January 12, 2013
How self-help ate America
Boris Kachka in New York Magazine:
MacDonald began his story by citing a list of 3,500 instructional books. Today, there are at least 45,000 specimens in print of the optimize-everything cult we now call “self-help,” but few of them look anything like those classic step-by-step “howtos,” which MacDonald and his Establishment brethren handled only with bemused disdain. These days, self-help is unembarrassed, out of the bedside drawer and up on the coffee table, wholly transformed from a disreputable publishing category to a category killer, having remade most of nonfiction in its own inspirational image along the way.
Many of the books on Amazon’s current list of “Best Sellers in Self-Help” would have been unrecognizable to MacDonald: Times business reporter Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habit, a tour of the latest behavioral science; Paulo Coelho’s novel The Alchemist, a fable about an Andalusian shepherd seeking treasure in Egypt; Susan Cain’s Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, a journalistic paean to reticence; publisher Will Schwalbe’s memoir The End of Your Life Book Club, about reading with his dying mother; and A Child Called “It,” David Pelzer’s recollections of harrowing and vicious child abuse. And these are just the books publishers identify as self-help; other hits are simply labeled “business” or “psychology” or “religion.” “There isn’t even a category officially called ‘self-help,’ ” says William Shinker, publisher of Gotham Books. Shinker discoveredMen Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus and now publishes books on “willpower” and “vulnerability”—“self-help masquerading as ‘big-idea’ books.”
Twenty years ago, when Chicken Soup for the Soul was published, everyone knew where to find it and what it was for. Whatever you thought of self-help—godsend, guilty pleasure, snake oil—the genre was safely contained on one eclectic bookstore shelf. Today, every section of the store (or web page) overflows with instructions, anecdotes, and homilies.
Posted by S. Abbas Raza at 11:33 PM | Permalink