The genre of self-help books is one in which advice is dispensed in the general categories of personal growth, relationships, coping with issues, and personal insights into identity (Dean 2008). Indeed, the divulging of wisdom to others on such matters is not a new task. Philosophers in the Ancient world knew the value of guiding others in such matters as love and loss. In the absence of a dominant overarching structure to guide communal conduct, however, contemporary society has filled this void by turning to individual advice dispensed primarily through the medium of self-help books. Indeed, this sector of publishing is currently one of the fastest growing areas and one in which there is an increasing number of people both admitting to and relying upon its revered insights.
The concept of providing ‘self-help’ literature to the community is not a recent phenomenon. Indeed, ancient Greek philosophers were quite adept at dispensing advice to their fellow countrymen on how to live; a notable being Epicurus (341-270 BC) who wrote some 300 self-help books on a range of topics, from love to justice. Similarly, Roman citizens were also furnished with advice on how to cope with anger by Stoic philosopher Seneca (4BC – 65AD), and later, by their emperor and Stoic philosopher, Marcus Aurelius (121-180 AD), who provided a vital source of meditations to cope with life’s adversities (De Botton 2012). Indeed, McGee (2005) contends that perhaps the Bible itself could be considered one of the first formal ‘self-help’ books in existence, coupled with such bestselling guides as Thomas a Kempis’s The Imitation of Christ (De Botton 2012). No matter the context, however, the fact was that citizens – from ancient Greece to the middles ages – were able to turn to such philosophers and their literature in order to seek guidance as to how best to lead their lives and overcome obstacles.
The advent of both the modern university system in the mid-19th century and an increase in secularism within society, contributed to less prestige for these works. In the case of the former, where contributions from such philosophers had been viewed as useful or consoling for the masses, the burgeoning university system demanded something else from its intellectual employees: accuracy of fact (De Botton 2012). This was seen to supersede the need for the practical application of philosophising, thus hindering the ability of people to seek wise counsel. Similarly, the rapid secularisation of society promoted the notion that, rather than rely on philosophers or historians for wise counsel, all that was needed was a healthy dose of common sense, complemented by the occasional input from a sympathetic doctor or accountant (De Botton 2012).
The proliferation of the latter notion throughout Western culture has seen the ideals of such things as individualisation (Beck & Beck-Gernsheim 2002) take a firm hold. This is the idea whereby, rather than rely on traditional folklore and conventions to determine desirable and acceptable conduct, individuals in late modernity are now expected to construct their own lives; along with accepting all accompanying risks of failure. Indeed, McGee (2005) contends that the proliferation of repetition and simplistic platitudes that adorn many self-help titles, may in fact be the formal conduit through which the ‘common sense’ of traditional folklore is perpetuated – thus making them an invaluable source of ‘wisdom’. Where they differ from previous realistic philosophical and intellectual consolations, however, is in their prolific, overly optimistic rhetoric purporting ‘anything is possible’ and that, by the end of the book, the reader should have enacted tangible change (De Botton 2012).
Regardless of these deficiencies, however, the prominence and status of self-help or self-improvement books has seen something of a renaissance in recent times. In his 2012 article, philosopher Alain de Botton fervently defended the status of this genre whilst simultaneously acknowledging its continued ridicule. He argued the situation resulted from most self-help books being written by a cohort of sentimental Americans, most of whom “promise their readers eternal life, untold riches and an escape from every grubby aspect of being human, all within 300 pages of upbeat, relentlessly repetitive and patronising prose.” (De Botton 2012). As a result, he does not blame readers for either avoiding or being sceptical of the genre, or for the cultural elite snubbing their noses at those who persevere with such forms of information. Instead, he argues for a return to practical advice that emanates from a more realistic vantage point; one that both acknowledges and incorporates human flaws and failings into its prescriptions – just as wise ancient philosophers once did.
Just as individuals exist within social and historical contexts, so does the waxing and waning popularity of self-help books. For whilst De Botton (2012) felt obliged to publicly defend the existence of quality self-help guides, that protection would seem to no longer be warranted as the popularity of the genre surges. Indeed, the self-help industry in the United States is now estimated to be worth approximately $8 billion a year (Dean 2008), with self-help books making up a sizeable share of bookstore bestsellers. For publishers like HarperCollins, this has translated to an increase in print sales by 18% in 2017 – compared to 2016 – with projections predicting future steady increases (Nargi 2018). This surge in self-help book popularity can also be seen in the United Kingdom. With the trauma of Brexit coupled with ensuing uncertainty, Nielsen Book Research claims that – with the sale of 3 million books accounting for a 20% rise – the self-improvement genre of books has been propelled into one of the fastest-growing areas of publishing (Walker 2019). This makes this area worth approximately 30 million pounds a year (Walker 2019). Similar traction is witnessed within libraries; the Washington D.C. public library, for example, reports that 11 of the top 50 titles with the highest circulation are from the ‘self-help’ genre (Zhou 2017).
From a publisher’s viewpoint, the senior vice-president and director of creative development at HarperCollins, Lisa Sharkey, notes that unlike previous times whereby few were game to admit to reading, leave alone relying upon self-help books, conversely people are now openly seeking advice from this genre (Nargi 2018). The difference, she notes though, is rather than wanting advice from distant and inaccessible experts, readers are now more prone to seek books to whom they feel a connection with the writer; that they are getting advice from someone who has gone through similar issues and survived (Nargi 2018). Furthermore, Judith Carr – president of HarperOne – notes not just the changing fortunes of self-help publishing, but also its changing readership, stating “We now have a new, younger, angrier male reader looking for help outside of business books, while young women are grappling with serious issues like anxiety” (Nargi 2018, p. 23).
The self-help genre of literature is one that polarises people; some argue that, whilst not all titles are of a high quality, their presence is indeed warranted in a time of fragmentation, uncertainty, and secularisation. Others contend, however, that most titles are nothing more than simplistic platitudes, either full of obvious notions of ‘common sense’, or else based on unscientific premises that promise much but deliver little.
The area of self-help literature specifically directed at women in the workforce, is a particular example of this controversy. This subset of titles seems to be of immense popularity, with Metz (2019) noting that, on Amazon, the ‘women & business’ category lists over 3500 books in English. Indeed, in a Western society that promotes and nurtures neoliberal ideals of resilience and encourages all to “bounce back from adversity and embrace a mind-set in which negative experiences can – and must – be reframed in upbeat terms” (Gill 2018, p. 477), these books fit the bill perfectly. For within their text holds the promise of hope for women to gain the tools enabling empowerment and control over their own fate (Metz 2019). Indeed, Metz (2019) further notes this specific genre could act as a “form of consciousness-raising that can provide additional encouragement for women to take individual action to advance their careers” (p. 85).
Metz (2019) cautions, however, that conversely, this same advice can also make women feel inadequate if they cannot succeed despite persevering within unequal and bias structures over which they have no control. Thankfully, whilst there has been a notable increase in the public’s demand for this specific genre, it has been coupled with a simultaneous increase in research into organisational and structural barriers existing outside individual control (Metz 2019).
Whilst a handful of self-help books note these additional macro forces many, however, prefer to focus on a ‘fix the woman’ approach rather than incorporate strategies that may seek to change the system in which they operate. As a result, the promotion of actions of compliance rather than resistance are subtly emphasised. That is, if a woman wants to succeed within the male-dominated corporate world, she should downplay aspects of her femininity in preference to aligning herself with her colleagues via the use of more ‘masculine’ traits. As many books seeking to improve relationships show, biological determinism is relied upon in order to assert that, since there are inherent and insurmountable differences between men and women, the latter should camouflage her primary characteristics in order to gain assimilation into a world where masculine qualities are more highly valued (Tarzia 2015). The result is that, rather than having access to an array of qualitative material documenting the varying experiences of women in the workforce, female readers are subjected to ‘advice’ predominantly written by men – thus perpetuating a cycle of compliance (Zhou 2017). As an alternative, Lanier & DuPress Fine 2018) propose that “If authors are going to advise women to change their behaviour in the workplace, we should advise them to act in ways that challenge outdated and hegemonic norms, not acquiesce to them” (p. 19).
In conclusion, therefore, it can be seen that the genre of self-help books is a valuable sector – not only in monetary terms – but also because “the ideas in self-help books ‘trickle down’ into popular culture…” (Tarzia 2015, p. 13) thus normalising particular beliefs, norms, and behaviours. This is evident within all cultures as historically, individuals have always sought counsel from those considered most wise within their cohort. Whilst the source of this advice in modernity may have transferred from intellectuals and philosophers to psychologists, businesspeople, and others with relevant ‘expertise’, the current popularity of self-help books within an increasingly precarious, individualised, and secular Western culture is testament to their value. It is for these reasons, therefore, that those creating and producing literature within this sector must be aware of their burden of responsibility in dispensing knowledge and wisdom to others; whilst readers must simultaneously discern the advice they seek and follow. For the ramifications of production and implementation of this advice affect us all.
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Zhou, Y. 2017, ‘Goodreads Data Show That Women Reading Self-Help Books Are Getting Advice From Men’, Quartz, 4 November. Available from: https://qz.com/1106341/most-women-reading-self-help-books-are-getting-advice-from-men/ [9 April 2020].