as much agency over their lives as they think. That in fact, there are all these systemic conditions and factors limiting how much we can achieve on our own through sheer determination. Those two ideas run against the intellectual currents of the time, but are very important to self-help.

In The Self-Help Compulsion you write that contemporary self-help novels “turn self-help’s steamroller didacticism into a compositional method”—can you tell us more about how that might relate to your first choice, How To Live Safely in a Science-Fictional Universe by Charles Yu? From the very first page it reminded me of a ‘choose-your-own-adventure’ video game, but it’s got a lot going on.

I really love that text. It’s interesting to me on several levels. One is because it’s not so common to think of sci-fi as having anything in common with self-help. The title ‘How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe’ is very much invoking this tradition of time travel that you see in sci-fi literature and is usually read through that generic lens. We tend to think of sci-fi as being very escapist and fantastical, and not interested in the problems of everyday life or how to live. But what I love about this book is the way that Yu is combining the fantastical elements of sci-fi with the more practical, reflective orientation of self-help. So he’s using this conceit of time travel to think through very common and practical questions of how to deal with nostalgia, our parents, immigration, regret. It’s a really interesting take on what my book calls the ‘how-to fiction’ in the way that it’s reconciling those two traditions.

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Like Sheila Heti’s book, which is a work of autofiction that collapses the distinction between character and author, Yu’s book too is blending the protagonist and the author in this heady amalgamation. It ends up that the book that the character is reading is also the one he’s writing, and so he is using the time travel conceit to offer advice to his younger self. It offers moving advice and reflections on the difficulty of managing all kinds of different emotions, ambitions, and regrets that accompany everyday temporal experience.

One of the lines that really made me laugh was: “Life is, to some extent, an extended dialogue with your future self about how exactly you are going to let yourself down over the coming years.” It also seemed to me like the book was a great exemplar of how self-help manifests in the contemporary novel as just one of many metafictional techniques: in Yu’s book there’s also a metanarrative, stream of consciousness, the use of science fiction jargon as a high-minded literary conceit. Do we see that more widely—the logic or lingo of self-help used ironically or self-consciously by a modern fiction writer?

On the one hand, I think there’s a tendency to write off the ‘how-to’ conceit of a lot of these fictional works as being an overly high-concept or overly ostentatious gimmick. Both are at play. In Hamid’s book, another text on the list, you also see that the usage of the ‘how-to’ paradigm as a kind of parody, or satire, or joke. But at the same time, in all of the books on this list there’s a recognition of the inevitability that readers will come to the book looking for self-help and looking for advice. And also a recognition of the inevitability of the author using the writing of the novel as a form of therapy or self-help. There’s the attitude that, well, this is going to happen—whether you like it or not, self-help is going to happen. So how can we think about this in the most generative way? How can the novel place itself in relation to this inevitability in a way that is actually philosophical and meaningful, and not trite or commercialized?

That reminds me a lot of American pragmatist philosophy like William James or Peirce—the tone of practical advice. You mentioned Hamid’s How To Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, which I thought was really interesting because it begins in this carefully measured comic tone and says: “all books, each and every book ever written, could be said to be offered to the reader as a form of self-help.” A bold claim! Can you talk a bit more about this book, and why you chose it?

It is a bold thing to say, but on the other hand, it’s something that quite a few contemporary authors are saying. Not just Hamid, but Sheila Heti, Brenda Lozano, and others have made similar observations.

Hamid’s book was really generative for me because each section is titled after a different self-help imperative: ‘move to the city’, ‘get an education’—things that you would find in a self-help manual.

Is it a bucket list of sorts? Is it ‘things everyone should do’, or ‘things I ended up doing in my life’?

Well, that’s what’s interesting about the text; it’s using the second-person voice. So it’s at once describing things that everyone should do from that commanding, imperative voice of the self-help manual: move to the city if you want to be successful, don’t fall in love, things like that. But at the same time, it’s also describing the particular narrative of this one character, and it’s oddly collapsed in this figure of “you,” who is both the protagonist and the author, but also the reader, who identifies with the protagonist through the second-person voice. Each chapter is titled according to this self-help rule and then often begins with a kind of deconstruction or theorization of the self-help genre, or one aspect of it, in a way that I actually found really intriguing as someone writing a book about literature and self-help.

“He began by thinking that self-help was funny and a little bit silly”

You can read in interviews with Hamid this story of how, like many of the authors on the list, he began by thinking that self-help was funny and a little bit silly, but really that his relation to the genre evolved the more he thought about it and took it seriously and thought about what it has in common with other wisdom traditions, like the tradition of Sufi love poetry also invoked in the novel. The more he thought through the genre, the less easily he could dismiss it as something trivial. He’s particularly interested in the global status of self-help is something that’s as popular in Asia as it is in the United States now, and as something that’s come to take the place of more politicized or fraught sources of advice or authorities on how to live in these places—like religion, for instance. He’s interested in the way that self-help is taking up that space and offering a venue for thinking through problems of how to live.

In a way, the story ends up a counter-example to the advice given by the self-help manual voice. So the self-help manual voice will say ‘don’t fall in love’, but the actual narrative is showing how, actually, the process of falling in love and family and all the things that are left out of this self-help manual actually become the most important and the most meaningful to the character’s life.

So the lesson is that the self-help rules don’t really matter because life will fall into place anyway. Which could be quite empowering but also quite fatalistic or nihilistic, depending on how you think about it.

It’s that ‘life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans’ kind of idea. But also I think that the self-help becomes a foil for these texts’ own kind of life philosophy or literary ethics that ends up emerging in contrast to the rules the self-help manual is laying out.

Your next choice, Sheila Heti’s How Should A Person Be?, bills itself as “part literary novel, part self-help manual, and part bawdy confessional.” Tell us about this book.

This novel was written at the same time that Heti was also working on a book of self-help with her friend Misha Glouberman, who’s also a character in How Should a Person Be? He and Sheila were collaborating on this volume of little short chapters offering reflections on experiences like impostor syndrome but also practical advice, such as how to quit smoking. It’s interesting to me that she was working on that at the same time as she was working on this novel How Should a Person Be? and she’s said that she really saw the two projects as companion pieces.

Heti was also inspired by Samuel Smiles, the author of that first Victorian self-help book published in 1859 that I mentioned. A friend gave it to her and she became really interested in the way that Smiles was holding up the lives of these individuals from history as models and exemplars of how to live. What I find so interesting about How Should a Person Be? is the way that the existential quest of the character Sheila—who is also sort of like the author in this autofictional hybrid—is paralleled by the narrative’s quest for the right genre. You see the text working through these different possible genres before it settles on its final autofictional form. It even incorporates skeletal remainders of other genres it’s experimented with, like the aborted play Sheila writes. There’s a compelling parallel being drawn between the search for the right genre and the search for the right style of life or way of living.

“There’s a parallel being drawn between the search for the right genre and the search for the right way of living”

So much of the modernist tradition of Flaubert and Woolf and others is premised on this desire to remain aloof from the popular tastes and practical interests of everyday readers. And Heti explicitly positions her narrative against that, and says, ‘Yeah, I’ve thought about Flaubert, I’ve thought about impersonality and detachment and all that, and I want this book to be the opposite of all of those things.’ So again, we see this desire to embrace a lot of the tendencies that earlier literature had really been premised on suppressing or counteracting, particularly in terms of these more practical desires of readers.

I was struck from the very beginning of the novel by the sense that the question ‘How should person should be?’ is always an irresolvable dilemma precisely because no two people can have the same experience of living. Viewed one way, this can be liberating: Heti writes early on that because there are so few models for female genius, she can do whatever she wants, which is funny. But that idea can also be really terrifying, and it’s part of the reason why people turn to self-help in the first place.

Yes. I think the moral trajectory of many of these narratives, Heti and also Hamid and I think others too, is showing the author/protagonist coming to actually purge themselves of the self-help axioms, values and ideals that they’ve inherited and absorbed through the culture. In the Hamid, we saw how he ends up embracing family and connection and human bonds and communities as an antidote to the ruthless desire for wealth and success.

Sheila meanwhile learns to purge herself of the need to always please other people and to suppress the uglier parts of life and her identity. That’s embodied by her eventual embrace of this self-help motto ‘Who cares?’ which Sheila ends up embracing as a principle for life—a way of ridding herself of the baggage of a lot of this history of self-belaborment, and the obligation to always try to be improving oneself and adapt oneself to the desires of other people.

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This learning not to care is also a trend that you see in a lot of contemporary self-help. This is the place where the contemporary novel and the latest wave of self-help are actually meeting: in this advice to learn to stop worrying so much about what other people think or about social standards or social conformity, and to learn to find your own compass for what’s meaningful and valuable to you about life.

I noticed both of the books by Sheila Heti and Hamid are often very funny, or use self-help with a touch of ironic humor. It makes me think about a section in your book where you look at a strain of contemporary self-help books that are also raising the bar for deadpan humor and irony, like ‘no fucks given’. Is self-help starting to make fun of itself as a genre and implode from within, just like the use self-help is put to in the novels we’ve been talking about?

There’s a kind of cheekiness to so much of this: both the novels that are using the ‘how-to’ framework but also this self-help that’s writing against its own tradition. At the same time, there’s that line that I love from How Should a Person Be? where Sheila and Margaux decide that good writing is learning to find where the funny is, and I think that’s often true.

The question is, are these self-help authors and novelists doing something more than trying to be cheeky, or is that where the joke ends? If that’s it, then the joke falls flat, because it’s not actually that funny, to use a ‘how to’ as a title for a novel. So there must be more to it than that. The cynical reading is that within the self-help genre, it’s just a way of trying to renew a field that’s come to attract a lot of resistance and skepticism; these industries always need to find ways of keeping themselves relevant and evading the growing skepticism of readers who are perhaps tired of being inundated with advice and directives about how to live.

“These industries always need to find ways of keeping themselves relevant”

But on the other hand. I think it’s also possible to read it more optimistically as a sign of the genre actually improving, and of it becoming more self-aware about the limits and consequences of the tradition of conventional self-help. And of a genre interested in opening itself up to more ambiguity and other kinds of insight, including literary insight, and other modes of being in the world that conventional self-help leaves out.

I wanted to ask one more question about the Sheila Heti before we move on to Eleanor Davis, which is that you mentioned to me prior to this interview that How Should a Person Be? can often be a polarizing book among readers. It’s something I noticed too when I first read it around the time of the autofiction explosion a few years ago with writers like Maggie Nelson, Jenny Offill, Rebecca Lindenberg—it seemed like How Should a Person Be? had the most polarizing reaction of all of them, you either really liked it or really disliked it. Do you have any hunches about why? Does it perhaps have any connection to it being more explicitly a ‘self-help novel’ than those others?

Heti herself has a great line in an interview where she says that when men ask the question of ‘How should a person be?’ in a novel, it’s considered this great existentialist exploration of weighty philosophical problems, but when a woman does it, it’s dismissed as navel-gazing, narcissistic or puerile. And I think there’s a lot of truth to that. The same reception was seen with her next book Motherhood as well.

Part of it may be that she’s really laying bare her own ambition in that book. She’s showing her own desire to be famous, a genius, a celebrity. That’s something that everyone feels, I suppose, but a feeling that people are supposed to keep to themselves or hide. But I do think there’s a double standard there: we’re used to characters like Stephen Dedalus wanting to forge the uncreated conscience of their race, or even somebody like Knausgaard wanting to write a great magnum opus. They seem to have a lot more liberty to explore the workings of their inner minds and their aesthetic ambitions than many of these women artists, like Heti.

The fourth book you chose is a graphic short story collection called How To Be Happy by Eleanor Davis. While I’ve read graphic novels before, this is the first time I’ve encountered the combination of graphic narrative and the short story form, which is really intriguing. Why did you choose this one?

It’s less short stories than a series of vignettes told in graphic narrative form. They’re gorgeous, and they also have a very colorful, fantastical element. They each provide different windows into the question of the desire for self-betterment, for finding mechanisms for coping with one’s emotions and desires.

So they’re a loosely related constellation around that theme. It’s a collection of Davis’s work that was put together after she had composed these different vignettes, so there’s a belatedness to the ‘how to how to be happy’ frame for this. She’s another author who’s talked about that process of coming to find that as a title. She describes how it initially began somewhat as a joke for her, but on the other hand, the act of reading self-help is something that she actually takes very seriously as an author. Self-help is something that she reads a great deal herself, so she felt a little bit guilty about using it in a tongue-in-cheek way for the title of her book.

The unique thing about her book is that it begins with this big disclaimer: when you open it, it says this is actually not a book about how to be happy, and if you’re if you’re feeling depressed or if you really need practical advice about that, then read these other books. And then she refers you to more legitimate therapeutic or self-help material. That disclaimer is a sign of the compassionate approach that she takes to the problem of the quest for happiness, which I think is evident throughout the graphic narrative. The first episode shows these people who have developed this commune, and it describes the breakdown of the commune because the founder of it, Adam, can’t escape his anger management issues. He gets really mad when somebody sneaks something like a candy bar into the commune, which is against the rules.

“The book is making you question what is true and what isn’t”

All of them are sort of linked by this problem of how to escape oneself and one’s emotions, and she does it not in a didactic way, but in a very open-ended, inconclusive way. It’s a strange experience to read these vignettes, because you leave them and you really don’t know what to make of what you’ve just read. They’re embracing of both inconclusiveness and ambiguity in a way that contrasts with reading a traditional self-help book, which is so full of probably illegitimate certainty and authority. It’s formally modelling and enacting an alternative to the methods of a lot of self-help, which says ‘Do this, don’t do that’. Instead, this book is making you question what is true and what isn’t, and what is certain and what is not.

It did seem like in their fragmentary and multi-varied look at happiness, the vignettes offered a form of self-help in action. You can be sitting, for instance, in a café, overhearing snippets of conversation at a nearby table, and you may not have the entire story but you might say to yourself, ‘Well I know to never go on this kind of first date…’ Maybe I was just reading it in an idiosyncratic way, but Davis seemed to expose the idea of happiness itself as a chaotic, distracting but beautiful fiction.

Yes, and one that is so diffuse that it’s spread into all areas of conversation and life, and really isn’t confined to a book at all. It’s something you absorb through conversations, through advertisements, through the internet, music, everything.

Last we have Ali Smith’s How to Be Both, a two-part novel combining the narratives of a teenage girl and a fifteenth-century Renaissance artist. Why did you include this book on your list?

This is the novel that is least explicitly interested in the contemporary self-help genre, even though it is using this how-to title; it doesn’t actually make any explicit reference to a contemporary self-help manual.

But it does reference this more ancient practice, this Renaissance tradition of textual advice, particularly in the form of painting manuals that the character Francesca reads in order to find advice not only about how to paint, but also about how to live. That was really interesting to me because it involves this whole tradition of people using self-help as a tool of self-teaching or auto-didacticism, who have been excluded from more official or traditional apprenticeship or educational possibilities. Francesca reads these painting manuals to learn how to be a painter, even though women were not considered legitimate apprentices for these artistic positions. How To Be Both is showing how a person can use self-help reading subversively for their own purposes, and that self-help’s influence is not always as authoritarian as one might think, but that actually there’s a lot of potential there for flexibility in terms of what readers take selectively from self-help. For example, well the book references two manuals, one is by renaissance humanist Alberti and the other is by the Italian renaissance painter Cennini. I think it’s the Cennini passage where Smith references:

The great Cennini, though, in his handbook on colours and picturemaking, finds no worth and no beauty of proportion in girls, or in women of any age – except in the matter of hands in themselves, since the delicate hands of girls and women, providing they’re young enough, are more patient, he says, than those of a man, from spending so much more time indoors which makes them more suited to making the best blue. Myself I went out of my way, then, to be expert at the painting of hands and be good at the grinding of blue and the using of blue, both

So that’s an example of somebody selectively adapting this advice that is really excluding their own group or identity from its purview and using it in strategic ways. In Smith’s work in general, although she’s not directly addressing self-help, she’s very much critiquing a lot of the intellectual or cognitive impulses that underlie the desire and demand for self-help. The idea of ‘how to be both’, the critique of dualistic thinking, polarizing thought and reductive solutions and facile answers—all of that is something that’s being challenged by the experience of reading her narrative, in interesting ways. How To Be Both becomes a kind of riddle as you’re reading it; you’re trying to figure out how the novel is going to answer that question. There’s so many different possibilities that come up when you read it. Is it how to be both genders? How to be in both times? Back to that theme of time travel we see with Yu’s book.

It invites a more flexible and nuanced way of thinking that I think is offering a useful antidote to some of the tendencies that are encouraged by self-help literature, particularly the impulse towards reductive and overly schematic thinking.

There’s a bit in How To Be Both where a mother and child ask the question of what comes first: is it the top of the painting, what the viewer sees when looking at a canvas, or the underlayer of the painting, invisible to the naked eye? It’s a really interesting philosophical question with an interesting relationship to the entire impulse underpinning self-help, which is so focused on what actions, behaviors or principles get you to a fixed end-goal of happiness. Coincidentally, the only conference I’ve ever presented at was one where Ali Smith was the keynote speaker. I remember after her talk, she got a question about how she became an expert in Renaissance art history and she said (I’m paraphrasing here), “I didn’t. I wasn’t then and I’m not now. I just tried to teach myself and learn as I went along.” It’s like a form of self-help or apprenticeship through writing.

She doesn’t adopt the pretense of expertise upon which so much self-help relies. Another thing that really fascinates me about her is that she wrote her dissertation on modernist literature. Apparently it had something to do with modernism and ordinary life, or something like that—I would just love to get my hands on it and read that dissertation.

So would I. One thing you touch on in The Self-Help Compulsion is that as self-help has become a billion dollar book industry touching upon all areas of everyday life, it’s increasingly plucked quotations from, and taken advantage of, literature, with varying levels of cogitation. Where do you come down on that subject? Is it a good thing, or is it painful to see a one-liner from Virginia Woolf or F. Scott Fitzgerald ripped from its context?

No, I really think that anything that disseminates literature and gets people interested in literature and introduces people to literature is a good thing. And if it’s going to decontextualize literature, I don’t really mind that. For example, a lot of people first encountered the philosopher William James through Dale Carnegie’s handbook How To Win Friends and Influence People, because Carnegie quotes William James in that book. So their initial counter with James in Carnegie will be decontextualized, but then they’ll go and read more James and learn more about him and his context. It’s not the end of the story—it’s really just a gateway into further study. So I tend to have a less critical view of that particular work that self-help is doing.

What I find really interesting about these literary engagements with self-help is their willingness to think about what self-help can teach us about reading and about literature, and about why people are interested in literature and what brings them to books. It doesn’t mean that they all end up supporting the way that self-help relates to readers, or the way that it supplies readers desires for flattery, consolation, or self-affirmation. Quite to the contrary, many of these novels end up subverting and complicating those desires and expectations. The conclusion is often that the individual’s desires are just not the center of the universe.

Exactly—it’s not a genre that encourages passive consumption, but rather one that opens up and stimulates further inquiry. What I found so thought-provoking about your book’s theoretical framework is that you point out how attending to the history of self-help in literature exposes this alternative pedagogy of reading, in which people can read selectively and pick and choose from snippets of advice amalgamated together.

Thank you. So there’s a real agency on the part of the reader that becomes possible through that. It’s not really the very hierarchical relationship that many people associate with self-help. Actually, the self-help reader I think has a lot more agency than has previously been recognized by a lot of intellectual work on the topic. Contemporary novels are beginning to see that there’s a lot to be learned and thought through by studying why people read self-help, and what self-help has in common with literature—even if they don’t agree with the kind of methods and aims of the traditional self-help book. To me, that’s the most exciting aspect of that relationship.

Interview by Stephanie Kelley

February 24, 2020

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Beth Blum

Beth Blum

Beth Blum teaches modern and contemporary literature at Harvard University, where she is an Assistant Professor of English. Her book, The Self-Help Compulsion: Searching for Advice in Modern Literature, was recently published with Columbia University Press (2020). Recent work has appeared in PMLA and the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Beth Blum

Beth Blum

Beth Blum teaches modern and contemporary literature at Harvard University, where she is an Assistant Professor of English. Her book, The Self-Help Compulsion: Searching for Advice in Modern Literature, was recently published with Columbia University Press (2020). Recent work has appeared in PMLA and the Chronicle of Higher Education.