Steal Like An Artist was written and drawn at such a fast and furious pace that I don’t think I spent a lot of time thinking about what it was or where it would fit into the publishing landscape. I just made it.
So after Steal came out in 2012 and I unwittingly found myself an author of a bestselling book often stocked in the self-help section, I spent a lot of time paying attention to self-help as a genre and sorting out my feelings about it.
When it came time to write the followup, I felt that studying the form could help me put my own spin on it, or subvert it in some way. (During my 2013 reading year, I read self-help-inspired books like Oliver Burkeman’s The Antidote and Mohsin Hamid’s How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia.)
Inspired by Leena’s video, I wanted to get down a handful of my thoughts about the genre:
1. It’s good (and healthy) to be skeptical of self-help.
One of the worst things that self-help can do is convince you that you as an individual are to blame for all of your problems, and that if you’re struggling it’s just because you aren’t making the right moves.
Worst of all, some self-help books imply that if the book fails to help you, it’s not the book’s fault, it’s yours. Here’s an exchange on the subject between Fresh Air’s Terry Gross and Jessica Lamb-Shapiro, author of Promise Land: My Journey Through America’s Self-Help Culture:
GROSS: I want to point out something else that bothers me about a certain type of self-help book or self-help approach…. [A] lot of self-help books tell you don’t be skeptical about the advice I’m giving you because that skepticism is going to stand in the way of you accomplishing what you want to do. But you’re reading some of these books and you’re just filled with skepticism and, you know, turning it off means approach this uncritically, and why would you approach anything uncritically like that?
LAMB-SHAPIRO: Yeah, I completely agree with you…. if you think about it, it’s really genius because it’s basically blaming you if it doesn’t work.
LAMB-SHAPIRO: And so it’s not saying… If this doesn’t work, I guess I had a bad idea. It’s saying no, if this doesn’t work, you didn’t try hard enough and you didn’t do well enough. So in a sense, it becomes a completely closed system.
GROSS: Like, and if you don’t believe in me, that’s your flaw.
LAMB-SHAPIRO: Exactly. Like only you can fail; the system can’t fail.
LAMB-SHAPIRO: And so, in a weird way, I respect it’s evil genius, but I don’t think it’s particularly fair or thoughtful.
So it’s healthy to be skeptical, but, like with all genres, it’s dumb to roundly dismiss the genre altogether. I think often of how many rock stars read self-help: Wayne Coyne posted an excerpt from Art & Fear on his Instagram, Aimee Mann said the The Artist’s Way helped her get over writer’s block, Roseanne Cash digs The War of Art, etc. (In the lit’ry world, David Foster Wallace kept a huge self-help library.)
2. Self-help is tied up with America’s ideas about individualism.
In Josh Shenk’s book, Lincoln’s Melancholy, he points out how the rise of individualism in America gave rise to the culture of self-improvement and self-help:
At the same time that “self-made” entered the nation’s lexicon, so did the notion of abject failure. Once reserved to describe a discrete financial episode — “I made a failure,” a merchant would say after losing his shop — “failure” in antebellum America became a matter of identity, describing not an event but a person. As the historian Scott Sandage explains in Born Losers: A History of Failure in America, the phrase “I feel like a failure” comes to us so naturally today “that we forget it is a figure of speech: the language of business applied to the soul.”
In October 2012, Colin Dickey posted a great piece that helped me sort out the history of the self-help book. He points to Samuel Smiles’ 1859 book, Self-Help, as the beginning of the genre. (Dickey notes, with a hint of disdain, that “naturally” it was self-published, but a little research tells me it “sold 20,000 copies within one year of its publication” and by his death “had sold over a quarter of a million.“ Not too shabby.)
Self-Help was actually a sort of noble reaction to “various movements [of the 19th century] that promoted panaceas to cure all of society’s ills: phrenologists, teetotalers, vegetarians, hydrotherapy advocates… and on and on—all promising simple, quick fixes that would lead to utopian harmony.”
Smiles rejected all of that; the key to success, he argues in Self-Help, is knowledge and hard-work. “Men must necessarily be the active agents of their own well-being and well-doing,” he writes, “and that, however much the wise and the good may owe to others, they themselves must in the very nature of things be their own best helpers.”
Dickey says the problem with self-help today is that it has returned to the very quick-fix pseudoscientific snake-oil cures that Smiles (what a perfect name) was reacting to: enter the world of pop neuroscience books, which Isaac Chotiner called, “laboratory-approved self-help…self-help for people who would be embarrassed to be seen reading it.”
Indeed, “Put Some Neuroscience On It!™” is the easiest way to add credibility to what is, essentially folk wisdom, as is pointed out in this juicy bit from Steven Poole’s piece, “Your brain on pseudoscience: the rise of popular neurobollocks”:
[H]ere is a recipe for writing a hit popular brain book. You start each chapter with a pat anecdote about an individual’s professional or entrepreneurial success, or narrow escape from peril. You then mine the neuroscientific research for an apparently relevant specific result and narrate the experiment, perhaps interviewing the scientist involved and describing his hair. You then climax in a fit of premature extrapolation, inferring from the scientific result a calming bromide about what it is to function optimally as a modern human being. Voilà, a laboratory-sanctioned Big Idea in digestible narrative form. This is what the psychologist Christopher Chabris has named the “story-study-lesson” model, perhaps first perfected by one Malcolm Gladwell. A series of these threesomes may be packaged into a book, and then resold again and again as a stand-up act on the wonderfully lucrative corporate lecture circuit.
3. Truly great self-help books are often accidental.
Some of the classic texts that get lumped into self-help weren’t even meant to be published books: take Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations, which is really just a collection of notes that he wrote to himself, or Rainer Maria Rilke’s classic Letters To A Young Poet, a book of ten letters Rilke wrote to a 19-year-old named Franz Kappus when he was only 27-years-old. (Rachel Corbett, in her Rilke bio, calls it “the highest-brow self-help book of all-time.”)
I think these books last and endure because there is a sense that these writers were actually writing to themselves. They were sorting things out for themselves, and so the writing actually becomes simply a document of this process of thinking and learning, this self-help, if you will. Josh Shenk once said to me that all writing, in a sense, is a form of self-help: “we’re writing to help ourselves.” (It’s always amusing to me that, according to my inbox, there are people out there who WANT to be self-help authors. They should all be prescribed Nathanael West’s Miss Lonelyhearts, IMO.)
4. Advice is autobiographical.
Rilke brings up the question of authority in self-help: Who has the audacity to write it, and who is worth reading? Rachel Corbett points out in You Must Change Your Life, “Rilke was hardly qualified to give career advice at that point in his life.” He was essentially a young, broke, absentee dad going through writer’s block.
Is 27-year-old Rilke really somebody worth taking life advice from? Maybe. Maybe not. John Berryman once wrote, “Rilke was a jerk.” Reviewing a Rilke biography in 1966, Michael Dirda wrote, “Rilke the Man is hard to pardon or excuse.”
He was a son who refused to go to his dying father’s bedside, a husband who exploited and abandoned his wife, a father who almost never saw his daughter and who even stole from a special fund for her education to pay for his first-class hotel rooms. He was a seducer of other men’s wives, a pampered intellectual gigolo, and a virtual parody of the soulful artiste who deems himself superior to ordinary people because he is so tenderly sensitive, a delicate blossom easily punished by a passing breeze or sudden frost.
(I remember one time David McCullough said he gave up writing about Picasso because he couldn’t stand him. “He was an awful man.”) Rachel Corbett said she “found Rilke’s frailties so over the top that they became funny to me, and fun to write about.”
Corbett says Rilke wrote “in a tone of authority that only an amateur would dare.” There really is something about the audacity of a 27-year-old. I should know: I wrote the talk that became Steal at the same age. I’d read Rilke’s letters as letters to himself at a young age, and that’s how I wrote Steal — it was a list of things I wish I had heard when I was 19.
For me, the only way to be able to write self-help is to come at it, not as a teacher or an expert or, god forbid, a guru, but as a fellow student. Another human who is also trying to figure these things out.
5. All genres are best when they’re messed with.
Dickey pulls out what could, very possibly, be the formula for a self-help book proposal or dust jacket flap:
This is the foundation of self-help, after all: unlock the secrets that make me better, and then tell me what to do. Give me actionable intelligence, make me more creative, increase the percentage of solutions I’m able to devise. Give me a plan because I’m incapable of making my own; give me a plan because mine isn’t working.
One of my favorite things about criticism like this is that it’s actually great ammo for the criticized: for instance, reading criticism of self-help can actually make you a better or more successful self-help author, with formulas revealed and alternate possibilities suggested. Whether you use the knowledge for good or evil, whether you try to improve or harness and amplify what’s already there is up to you.
Is there hope for self-help? Dickey suggests that because it is so largely untapped by folks with literary or artistic ambitions, self-help is actually a genre ripe for experimentation. He points to Cheryl Strayed’s Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar as a kind of cross-genre beast of literary essays masquerading as self-help:
Strayed… deals in—if not clichés, then slogans. “Trust yourself,” she writes in one column, “It’s Sugar’s golden rule. Trusting yourself means living out what you already know to be true.” Another 2,000 word post features the maxim: “Write like a motherfucker”—helpfully available now on mugs and t-shirts.
What’s interesting about Strayed’s column, though, is that these slogans and maxims are, as often as not, near the beginning of the column rather than the end. The best posts dispense advice almost perfunctorily, before moving into long personal essays—essays that at times can seem like digressions.
I like how Tiny Beautiful Things plays with that format of the advice column, and I also like what Heather Havrilesky does in her column and in books like How to Be a Person in the World and the forthcoming What If This Were Enough?
As long as humans feel the need to improve themselves, to get better at life and work, self-help, whether it’s called that or not, is not going away. What self-help needs is authors willing to screw with it, to mix it with other forms and breed mongrels, to give it equal doses of honesty and weirdness.
The joy and luck, for me, of writing my books, is that I’ve stumbled my way into a form (specifically: the illustrated gift book) that is not only commercial and popular, but also allows me to be as weird and as visual as I want to be. (I really do think of the books as fancy zines.) If they are shelved in self-help, so be it!
All books are, in a sense, self-help: you help yourself to them.
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Related reading: Self-help as an oxymoron