The Hedgehog Review: Vol. 18 No. 3 (Fall 2016)
The Necessity of Self-Help Lit
Joseph E. Davis
They have a “reputation for nonsense,” these “bumper-sticker books.” Dashed off in “pop-culture” prose without “analytical rigor,” they offer up “useless platitudes” and “false promises.” Their “portentous pronouncements” convey a “neoliberal” message of “radical privatization,” built on an image of persons as “autonomous monads.” Their authors are “snake-oil peddlers” and “self-appointed gurus,” ringing up tidy profits by “preying on an unwary public.” People’s openness to their message signals a “trend toward authoritarianism,” while the effect of their “misleading quackery” has been to foster “relational detachment” and an “inward retreat” to “self-absorption.” Against an older ethic of “individualists in a common struggle,” they have promoted an “apolitical movement” and growing “social disengagement.” Their “new age sophistries” are “sapping our nation’s soul.”
Such characterizations of self-help literature, drawn from journalists and intellectuals, give a sense of the “healthy contempt” that flows from their pens, at least on those occasions when they give the genre any attention at all. It should be noted that most of the books, especially in the areas of medicine, psychology, and popular science, are written by people with advanced degrees (they display them on the cover), and many of the works in business and management are written by seasoned professionals in these two fields. In fact, one of the fastest-growing sub-categories of self-help lit consists of books of neuroscience and positive psychology that are peppered with scientific theories, experimental findings, and brain images. Many of the readers, and there are millions, are well educated. Nonetheless, intellectuals tend to dismiss the whole class of such books for promoting a new and fanatical project of self-creation, itself sustained by the illusion of self-sufficiency and self-mastery.
Because “self-help” is such a loose genre, generalizations about it are bound to be overly broad. It encompasses many different types of books dealing with spirituality, work, personal relationships, health, and what Dwight Macdonald once called “howtoism.” Self-helpery does not speak with a single voice. As folklorist Sandra Dolby shows, for instance, in her 2005 study Self-Help Books: Why Americans Keep Reading Them, the authors of such works draw on any one of at least four different concepts of the self: the detached self, as in books influenced by Eastern philosophy; the wounded self, which is common in books of popular psychology; the social self, which is often encountered in books on work in the corporate world, with some emphasis on “giving back”; and the obligated self, presupposed in books about spiritual growth and enrichment that tend to emphasize an individual religious duty to seek self-improvement. While the entire genre cannot be reduced to endless variations on the theme of Robert Ringer’s 1977 bestseller Looking Out for #1, it nevertheless conveys a broad common message that runs something like this: Life is a reflexive project, self-defined (and redefined) according to values and courses of action freely chosen, and divested as much as possible from the determining influence of family, cultural conditioning, and old habits of thought.
On the whole, then, the self-help message comes close to encouraging the project of radical self-creation that its critics find so objectionable. But in what sense is this project new or neoliberal or, for that matter, unique to self-help books? Isn’t this the “masterless” or “sovereign” self so commonly encouraged by thinkers of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries? How is self-help different from the creative self-making that was Rousseau’s answer to the question “Who am I?”—the same Rousseau who, in his Confessions, identified the succession of his own feelings as the “one faithful guide on which I can depend”? Are the autonomy claims for the self in self-help stronger than the self-defining and reality-creating power accorded the imagination in the writings of Romantics such as William Wordsworth and Ralph Waldo Emerson? Although more hardheaded, John Stuart Mill provided the classic modern definition of freedom: “pursuing our own good in our own way,” so long as it does not deprive or interfere with the liberty of others. Individuality, for Mill, was exercised to the degree that a person’s “desires and impulses” and “plan of life” were self-chosen and self-cultivated independent of the “despotism of custom.”
If the sovereign self of self-help books is an old ideal, is there anything actually new in them? That they are so widely and continuously read, and found helpful, suggests that more is on offer than rehashed self-talk.
A clue may lie less in the various solutions these works offer—exercise regimes, diets, spiritual visions, cognitive strategies to overcome faulty thinking or to assist emotional control, time management techniques, guides to intimacy, and so on—than in the cultural analysis they provide. By cultural analysis, I mean both the writers’ stated critique and their more implicit normative guidance. The stated critique, as Dolby observes, sets up the solution, and since some form of cultural conditioning is usually the root problem, the author presents a survey of the landscape that identifies the “traditions or conventional ways of thinking” that are part of the culture and have been harmfully internalized by the reader. The proposed solution, the enlightened thinking, follows deductively. And in the process, the reader is given a little lesson in “how cultural conditioning works.”
Normative guidance also concerns the dynamics of the changing social world in which readers live. While the ideal of the sovereign self is old, the social conditions that make constant reflexivity and instrumental relationships a virtual necessity are not. What is striking about the earlier authors who championed self-invention is just how much social and cultural stability they took as given, a stability they attributed variously to the natural world and human nature. Mill, like all these writers, assumed the class standing, material prosperity, and (male) freedom that—with its necessary dabbling and self-cultivation—his notion of individuality required. He assumed a background culture that would produce the qualities in (most) people that he took for granted. People were, in his understanding, generally self-restrained, rational, well-meaning, and energetic. In his 1859 book On Liberty, Mill wrote from the assumption that children were confidently “taught and trained” on the basis of the “ascertained results of human experience.” This shared “mode of existence” included a cultural consensus on traditions, customs, and practices; the individualist was one who deviated from this basic formation and the weight of its authority. Moreover, Mill viewed most people most of the time as simply conforming, “ape-like,” to prescribed roles and life plans, and living lives more or less bound by the confines of family, faith, community, custom, and tradition. He took for granted a social world in which such a nestled existence could take place.
That world, if never quite so determinative, has progressively vanished. And self-help books are both an indication of its disappearance and, critically, a response to it. Their normative guidance is their instruction in the principles and precepts by which life is now being lived. Norms are shared definitions of desirable behavior, standards for conduct under various circumstances. Characterized by a broad and continuous array of social changes and economic dislocations, more and more of daily life requires individual decisions. Much of private life has been deinstitutionalized; the social rites and rituals that superintended life transitions such as adulthood, courtship, and death have disappeared; long-term commitments have weakened; and the vibrancy of “communities of memory” has diminished. In any aspect of life, a variety of potentially incompatible norms are in play. And with the social world in flux, all the rules are in some degree of flux as well. Individuals are faced with the difficult and ongoing task of knowing what it is good and right to do in conducting their affairs.
Self-help witnesses to this need and addresses it. In this respect, it is less about bettering oneself than it is about help-seeking. People turn to self-help books in the face of challenges in intimate relationships, work, lifestyle decisions, self-care, emotional management, and much more. These works are especially likely to be turned to in moments of tough transition—being laid off, divorcing, breaking up, experiencing problems with physical or mental health, when the need for help and direction can be particularly intense. But in suggesting what to do and how to do it, self-help authors also articulate their sense of the way things are now. They convey what they see as the relevant cultural norms and show how, in this rough-and-tumble environment, syncing one’s own behavior with those norms will both increase success and—just as importantly—avert failure, embarrassment, and hurt.
One brief but indicative example from the work-and-management sub-genre is Spencer Johnson’s 1998 runaway bestseller (more than 10 million copies in print) Who Moved My Cheese? An A-Mazing Way to Deal with Change in Your Work and in Your Life. The “cheese” of the title is a metaphor for what people desire to have in life, the things—a career, health, recognition, a family, and so on—they believe will make them happy. The book was written as a parable for how people should respond when circumstances change and interfere with or derail their cherished dreams. According to Johnson, a medical doctor, the norm—or at least the one successful people live by—is to expect change, in any aspect of life at any time, and welcome it. Living by this standard involves a number of other norms, most of which Johnson leaves implicit. They include living with few if any strong attachments, entering only lightly into relationships and on purely contractual terms, managing life with relatively little support or need for care, disengaging from status relations, and living life forward, without resistance, rumination, or regret. Follow those rules, Johnson intimates, and there will always be better things ahead.
Does Johnson himself live—or really expect that others will live—in such a fully detached, free-floating way? Probably not. Providing a full account of the good life is not his purpose. His purpose is to engage people in the everyday world, especially the white-collar workplace, where they have been burned or made vulnerable, where employers neither extend nor expect loyalty, where decisions that affect employment and career are made by executives you will never meet, where seniority and acquired knowledge may actually be a liability, where keeping your job may require relocating across the country, where impression management may be more important than performance. Who has not dealt with such things? Johnson is offering a survival guide for a world in which unexpected and unwelcome change is common.
At the same time, he is not suggesting that his eyes-wide-open approach constitutes looking into the abyss. To the contrary, his message, as in all self-help books, is ultimately about basic trust. To Johnson, the world is not capricious. Given our social circumstances, the norms he points to are better guides to fulfillment—now you know how to proceed. And if you trust yourself and trust the cosmos, everything will always work out for the good.
In self-help books like Johnson’s, we find the old sovereign self but in a new key. It now appears less an ideal to strive for, less the object of heroic struggle, than simply an obligation and survival strategy. To be sure, there is in such self-help a promise of fulfillment in the self-making. But cultivating a sharp and reflexive self-awareness is also how you navigate the shoals of social disorder and institutional change, and deal with (and even manipulate) other people. Getting on in life requires a careful investment policy for your commitments, your emotional attention, and your expectations. Ideas like these are not unique to self-help, but books like Who Moved My Cheese? give them a particularly stark expression. By comparison, what Mill says of individuality and the freedom to choose one’s course sounds like little more than the freedom to be eccentric.
While the self of self-help remains masterless, it is not masterful. The critics are wrong in characterizing the message of self-help as encouraging self-absorption or a withdrawal from civic engagement. That is not the message. As Sandra Dolby observes, “Even the most crassly self-centered books advocate doing something for others, of engaging in social, community, and environmental service.” On the other hand, the self-sufficiency and self-mastery promoted in much self-help are, as critics suggest, illusions. We do not make ourselves, and we cannot validate ourselves. Imagining that we can will bring not independence or confidence or trust, but, ironically, a lot of anxious searching for the approval of others—or a return to the self-help literature for the key to that elusive autonomy. If self-help books tend to reproduce the very problems they seek to address, they also respond to a felt need and are meant to help people navigate real problems. We would do well to understand and acknowledge, rather than ridicule, what is at stake.
Reprinted from The Hedgehog Review 18.3 (Fall 2016). This essay may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission. Please contact The Hedgehog Review for further details.