The Self-Help Compulsion: Searching for Advice in Modern Literature, by Beth Blum

Gail Marshall considers a wide-ranging exploration of readers’ desire to find life lessons in books of many kinds

March 12, 2020
Woman reading
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In one of the illustrations to Beth Blum’s excellent work, self-help books such as The 4-Hour Work Week, The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck and The Power of Positive Thinking nestle up to I am Malala, a biography of Steve Jobs and novels by Paula Hawkins and Arundhati Roy in a street market in old Delhi. The image concisely represents both the heterogeneity of the texts that Blum examines, and her argument’s central insight that elements of self-help, and the instinct to seek textual guidance, are not, as the firmly categorised shelves in bookshops might suggest, confined to a single genre. And as well as confounding genres, readers can also subvert the authority of the text by skimming, skipping and abandoning half-read texts as they seek embedded wisdoms.

Thankfully Blum is no such reader, and The Self-Help Compulsion is a set of brilliant and richly informative accounts of modern and modernist texts which examine the predilection of readers to mine, collate and adapt “the textual counsel of the past for the purposes of self-transformation”. Rather than looking at the “approximately 150 new self-help titles published every week” (and that was back in 2013), Blum concentrates on the genre’s progenitors, such as Samuel Smiles, and on more recent writers such as Gustave Flaubert, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, Samuel Beckett and V.S. Naipaul. In the latter’s 1961 novel, A House for Mr Biswas, the eponymous hero becomes addicted to Smiles’ work and wonders “What would Samuel Smiles think of him right now?”

Smiles’ Self-Help; with Illustrations of Character and Conduct (1859) has as its title-page epigraph Polonius’ injunction: “This above all, – To thine own self be true;/ And it must follow as the night the day,/ Thou canst not then be false to any man.” This is just the first of its literary references and cements the relationship between literature and self-help from the outset. The shadow of Smiles’ work is long, both chronologically and geographically, and Blum persuasively demonstrates self-help’s global reach and its “nonsynchronous, cross-cultural community of practical readers”.

But that sense of a community of readers, of an audience that, like Shakespeare’s spectators, is joined in an experience of mutual recognition and appreciation, is not one that is necessarily commensurate with the self-help imperative. Smiles’ first audience for the lectures that provided the basis of his book were members of “a workingman’s educational society” in Leeds, but his message is potentially an atomising one addressed to the singular rather than to the collective identity. This might militate against the kind of social action that would be needed to effect change in people’s lives, but, as Theodor Adorno pointed out, it is perhaps an intractable part of the self-help agenda that it exhorts us “to toe the line, behind which stand the most powerful interests”.

Blum skilfully probes modernism’s and self-help’s shared investment in “interiority and the individual unconscious” and their “vulnerability to charges of solipsism and individualism”. Here she forges another link in the indissoluble chain her work compellingly uncovers between literature and self-help. Yet the most recent manifestation of this relationship, she persuasively and bleakly argues, is a shared interest in dogged “perseverance and resilience”, rather than a concentration on the seeking of success that was Smiles’ main concern.

Gail Marshall is head of the School of Literature and Languages at the University of Reading.

The Self-Help Compulsion: Searching for Advice in Modern Literature
By Beth Blum
Columbia University Press, 344pp, £30.00
ISBN 9780231194921
Published 28 January 2020

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