Samuel Beckett as a guru for business executives? James Joyce as a guide to living a good life? The notion of notoriously experimental authors sharing a shelf with self-help books might seem far-fetched, yet a hidden history of rivalry, influence, and imitation links these two worlds. In The Self-Help Compulsion, Beth Blum reveals the profound entanglement of modern literature and commercial advice from the late nineteenth century to the present day.
Blum explores popular reading practices in which people turn to literature in search of practical advice alongside modern writers’ rebukes of such instrumental purposes. As literary authors positioned themselves in opposition to people like Samuel Smiles and Dale Carnegie, readers turned to self-help for the promises of mobility, agency, and use that serious literature was reluctant to supply. Blum unearths a series of unlikely cases of the love-hate relationship between serious fiction and commercial advice, from Gustave Flaubert’s mockery of early DIY culture to Dear Abby’s cutting diagnoses of Nathanael West and from Virginia Woolf’s ambivalent polemics against self-improvement to the ways that contemporary global authors such as Mohsin Hamid and Tash Aw explicitly draw on the self-help genre. She traces the self-help industry’s tendency to quote, repurpose, and adapt literary wisdom and considers what self-help might have to teach today’s university. Offering a new account of self-help’s origins, appeal, and cultural and literary import around the world, this book reveals that self-help’s most valuable secrets are not about getting rich or winning friends but about how and why people read.
Reviews and Endorsements:
Beth Blum has opened our eyes to a fascinating area: the intersection between self-help and serious literature. Blum is deeply unusual among scholars in appreciating the extent to which ordinary readers seek solace and insight in literature—and she explores the consequences of this idea in a series of readings of important and interesting writers. This book is sure to deepen our understanding of a genre of literature that has perhaps been too hastily dismissed in the past.
Alain de Botton, author of How Proust Can Change Your Life
1. Self-Help’s Portable Wisdom
2. Bouvard and Pécuchet: Flaubert’s D.I.Y. Dystopia
3. Negative Visualization
4. Joyce for Life
5. Modernism Without Tears
6. Practicality Hunger
Coda: The Shadow University of Self-Help
About the Author
Beth Blum is assistant professor of English at Harvard University.