Who Do We Think We Are?   /   Spring 2021   /    Book Reviews

Art and the Art of Living

The disagreement between modernism and the contemporary discourse of “self-help” is not about whether literature has “therapeutic” capacities.

Matthew Mutter

Dale Carnegie in the 1930s and some of his famous self-help books; Everett Collection Historical/Alamy Stock Photo.

When literature professors take stock of their institutional decline, one question they find themselves asking is why ordinary, nonacademic people read literature at all. Not why should they, but simply, why do they? As the threat of irrelevance looms, academics are reconsidering the pleasure of the untrained reader.

This is the deepest background of Beth Blum’s excellent study, The Self-Help Compulsion: Searching for Advice in Modern Literature. A professor of English at Harvard, Blum explores the persistent impulse to mine literature for wisdom and guidance. “At a time when the value of literature is often called into question,” she writes, “self-help offers a reminder of the promises of transformation, agency, culture, and wisdom that draw readers to books.” Our cultural moment, she believes, is an implicit rebuke of both the “critique” of literary theory and our residual convictions about how “serious” literature is consumed. Because critical theory harbors a “suspicion towards discourses of agency and self-cultivation,” it looks askance at the idiom of “self-help,” which masks social problems by exaggerating individual agency. Self-help, moreover, is seen to “exacerbate the feelings of personal insufficiency…upon which consumer capitalism feeds.”

For the defenders of “aesthetic autonomy,” the naked instrumentalism of self-help flouts a hard-earned ideal that has been perpetually threatened by left-wing politics and right-wing moralism. But the last twenty-five years, Blum observes, have witnessed a flood of books that aspire to reclaim literary modernism—the very movement in which this ideal was codified—for the emotional needs of the common reader. The most famous of these is Alain de Botton’s How Proust Can Change Your Life. But similar books have appeared on Woolf, Joyce, Auden, and Kafka. Perhaps even more remarkable is the collapse of the boundary between “self-help” fiction and the “serious” contemporary novel. For instance, the prominent contemporary novelists Charles Yu, Sheila Heti, and Mohsin Hamid have advertised their books as guides to the art of living: How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe (Yu), How Should a Person Be? (Heti), and How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia (Hamid). These self-help novels, like self-help criticism, respond to what Blum calls “practicality hunger,” a need for concrete direction in globally disorienting conditions.

Yet the blurring of these boundaries, Blum suggests, cannot simply be attributed to the set of social conditions academics typically deride as “neoliberalism.” She constructs a fascinating global history, for instance, around the 1859 book that inaugurated the movement, Samuel Smiles’s Self-Help, which was read enthusiastically by Japanese samurai, Nigerian presidents, and Iranian scholars. We learn that before writing How to Win Friends and Influence People (1936), Dale Carnegie moved to France and aspired to write the next novel of the Lost Generation. In the early twentieth century, a distinguished novelist like Arnold Bennett could publish popular self-help books: How to Live on Twenty-Four Hours a Day and Literary Taste: How to Form It. Even the influential literary critic I.A. Richards, whose work celebrated modernist techniques and helped establish the principles of the New Criticism, wrote his own version of a how-to manual: How to Read a Page (1942).

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