Self-Improvement Literature

In the FT, James Harkin on self-help books.

How did our bookshelves become a toolbox of methods for living our lives better? Some valuable clues can be found in Dubravka Ugresic’s gloriously, unashamedly bitchy dissection of the state of the publishing industry, Thank You For Not Reading.

The Croatian academic and critic compares the contemporary books market with the propaganda of the Stalinist school of socialist realism. The only difference is that, where the art of socialist realism promised a bright and shining future for society, these books promise a bright personal future – if only you do what they say.

Visit any large metropolitan bookshop, she says, and the display will be festooned with books about how to improve your personal situation and overcome your demons. There are books about fat people becoming thin, sick people recovering, poor people becoming rich, mutes speaking, alcoholics sobering up, unbelievers discovering faith. This literature of personal transformation, she believes, has so cornered the books market that all writers are now forced to “live Oprah” and the publishing world exploits this shamelessly. The title arrived at for Alain de Botton’s book How Proust Can Change Your Life, one London literary agent told me privately, probably doubled sales of the book. Even weighty works of non-fiction are no longer immune from the functional approach – Heat, the environmentalist George Monbiot’s new book about global warming, was brought to market saddled with the sub-title How to Stop the Planet Burning.

But why stop here? In the current publishing climate, a whole range of classics could surely be touched up to lend them a more contemporary feel. Karl Marx’s Capital: A Critique of Political Economy could become Capital: How to Overthrow the Capitalist System For Beginners; Robinson Crusoe could benefit from the sub-title How to Survive and Thrive On a Desert Island; Pride and Prejudice might shift a few more copies if it were subtitled How to Bag a Rich Husband and Live Happily Ever After.

In a post-cold war age, where political allegiances and ideologies often give us little in the way of guidance, many of us have turned inward in search of inspiration. Ideas, as a consequence, find it difficult to get a hearing unless they promise to turn our lives around or help us to get ahead. If the rise of “how-to lit” is as unstoppable as the rise of the self-help industry from which it takes its cue, perhaps the best we can hope for is for more imaginative attempts to subvert the whole genre.