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Heaven Help Us

Literature and the doctrine of self-improvement

The Self-Help Compulsion: Searching for Advice in Modern Literature by Beth Blum. Columbia University Press, 344 pages.

In his April 2019 Harper’s essay about the decline of book reviewing, Christian Lorentzen picked up where Elizabeth Hardwick left off in her Harper’s essay about the same. He saw the “sweet, bland commendations” whose prevalence she’d lamented sixty years before and raised her the fact that the form they still marred was now on the verge of being snuffed out. Book reviews—often insipid but sometimes, at least, stages for “the drama of opinion” (Hardwick again)—were, and are, losing ground. Encroaching on their space, in the shrinking number of mainstream publications that cover books at all, are forms ostensibly more apt to attract traffic: author Q&As, listicles (“Hot Books for Cold Days”), previews of titles coming out next season. Among the many factors contributing to Lorentzen’s despondency was the “self-help approach” common in this no-criticism zone. He bemoaned a New York Times column that “answers letters from readers seeking specific book recommendations (What should members of my philanthropic society read? Can you recommend books about Maine? Fiction about music? Spiritual poetry?).”

I took pleasure in Lorentzen’s piece—that particular pleasure of watching an opinion-drama into which you can project yourself. He’s generally right that “a consumerist vision of reading . . . presented as a form of anti-elitism” is emanating from the centers of publishing and media power, and that it is embodied by some of these trends. But I also found myself wondering: What fiction about music did they recommend? 

The question might interest Beth Blum, a Harvard English professor and author of The Self-Help Compulsion: Searching for Advice in Modern Literature. As a scholar whose professional investments lie in academia, Blum’s sense of the hierarchies constraining her work is very different from Lorentzen’s. Whereas he presumes an audience of generally well-read people whose intelligence our media environment is insulting if not dulling, she is writing to her cohort in literary studies. From her point of view, it is scholars who insult readers’ intelligence when they “condescendingly” interpret “the popular tendency” to read literature pragmatically as “a failure of irony and critical thinking.” Arguing that her predecessors have ignored “self-help’s role as a purveyor of a literary counterhistory in which reading is not cataloged according to historical period or genre but according to personal need,” she sets out to document the “relation of mutual intrigue and influence” that literature and commercial self-help have sustained for nearly two centuries.

Blum starts with Samuel Smiles’s Self-Help (1859), the book widely thought to have launched its namesake genre. A series of biographical sketches of “great, but especially of good men,” it was built on the premise that studying these men’s lives and words could help others rise to their level. Smiles quotes William Shakespeare, John Milton, Walter Scott, et cetera, inaugurating “a manic citational practice” that has come to define self-help. “If the literary text is a ‘tissue of quotations,’” Blum writes, quoting Roland Barthes, “then the self-help book is even more so.” As such, she argues, the self-help genre is more than just a tool of capitalism and social control designed to keep people reaching for the top of existing hierarchies; it also curates the wisdom of past and present “for the purposes of inspiring self-transformation.” It can seem strange that Blum frames self-help’s “bad” use as a given and even stranger that she posits as counterintuitive what is essentially a reformulation of the genre’s stated purpose. If you don’t participate in a literary or scholarly tradition that views self-help with reflexive suspicion, Blum may even sound like she’s reinforcing the status quo. This is not to suggest that she endorses self-help in all its forms; she doesn’t, of course. But readers outside of her primary audience may not always find the outlines of her arguments as novel as they appear to be in her professional environment.

The same features modernism developed in opposition to the self-help of its time have made it into grist for the self-help authors of ours.

As Blum shows again and again, though, texts often prove useful to people outside their intended catchment area. Her chapter about Smiles abounds with unexpected ripple effects, including Self-Help’s publication in Meiji-era Japan. Discovered by its eventual translator, Nakamura Masanao, when he was supervising students on a trip to London, it became, in 1871, one of the first English books translated into Japanese. Japan, a formerly closed society, had recently opened itself to Western influences. So, just as Self-Help had served as a first encounter with literature for some working-class readers in Britain, it introduced many Japanese readers to the literature of the West. It was so influential, Blum writes, that “the authors it praised became instant sensations, whereas the authors it neglected to mention remained largely untranslated.” Beyond its literary influence, and despite its “seemingly Western imperialist agenda,” Smiles’s book also inspired projects that aimed to preserve Japan’s cultural independence. Just as literature can unwittingly serve interests that diminish it, self-help can be unwittingly generative.

Perhaps most consequentially for Blum’s purposes, self-help served as a constructive foil for literary modernism. While Smiles’s book had been motivated by his belief that “no working-class politics would be possible without a solid grounding in self-education,” the genre it spawned soon drifted from these more radical aims. At the end of the nineteenth century, self-help began to emerge as both an industry and a more individualistic, bourgeois activity. This was when Gustave Flaubert, “the grandfather of high-modernist aestheticism,” wrote Bouvard and Pécuchet. Published posthumously in 1881, the unfinished novel about hapless office workers who retire to the countryside and undertake a series of doomed DIY projects offers “one of literary history’s most merciless demonstrations” of self-help’s pathos and paradoxical inutility. Bouvard and Pécuchet experiment with gardening, making liquor, preserving food, and developing medical cures, continually seeking “new exploits to distract them from previous failures, and from the ontological emptiness that their projects are meant to conceal.” All the while, they are reading instrumentally, ramming handbooks, novels, and philosophy through a pragmatic filter Blum calls the self-help hermeneutic.

Bouvard and Pécuchet is Blum’s first exhibit in her argument that some of modernism’s defining qualities—negation, aestheticism—“emerge[d] in part as a reaction to the commodification of the self-improvement instinct through print.” This “call and response” continued into the twentieth century, as modernist writer after modernist writer satirized, critically depicted, or otherwise reacted against the bourgeoning culture of self-help. Blum traces “the scourge of irresponsible advice” through the novels of Flann O’Brien, examines Henry (anti) and William (pro) James’s debates over self-help’s merits, and finds self-help-related subtexts in the work of Virginia Woolf and James Joyce.

She is a careful, sensitive reader, and her analyses offer their own foil for the contemporary self-help industry’s interpretations of modernist literature. Of which there are many. Among others: Ilana Simons’s A Life of One’s Own: A Guide to Better Living Through the Work and Wisdom of Virginia Woolf (2007), Declan Kiberd’s Ulysses and Us: The Art of Everyday Life in Joyce’s Masterpiece (2009) and Alain de Botton’s How Proust Can Change Your Life (1997). The same features modernism developed in opposition to the self-help of its time have, Blum argues, made it into grist for the self-help authors of ours.

Correcting for the excesses of their predecessors, recent books like Oliver Burkeman’s The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking (2012) emphasize “adapting to loss rather than chasing after achievement.” Blum thinks this is the same impulse responsible for turning Samuel Beckett into a posthumous dispenser of business advice. Timothy Ferriss’s The 4-Hour Workweek is perhaps the most notorious of the many books, articles, and posters that repurpose the famous passage from Beckett’s Worstward Ho: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No Matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” In Ferriss’s hands, these inconclusive, recursive lines become an injunction to accomplish great things by taking risks.

Since “self-help readings of modernism have to undertake some fairly extreme contortions to fit an author like Beckett into their agendas,” Blum believes, they must be going to this trouble because of the writers’ particular qualities. “Far from being a deterrent,” she explains, “Beckett’s moral recalcitrance operates as an advertisement of his authenticity for contemporary readers negotiating our advice-saturated, ‘loser-wins’ marketplace of cultural production.” If other scholars routinely underestimate pragmatic readers of literature, Blum may overestimate them here. It seems just as likely—if not far more likely—that corporate culture is simply designed to absorb and defang everything in its path. “Fail better” might appear on inspirational posters, and Woolf might have spawned multiple handbooks, simply because decontextualized quotations and name recognition are easily instrumentalized. I wondered, sometimes, if Blum was projecting some of her skill at close reading onto people who don’t necessarily share it.

But it is one of the hazards of watching good readers process what they have read that they might partially redeem what you would normally object to. This phenomenon reaches its zenith in the novels to which Blum devotes her final chapter. When she starts listing their titles, you wonder how you never saw it before: Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be? (2010), Charles Yu’s How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe (2010), Mohsin Hamid’s How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia (2013), Jesse Ball’s How to Set a Fire and Why (2016), Alexander Chee’s How to Write an Autobiographical Novel (2018), and many more. She treats these how-to narratives as a distinct subgenre of contemporary literature with a more nuanced relationship to its source material than its modernist antecedents had. “Less tormented by the threat of utilitarianism” than, for example, Flaubert, many of these authors do not merely satirize self-help. To varying degrees, they also appropriate its more helpful qualities. Blum writes of Hamid that, “It is as if his novel is ingesting the self-help genre, metabolizing its nutritive bits and expelling the rest as so much neoliberal waste.”

I wondered, sometimes, if Blum was projecting some of her skill at close reading onto people who don’t necessarily share it.

Of course, however much he might appreciate self-help, Hamid does not satisfy himself with producing just that. Like many of the authors Blum discusses, he has instead written a formally innovative work of literature. The same is true of other contemporary writers outside the how-to genre who have spoken explicitly about wanting their books to help people; recent examples include Anne Boyer’s The Undying (which she wrote in part to build solidarity among the sick) and Carmen Maria Machado’s In the Dream House (which she wrote in part to help queer and lesbian women understand their own abuse). That these writers seek to achieve their aims through aesthetic means that transcend mere instrumentalism suggests that they are invested not just in helping people, but in the ability of their particular approach to capture or convey something essential that could not otherwise be transmitted to the reader.  

Heti, for her part, has metabolized self-help’s “nutritive bits” not only through her novel but through those more ephemeral forms that often seem critically empty. Introducing her 2010 edition of Bookforum’s “Syllabus” column, which recommends books on different themes, she wrote:

Interviewers seldom ask authors, “How is your book meant to help people?” (Instead, they ask the impossible, “What does it mean?”) Yet authors write with the hope of helping readers and themselves—by untangling emotional, intellectual, and existential problems. . . . Here’s a list of books I love specifically because they’ve actually helped me . . . Let’s call them “secret self-help,” though, really, that phrase can describe almost all literature.

Though Heti’s listicle is the kind of piece that Lorentzen might despise, and that I too often find unmemorable, it rose to my mind almost verbatim, over a distance of several years, as I worked on this article. It is fairly similar, in structure and in ethos, to the Match Book column—the one that features personalized book recommendations. Animated by idiosyncratic intelligence, both columns are in their way less commercially driven than many mainstream book reviews, which are typically restricted to covering objects that publishers are currently pushing. (The Times recently went so far as to begin running excerpts of some of the books it reviews, so that readers can test drive them before buying.) The best author interviews, a form Heti (among others) has made an art of, also go far afield of mere publicity. The problem, maybe, is not just that these forms are crowding out reviews, but that corporate interests are, as ever, crowding out interesting versions of both. Before Lorentzen’s Harper’s essay appeared, Match Book had already stopped running.