Literary Hub

When Did Self-Help Books Become Literary?

Walk into a contemporary bookstore and self-help manuals are likely to be among the first books you’ll see. In my local Barnes & Noble, a “self-improvement” section is featured in the vestibule, luring customers before they even open the store’s main doors. Inside the store, the boundary between self-help manuals and literary fiction appears curiously blurred, with Paula Cocozza’s novel How to Be Human, for example, displayed next to Heather Havrilesky’s advice compendium How to Be a Person in the World. Far from being particular to the era of the corporate bookstore chain, self-help’s overlap with the literary has a long and varied history marked by negotiation, strife, influence, and imitation. Novels and success manuals have been competing for readers’ attention at least since the late 19th century, when they vied for space on the same early bestseller lists.

Self-help and literature have historically been ambivalent shelf-fellows, but today the two industries appear to court and even encourage their mutual conflation. It can be difficult to discern from covers alone whether one is standing in the self-help section or among the new releases in fiction. The literary vanguard has taken to emulating self-help’s language and packaging in works such as Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be?, Charles Yu’s How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, Mohsin Hamid’s How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, Eleanor Davis’s How to Be Happy, Terrance Hayes’s How to Be Drawn, Jesse Ball’s How to Set a Fire and Why, Ryan North’s How to Invent Everything: A Survival Guide for the Stranded Time Traveler, and many more.

Serious literature has a reputation for resisting the vulgarity of use, and popular readers are known for shunning preachy lessons. But rather than a deterrent, the prospect of a moral lesson has historically drawn readers from all over the world to even the most obscure and impractical narratives. The desire for self-help links such diverse reading cultures as samurai in Meiji Japan, late-Victorian French hobbyists, mid-20th-century Nigerian taxi drivers, and Reagan-era Dear Abby devotees.

Self-help’s textual practice draws on the Renaissance tradition of the commonplace book: a scrapbook that assembled and re-copied quotations for personal use and was meant to “lay up a fund of knowledge, from which we may at all times select what is useful in the several pursuits of life.” Book historian Robert Darnton explains how “early modern Englishmen read in fits and starts and jumped from book to book.” This Renaissance practice of reading nonsequentially for personal use offers a window onto the way that reading and writing once “belonged to a continuous effort to make sense of things.”

With their collating of wisdom literature from Confucius to Charles Schwab, self-help handbooks have historically supplied de facto syllabi for those excluded from elite educational institutions.

Over time, and with the rise of the modern research university, this classical view of literature as life preparation was gradually supplanted by specialized models of literary study, accompanied by what philosopher Michel Foucault has described as the subordination of self-care to self-knowledge. However, this fragmentary and utilitarian approach to reading remains active in self-help. In her analysis of female self-help readers, Wendy Simonds discovered that “they are more likely to subvert the physical authority of the text than they would in fiction: they skip around, read halfway through and abandon the book, read only the chapters they think will pertain to them or their particular situation, or even use a book by reading the back cover and quickly skimming through it in the bookstore.”

Such practices have found an outlet not only in self-help books but also in the “hyperlinked homilies” and “virtual verities” circulating in digital culture. Self-help books are now “part of an extensive web of psycho-media.” As Boris Kachka, a journalist who covers literature and the publishing industry, complains, “today, every section of the store (or web page) overflows with instructions, anecdotes, and homilies.” This overflow into every genre, section, and web page is what makes recognizing self-help as a transmedia, cross-cultural reading practice so urgent.

Self-help’s most valuable secrets are not about getting rich or winning friends but about how and why people read. All self-help, even Dale Carnegie’s 1936 How to Win Friends and Influence People, advances a textual pedagogy. “The great aim of education,” wrote Carnegie, quoting Herbert Spencer, “is not knowledge but action. And this is an action book.” Ever since its emergence out of Victorian working-class associations, self-help has operated as an alternative pedagogic space to the academy—one whose breezy, instrumental reading methods contrasted with the close, disinterested paradigms promoted by the modern research university.

This modern university had little interest in Carnegie’s proposed course on public speaking, which contained the seeds of his best-selling manual. His course was rejected by both Columbia and NYU, leading him to settle in 1912 on the Harlem YMCA as his venue. In the introduction to How to Win Friends and Influence People, Carnegie scoffed: “Wouldn’t you suppose that every college in the land would conduct courses to develop the highest-priced ability under the sun?”

Yet it was not just Carnegie’s subject matter but also his reading and research methods that dissuaded academic institutions from securing his talents. His practice of liberal copying and unsignaled paraphrase was at odds with the originality and propriety prized by institutional academic culture. Described by a friend as “condensation’s greatest zealot,” Carnegie’s manual repurposes the insights of thinkers from Lin Yutang to William James. Even in person, it seems, Carnegie had a tendency to speak “in quotations, along with the qualifying phrases, mostly from his book, which he knows by heart. ”His approach was in keeping with self-help’s unapologetic derivativeness (in the 1883 self-improvement manual Room at the Top, author A. R. Craig humbly signs off as “The Compiler”).

Long before theorists began announcing the “death of the author,” self-help authors had abdicated the originality claim. With their collating of wisdom literature from Confucius to Charles Schwab, self-help handbooks have historically supplied de facto syllabi for those excluded from elite educational institutions (indeed, many early guides included recommended reading lists as appendices). Above all, whether explicitly or implicitly, these guides modeled how to read.

Though self-help appears to endorse the trope of self-making, the industry is defied by brazen textual recycling.

In addition to Carnegie’s practical methods, his research ethics also ostracized him from scholarly circles. A controversy erupted in 1919 after Carnegie submitted an article purportedly written by one of his business students touting the transformative effects of his public speaking course, “My Triumph Over Fears That Cost Me $10,000.00 a Year,” when the journal editors of the academic Quarterly Journal of Speech Education discovered that Carnegie had fabricated the account. But his penchant for invention soon found another, more literary outlet. In 1922, in the modernist pattern of Hemingway and Stein, Carnegie moved to France to pen his own Lost Generation epic, explaining that “in my early thirties, I decided to spend my life writing novels. I was going to be a second Frank Norris or Jack London or Thomas Hardy.”

During the same period that James Joyce was in Trieste trying to re-create the Dublin of his youth, Carnegie journeyed to the French countryside to reconstruct his native Maryville, Missouri: “I am going to put that fountain with the gold fish back in Schumacher and Kirch’s grocery, and the hitch racks back around the court house.” The novel, originally titled The Blizzard and later retitled All That I Have, participated in the same ironic portraits of pious, small town life that defined the modernist satires of Sherwood Anderson and Sinclair Lewis.

When publishers rejected his novel, describing it as “worthless,” Carnegie suffered a serious blow. The rejection led to a crisis of self-reassessment and hastened his 1926 return to the United States, this time under his revised name (from Carnagey to Carnegie, after the entrepreneur-philanthropist), to resume his public education initiatives. Although Carnegie came to accept that his talents lay elsewhere than in literature, he retained his admiration for the craft and power of the written word. “Genius is the creation of a cliché,” wrote Charles Baudelaire, and Carnegie concurred, remarking that it is “easier to make a million dollars than to put a phrase into the English language.”

That “How to Win Friends and Influence People” has become a stock phrase, leading to parodies such as Lenny Bruce’s How to Talk Dirty and Influence People and Toby Young’s How to Lose Friends and Alienate People, suggests that Carnegie eventually attained his ambition. But in a classic example of self-help’s penchant for repurposing, the phrase has a longer history. Already in 1902 the expatriated Canadian hustler Victor Segno, who opened the “Segno School of Success” in Los Angeles, had used a variation of the saying in a chapter titled “How to Win Friends and Affections” from his handbook The Law of Mentalism, which contains passages that anticipate those found in Carnegie’s book. Segno writes, “if one should desire to win the affection of some particular person, I would advise him to proceed systematically to gain that desire . . . and if his thoughts are backed by sincerity, they will be accepted. . . . If he is insincere, he cannot hold the affection.” Segno’s caveat was echoed in Carnegie’s insistence that, contrary to appearances, he is not advocating flattery but rather “honest, sincere appreciation.” “No! No! No! I am not suggesting flattery! Far from it. I’m talking about a new way of life. Let me repeat. I am talking about a new way of life.” Like so much of self-help, Carnegie’s quintessential slogan of American success possesses buried international origins—it may well have been inspired by an expatriated Canuck.


Though self-help appears to endorse the trope of self-making, the industry is defied by brazen textual recycling. More than a sheer manifestation of self-help’s ruthlessly appropriative capitalist energies, this tendency offers a glimpse into its surprisingly collaborative textual ethos. Self-help’s citation practices manifest our cultural interdependence in a manner analogous to how, according to Bruce Robbins, “reading upward mobility stories may be deviously teaching us not to be self-reliant and self-interested, as is usually taken for granted. It may be teaching us to think about the common good.” At its best, self-help is an extension of the advice tradition’s commitment to a communal archive of human experience.

At a time when the value of literature is often called into question, self-help offers a reminder of the promises of transformation, agency, culture, and wisdom.

The self-improvement industry has been analyzed in a variety of academic disciplines, but its literary import has not received the attention it demands. The omission is even more glaring in light of the fact that self-help guides are among the most lucrative book genres of the past 30 years, with approximately 150 new self-help titles published every week. Uniting the majority of economic, historical, and sociological scholarship on self-help is the view that the industry is fueled largely by fear, anxiety, and insecurity. Although the literary angle does not disprove the influence of these motives, one of its most striking revelations concerns the affirmative impulses that compel self-help’s readership. At a time when the value of literature is often called into question, self-help offers a reminder of the promises of transformation, agency, culture, and wisdom that draw readers to books.

Though reading for improvement has fallen into disfavor among academics, self-help provides a medium through which individuals can pursue self-betterment unfettered. This is, at least, one hypothesis of how the self-help compulsion came to flourish. In declining to endorse improvement as an end of reading, the professionalization of literary study, taking its cue from high-literary celebrations of impersonality and autonomy, may have inadvertently ceded an entire market to self-help.

There are other explanations, of course. Economists stress how late-19th-century class mobility created new anxieties over self-presentation among the aspirational middle classes. Sociologists and scholars of religion outline the way the anomie of industrial modernity—urbanization, secularization, the division of labor—created a vacuum that self-help strove to fill. Historians discuss these and others factors as part of “the turmoil of the turn of the century,” which led to rise of the “therapeutic ethos.” But this book is about literature and, while I draw on these hypotheses throughout, I argue that the literary perspective offers crucial insight into the ongoing appeal and evolution of modern advice. The literary paradigm points to the emergence of self-help as a defense of a specific mode of reading—for agency, use, well-being, and self-change—that was being expelled from institutional spheres.

Scholars today are wringing their hands over the question of the nature of literature’s influence and necessity. Self-help has no such qualms about its utility and insists on the singular appeal of literature to offer models for how to survive. Counterintuitive though it may seem to some, today it is possible to find a stronger defense of the charisma, singularity, and even autonomy of the literary in self-help than in most literary criticism. As Timothy Aubry puts it in Reading as Therapy, “scholars have challenged this special status [of the literary] by disputing the notion of the author as an individual genius, by treating novels and poems as if they were no different from other kinds of texts, and by analyzing them to uncover the ideological and economic forces responsible for their production. But readers outside of the academy have not surrendered their piety.”

Likewise, Leah Price discovered in her interviews with the new breed of bibliotherapists, or what she wryly terms “bibliobaristas,” that these professionals see their mission as “wresting literature out of the hands of the killjoys who make a living chaperoning booklovers’ natural urges.” And so, rather than blithely negating the aesthetic, as some might assume, self-help has become an unlikely, vestigial sphere of literary veneration, however polemical or anti-intellectual its version of the literary may be.


The Self-Help Compulsion

Excerpted from The Self-Help Compulsion: Searching for Advice in Modern Literature by Beth Blum. Copyright © 2020 Columbia University Press.  Used by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.

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