The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Vol. 19 No. 1 (Spring 2017)

The New Old Ways of Self-Help

Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn

The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Spring 2017

(Volume 19 | Issue 1)

The fog comes
on little cat feet.
—“Fog,” Carl Sandburg

In recent years, a new sensibility has tiptoed across the country, pausing on the self-help shelves of bookstore and library and Amazon warehouse before being taken home and curled up with by gentle reader after gentle reader in some cozy reading spot. In novels and advice books alike, to say nothing of the multitudinous offerings on ever-Newer Age spirituality, we hear the half-alluring, half-cloying meow of everyone’s most recently adopted pet theory: mindfulness.

Given previous waves of fascination with yoga and assorted borrowings from Buddhism, whether serious or attenuated, mindfulness is not really all that new. Hardly alone, it must settle in beside a panoply of other pet theories, approaches, and programs, past and present. Given the current omnipresence of self-help guidance, whether you think this panoply necessary armor or just another way of pussyfooting around the business of living is not just a good question. It is the question.

The ubiquity of the self-help infrastructure itself, from personal pursuit to billion-dollar industry, can give a wide hearing to any approach that strikes the right chord at the right moment. In “The Power of Positive Publishing: How Self-Help Ate America,” Boris Kachka quotes William Shinker, the former publisher of Gotham Books and the editor who discovered Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus: “There isn’t even a category officially called ‘self-help.’”1

This is true. There does not need to be a separate category. Self-help is imperial metropole, the rest colonized periphery. In November 2016, a job advertisement posted to the h-net website read: “wikiHow, a global how-to website, is seeking independent contractors to work remotely as content creators. wikiHow’s goal is to teach everyone on the planet how to do anything. Help us reach that goal!” As Kachka writes,

Twenty years ago, when Chicken Soup for the Soul was published, everyone knew where to find it and what it was for. Whatever you thought of self-help—godsend, guilty pleasure, snake oil—the genre was safely contained on one eclectic bookstore shelf. Today, every section of the store (or web page) overflows with instructions, anecdotes, and homilies. History books teach us how to lead, neuroscience how to use our amygdalas, and memoirs how to eat, pray, and love.2

Kachka, a journalist and cultural critic who wrote Hothouse: The Art of Survival and the Survival of Art at America’s Most Celebrated Publishing House, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, says this in a gem of an essay that weds a pithy history of self-help publishing trends to a critique of a new kind of “high-brow self-help.” For Kachka, these latest forms, from social science studies to “the trend of essayistic self-help,” often executed by journalists, might look more serious—and have better “data”—but they merely hawk the usual types of self-help in another guise. He interprets an observation by literary agent Linda Loewenthal, previously editor and vice president of Random House’s self-help publisher, Harmony Books, and executive director of Three Rivers Press, as meaning “that we are in a new era of mass self-help, wherein the laboratory and the writer work together to teach us how to change ourselves, rather than our world.”3 But Loewenthal’s own words tip us off to something else of interest: “An increasing segment of the market wants to read about the synthesis of different modalities.”4

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  1. Boris Kachka, “The Power of Positive Publishing: How Self-Help Ate America,” New York Magazine, January 6, 2013, 1.
  2. Ibid., 5.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid.

Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn is a professor of history in the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University and a fellow of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture. Her books include Race Experts: How Racial Etiquette, Sensitivity Training, and New Age Therapy Hijacked the Civil Rights Revolution and the forthcoming Ars Vitae: The Fate of Inwardness and the Return of the Ancient Arts of Living.

Reprinted from The Hedgehog Review 19.1 (Spring 2017). 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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