The Radical Origins of Self-Help Literature

The Radical Origins of Self-Help Literature

Useful Books

The past and present of self-help literature.


From the 1940s to the ’60s, the Onitsha Market in southeastern Nigeria was the center of a burgeoning movement in self-help literature. Known as Onitsha Market literature, these cheap, locally published booklets were at once moralistic and titillating. With titles like Why Harlots Hate Married Men and Love Bachelors, How to Avoid Corner Love and Win Good Love From Girls, Money Hard to Get but Easy to Spend, and Drunkards Believe Bar as Heaven, they were sold at market stalls and were intended to appeal to a class of newly literate Nigerians interested in advancing themselves professionally and culturally.

Reading for self-improvement was something the British had encouraged in their mission schools, but the advice and moral guidance of the Onitsha Market pamphlets had much in common with the tenets of local folklore traditions. As Chinua Achebe noted, the pamphlets were in many ways extensions of Hausa folktales and could not be written off, as some critics argued, merely as vestiges of Western influence. “I am convinced,” he wrote, “that such a literature could only have begun in Onitsha…the original site of evangelical dialogue between proselytizing Christianity and Igbo religion.”

In her recent book The Self-Help Compulsion, Harvard professor Beth Blum discusses the Onitsha Market pamphlets, among many other examples of self-help literature from around the world, in her effort to offer a more culturally specific and layered reading of the genre. Many people tend to write off self-help literature as little more than fodder for the worried well-off, and as Blum concedes, there is good reason to do so. Between books on self-actualization, speaking circuits for self-appointed life coaches, high-priced personal growth seminars, and corporate-sponsored self-care initiatives, the $10 billion a year industry can seem to be little more than, as she puts it, “a force…that fosters privatized solutions to systemic problems.”

But as Blum shows, the genre actually originated in the literature of radical self-improvement societies and the collective do-it-yourself efforts of 19th century British anarchists and socialists. Long before the publication of Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People and Abigail Van Buren’s “Dear Abby” columns, working people were reading manifestos like George Jacob Holyoake’s 1857 Self-Help by the People, which urged readers to acquire new skills so that they might be of better service to others.

As the genre moved away from these roots and embraced laissez-faire capitalism, Blum writes, it found an increasing number of detractors. The modernists, in particular, took great pains to distinguish their work from the genre, even mocking its instrumentalism with titles like Ezra Pound’s How to Read (1929). But for all of self-help’s faults, Blum wonders whether anything of value has been lost in the growing disdain for a practical literature that seeks to move us toward becoming better versions of ourselves. The self-help genre, she explains, fosters “a specific mode of reading” that values books as tools “for agency, use, well-being, and self-change” and that operates well outside academia or the rarefied world of the literati (in places like the Onitsha Market, for example).

While the literature of advice and of cultivating personal fortitude has existed as long as the written word, from the Analects of Confucius to the writings of the Stoics, Blum dates the advent of modern self-help to mid-19th-century Britain.

Self-help, she writes, may have reinforced the notion of self-sufficiency, but its impulse toward self-reliance also grew out of radical working-class organizations like labor cooperatives and mutual aid societies. In these settings, laborers held meetings to discuss ways of bettering themselves and looked to books like Self-Help by the People to learn skills that could benefit the community.

Born in 1817, Holyoake grew up in a working-class household in Birmingham, England; his father was a metalworker and his mother a button-maker. At an early age, Holyoake embraced the socialism of Robert Owen—who helped inspire Britain’s cooperative movement, which sought to establish small workers’ communes founded on mutual improvement—and composed Self-Help by the People as an instruction manual for workers seeking to set up such cooperatives.

Holyoake was not the only one to formulate these radical visions of collective self-help and mutual aid. Radical advice literature was, as Blum says, “percolating” across much of Europe at the time. In Russia, Nikolai Chernyshevsky’s What Is to Be Done? (1863)—a book that was read by generations of Russian radicals, including Vladimir Lenin—not only addressed questions of political strategy and tactics but also offered practical information to budding revolutionaries on everything from romantic relationships to how to start a sewing cooperative.

Despite these working-class roots, self-help quickly became associated with the “aspirational middle classes,” Blum notes, who were uneasy about their status in industrial society. Through self-help, they could remake themselves so that their manners, interests, and values reflected those of the aristocracy and helped them retain or advance their class position.

For Blum, the embourgeoisement of self-help books was sparked by a “convergence of factors,” from swift advances in mass literacy to the popularity of mail-order self-improvement schemes. In the United States, in particular, it was furthered by the rise of New Thought, a quasi-religious movement that believed all problems originated in the mind and in one’s attitude toward life. New Thought pitched itself as a mind-healing movement that stressed the power of positive thinking, the law of attraction, and the use of visualization as a means to self-actualization.

Self-help’s transformation from a radical genre into one serving the class hierarchy can be traced, Blum writes, to the publication of Samuel Smiles’s 1859 Self-Help—an early “handbook of laissez-faire liberalism” that she credits with crystallizing the genre as it exists today. The Scottish-born Smiles spent much of his youthful career working as a journalist for the Edinburgh Weekly Chronicle and as an editor at the Leeds Times, where he championed various progressive reforms, from women’s suffrage to the implementation of a secret ballot. In time, however, he came to believe that the most effective way to bring about true reform was at the level of the individual. He argued that in many cases, poverty was the result of personal failures or weaknesses, such as laziness, profligate spending, and excessive drinking. By overcoming these vices, Smiles maintained, any individual could achieve prosperity. “A man who devotes himself to [moneymaking], body and soul, can scarcely fail to become rich,” he wrote, instructing readers to simply “spend less than you earn; add guinea to guinea; scrape and save, and the pile of gold will gradually rise.”

Self-Help became an international best seller and Smiles a veritable celebrity. He followed its success with yet more tracts: Character (1871), Thrift (1875), and Duty (1880). Self-Help was successful in part because it was seen as a remedy for the “success-wary fiction” of the era, books like Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations, which served as a cautionary tale about wealth and ambition. Smiles encouraged his readers to aspire to those very things, and in the process, he became wealthy himself. Self-Help sold 20,000 copies in its first year, compared with Great Expectations’ 3,750.

As self-help’s popularity grew in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, novelists and literary critics of the era took notice, resenting the genre’s encroachment on their readers and seeking to differentiate their probing explorations of human weakness from the new books that promised to cure readers of those frailties. The modernist mantra of art for art’s sake, Blum writes, was in part “a reaction to the perceived instrumentalism of the increasingly popular self-improvement handbook.” Modernist writers saw self-help and the related how-to craze as gimmicks that reduced the written word to mere raw material for get-rich-quick schemes. The instructional titles popular among modernist writers were intended to mock the self-help books that were flooding bookshelves. Gertrude Stein’s How to Write, Pound’s ABC of Reading, and Virginia Woolf’s “How Should One Read a Book?” all sought not only to defend the primacy of literature but also to expose the simplistic answers that self-help offered for life’s big questions. “The only advice, indeed, that one person need give another about reading is to take no advice,” Woolf asserted in her essay.

Some novelists even incorporated the self-help guru—a figure that Blum says marked the genre’s early investment in celebrity culture—as a character in their books. In her novel Twilight Sleep, Edith Wharton introduces us to an inspirational healer named Alvah Loft, the author of the books Spiritual Vacuum Cleaning and Beyond God, who has the novel’s protagonist, busy do-gooding socialite Pauline Manford, under his spell. “The ongoing joke of the narrative,” Blum writes, “is that Mrs. Manford needs a stress reliever to unwind from her numerous relaxation therapies.”

In France, Gustave Flaubert also mocked the genre. In his sardonic Dictionary of Cliché, he derided the very idea of prescription (one entry reads, “SELFISHNESS: Complain of other people’s; overlook your own”). He also satirized self-help’s fetishization of simple, pared-down living in his novel Bouvard and Pécuchet, in which two Parisian copy clerks, thanks to a sudden inheritance, pack up their belongings and move to the countryside to devote themselves to self-improvement.

However, far from realizing their dreams, Bouvard and Pécuchet’s incessant pursuit of new do-it-yourself projects, from fruit preservation to craft liquor distillation, merely marks “the elusive quest for the perfect, purest product,” Blum writes—one that always ends in failure for the pair. In this way, Flaubert reminds us that do-it-yourself does not represent a break from the market logic undergirding much of turn-of-the-century French life but rather the sad evidence of its inescapability. While Bouvard and Pécuchet attempt to master (without success) many different fields, true autodidacticism, Blum argues, “would only be possible in a society driven by community rather than self-interest, where people’s skills are freely developed rather than imposed by the economy as necessary respite from alienated labor.”

Far from reacting to a minor annoyance, authors like Flaubert and Wharton “defined their styles partly in recoil against self-help’s instrumental materialism,” Blum writes. Failure, inscrutability, and fragmentation—the qualities that made literary modernism what it was—were in part reactions to self-help, a genre that defined itself as being every bit as simple to read as it was to get rich. While self-help “has a history of promoting itself as an antidote to intellectual bombast and aesthetic idealism,” she writes, at the same time, “serious literature has long defined itself against the instrumental pedantry of popular advice.” In tracing these moments of friction, Blum stresses the importance of self-help in shaping modernist literature, even if it was as its antagonist.

In her book’s final chapters, Blum shifts her attention to the contemporary self-help scene. The self-improvement business is still booming, she reminds us, having found new and fertile ground in the creative, coworking, gig-based economy shaped and proselytized by Silicon Valley and glamorized by sites like Goop. (Last year the South by Southwest festival hosted a Wellness Expo, where visitors were encouraged to “fuel your mind, body, and soul,” with swag from Lululemon.) The industry and its acolytes have adopted “the jargon of well-being, self-optimization, and self-actualization” and have even taken to using the words of Marcel Proust and Samuel Beckett against them. “Fail better,” which Blum suggests the socialist Beckett meant ironically, has been rebranded as the start-up culture’s go-to mantra.

Contemporary novelists and essayists, like their modernist predecessors, have responded in kind to this era of corporate-driven self-care and personal optimization rhetoric with books that borrow from the genre to expose its defects. Blum points to a group of Asian American writers in particular who have used “the self-help paradigm to document the traumas and disenchantments of the upward-mobility ethic.” Alexander Chee’s How to Write an Autobiographical Novel, Anelise Chen’s So Many Olympic Exertions, and Charles Yu’s How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, among others, satirize and appropriate elements of the genre to reveal the cruel paradox of self-help in a society where social mobility is ever more elusive. Blum also cites new works by African American authors like the poet Terrance Hayes’s How to Be Drawn and Baratunde Thurston’s satirical memoir How to Be Black as similarly incisive uses of the instructional mode to lay bare the “bad faith of neoliberal choice in the context of racial inequities.”

Yet Blum never answers the question she says she is most often asked: “But is self-help good or bad?” The genre began with a vision of reading as an activity that could lead to social change, and despite its commercial trajectory, it still serves this purpose for some. Self-help has resonated particularly with women, for whom focusing on the self can be a defiant protest against the self-sacrificing expectations of motherhood, especially in societies without robustly subsidized child care. Indeed, in its stunning popularity, self-help reveals just how many people feel they are in need of, well, help.

For Blum, however, the genre’s history also reminds us of a different mode of reading. In trying to distinguish their work from the vulgar practicality of advice literature, many writers have come to see descriptors like “didactic” and “prescriptive” as markers of aesthetic poverty. But self-help offers us insight into the real power of literature: that books can and even should help readers remake their world. As Blum wryly notes, “Self-help has no such qualms about its utility.”

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