The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Vol. 18 No. 3 (Fall 2016)

The Necessity of Self-Help Lit

Joseph E. Davis

The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Fall 2016

(Volume 18 | Issue 3)

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.

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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.

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Published three times a year by the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, The Hedgehog Review offers critical reflections on contemporary culture—how we shape it, and how it shapes us.

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