The Limits of Self-Help

Self-help literature has had an amazing shelf life. From medieval morality plays to Renaissance courtesy books to Victorian conduct literature to contemporary best-sellers, it pushes transformation while itself being continuously transformed. On Amazon today, anyone beginning a search for self-help will find 28 different categories for browsing. The S’s alone tell us volumes about our culture: Self-Esteem, Sex, Spiritual, Stress Management, Success. 

When I speak with prospective college students one-on-one, which I do regularly as an academic program director, I ask them about their reading lives. Although they mention self-help titles far less often than they mention Harry Potter and dystopian fiction, some of them are reading such books in their free time. Just this spring, I was surprised by a student who told me that he was reading Stephen R. Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, published over 30 years ago seemingly as a response to 1980s corporate greed. More commonly, they will rave about The Alchemist, Paulo Coelho’s fable of self-discovery, also published over 30 years ago and touted by Amazon as “transforming the lives of countless readers across generations.” As Gregory Cowles observed in The New York Times in 2009, The Alchemist “is more self-help than literature.”  The tentacles of self-help reach not only into popular fiction but also more subtly into multiple, readily accessible genres: tweets, subreddits, Instagram posts, Tik Toks, podcasts.  Our students, like many of us, believe that their selves—their identities, their habits, their values—need help. The publishing industry and social media companies are all too ready to confirm that for them.

We label Covey’s book and others “self-help” because of a Victorian writer, Samuel Smiles, who published Self-Help in 1859. His arguments for individual autonomy and self-cultivation reflected his era’s confidence in industry and the moral character associated with hard work. In the Preface to the second edition, he regretted his choice of title because, he said, it caused the book to be judged superficially as a “eulogy to selfishness” and not recognized for its examples of men (they are all men) who helped their neighbors by helping themselves. The label is apt despite Smiles’s regret: the defining characteristic of the genre is self-cultivation even if one’s neighbors are helped as a by-product. 

Self-help literature is no less political than any other genre; it reflects and often reinforces a specific socio-economic point-of-view that, ironically, makes significant transformation difficult.  How much can the self change if the systems of power within which the self operates do not change? It’s a largely conservative genre—one might say a reactionary genre when it focuses on conduct. That is most apparent to me when teaching Victorian conduct literature, which students find simultaneously archaic and resonant with current gender ideology. When students read Sarah Stickney Ellis’s The Wives of England (1843), in which she warns that in a “highly-gifted woman,” even if her husband is her equal, “nothing can be more injudicious, or more fatal to her happiness, than an exhibition even of the least disposition to presume upon such gifts,” they roll their eyes. This self-help advice to preserve a wife’s happiness by hiding her intellect is ridiculous, they say. But when questioned, female students recognize that they have been pressured in different ways to appear less intelligent than they are. If they were to pick up the current best-seller You are a Bad-Ass: How to Stop Doubting Your Greatness and Start Living an Awesome Life by Jen Sincero or the recently published Girl, Stop Apologizing: A Shame-Free Plan for Embracing and Achieving Your Goals by Rachel Hollis, they would perhaps change their own behavior to speak and act more confidently, but systemic barriers would remain firmly in place. Of course, self-help may point us to those barriers and prompt collective, political action, but that’s not the kind of transformation being marketed by contemporary conduct books or Instagram posts.

When we discuss vocation and calling with undergraduates, are we peddling a version of self-help? Are we focused on the shaping of character and the changing of behavior as if vocation had a singular goal, an ideal end, to be achieved some day in the future? Are we neglecting conversations about political and socio-economic systems that limit self-help and that can be transformed only through collective activism—also a vocation? 

What if we considered teaching vocation as a response to the world that is often in tension with the teleological narrative of self-help? Without dismissing the important activities of self-reflection and value formation, we might turn students’ attention beyond those activities to the here-and-now of their “unhelped” selves and to the present work that they can do for the common good. We can remind them that their calling is to the present moment—to their relationships, work, and communities in the now. 

Novelist and poet Alice Walker describes her response to sheltering in place during the pandemic as “relax[ing] into the present” on Cheryl Strayed’s podcast Sugar Calling (May 6, 2020). In each episode, Strayed calls an author or poet over the age of 60 to talk about this time of crisis, seeking “courage and insight” for overcoming adversity: George Saunders, Margaret Atwood, Alice Walker, Billy Collins, Joy Harjo, and others. The podcast has offered me insight as well as pleasure, but not because I find in these conversations any specific advice. What has fascinated me by the interviews is how Strayed’s request for coping mechanisms has often been quickly glossed over or even deflected by the interviewees. Instead of answering directly with pandemic advice, they speak about coping with life itself—working with what we are given, finding joy in our work, finding “the truth” through art. They speak about literature’s function for human existence. They speak about their vocations. Walker’s “relax[ing] into the present” is not advice for the pandemic but rather an embrace of her vocation. Strayed seems to have wanted to produce a self-help podcast, but it has been instead nudged toward the literary by her own curiosity and by the wise willfulness of her guests. 

The popular genre of self-help narrows our vision of the possible, as the didactic so often does.  It is the opposite of the literary, and its promise of transformation sounds hollow in comparison with what the literary can offer. Alice Walker continues on in her conversation with Strayed to talk about her favorite book, Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre: “this incredibly enthralling, romantic, but at the same time—in a way because of Jane’s character—stringent book, which never lets women down. […] Jane has real integrity, and I love that.”

Let’s take Walker’s literary advice and read great novels with students as means to consider character, values, and integrity—many of the concepts that will help them discern their callings, present and future. Let’s interpret with students how these novels reflect or resist models of good conduct, especially for the disempowered. Let’s talk to students about the potential in literary works to suggest means for transformation of both self and system. That would be helpful.

To read Stephanie’s previous reflection on the themes of “form and formation,” see the post titled “Narrative Expectations.”

Stephanie L. Johnson is an Associate Professor of English and Director of the Honors Program at The College of St. Scholastica. She teaches nineteenth- and twentieth-century British literature, literature by women, and poetry, and has published articles on Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Christina Rossetti. She is currently working on a book project that examines Rossetti’s theology of the body as shaped by her poetry and prose.

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