Self Help Hell
Escape from self-help hell
Supposedly enlightened writers are queueing up to tell us how to live our lives and earning a fortune in the process. Reader beware ...Stephanie Merritt The Observer, Sunday August 31 2008 Article history
Ever since humankind learnt to read and write, we have nursed a hunger for books that tell us how to live. The original advice and self-improvement books, the sacred texts of the major religions, may not have claimed to offer instant happiness, nor to make us richer, thinner and younger-looking, but they did at least furnish us with a set of rules for a good life.
The desire for instruction manuals for living remains strong.
Self-help and advice is one of the biggest genres in publishing, netting over £50m per annum in the UK for the past four years.
Books such as Paul McKenna's series, I Can Make You Thin/Rich/Confident/Smug, regularly break out of the specialist sections of bookshops and reign supreme over the mainstream bestseller charts. McKenna has sold 2m copies in the UK alone.
Yet the genre suffers from the same conundrum as diet books: if any self-help book worked, no further titles would be needed and the industry would grind to a halt.
The best example is the late Allen Carr, who followed his bestselling The Easy Way to Stop Smoking with The Only Way to Stop Smoking Permanently, inadvertently implying that he had sold you short with the earlier book.
The exception may be the recently published Up for Renewal by Cathy Alter (Atria Books), a memoir of how she transformed her life by spending a year obeying the self-help pages of women's magazines. Alter's book opens up the alarming prospect of a whole new meta-genre: books giving advice on how to follow the advice of advice books.
Self-help books generally draw their precepts from three main sources: religion and spirituality (often borrowing heavily from a version of pop-Zen); psychology; and, increasingly, business.
A recent favourite of mine in the latter category is Rachel Greenwald's imperious-sounding Find A Husband After 35 Using What I Learned At Harvard Business School. The title was modified to After 30 for the UK edition, presumably because British women age less presentably - or get desperate sooner.
There is also a sub-genre based on sheer out-there loopiness, as personified by Barbel Mohr's Cosmic Ordering Service (Mobius). Famously endorsed by Noel Edmonds in 2005, the book claims you can get whatever you want by 'ordering' it from the cosmos, which you visualise as a sort of giant Argos (you can place your orders at thecosmicorderingsite.com). The idea that you can attract health, wealth and happiness to you merely by wishing for them is taken to the ultimate extreme by Rhonda Byrne's bestseller The Secret (Simon & Schuster), which draws together centuries of esoteric thinking and distils them into such nuggets as: 'Love yourself in every moment that you can' and: 'Know that there is no such thing as incurable.' The Secret is, in a sense, the Ur-self-help book; it promises instant wealth, love and weight loss and claims these goals can be achieved by visualising them, bypassing the more tried and tested methods of hard work, effort and exercise. It has sold 7.5m copies worldwide.
The Secret's success reflects the global nature of the genre; if you find a formula that works, it can be rolled out practically anywhere. But there is also evidence that self-help conforms to national taste. A scan of the UK pop psychology and self-help bestseller list for mid-August revealed a marked preference for no-nonsense advice books, such as Janet Street-Porter's Life's Too F***king Short (at number 4), a splendid anthology of suggestions for self-assertion that is the nearest most of us will get to being slapped around the face by Janet in person.
Autumn and the new year are the high points in the self-help publishing calendar, as we take stock and attempt to get ourselves back in shape after the holiday indulgences. In search of a life-changing mantra, I set out to work my way through the newest crop of advice books. I began with high hopes for Ursula James's You Can Think Yourself Thin (Century £9.99), although the title was a turn-off. Twenty years ago, when I was a teenager, diet books all used the word 'slim'; 'thin' and 'skinny' had connotations of illness. Now they all have titles such as I Can Make You Thin, You Can Be Thin and Skinny Bitch
Like McKenna, James bases her method on hypnosis and the book comes with a CD in which she leads you into three sessions of therapy. It's surprisingly effective; in the first session, I fell asleep and dreamt I was Will Smith in Independence Day and woke up feeling remarkably refreshed.
Since my conscious mind can't remember the hypnosis, I don't even know if she was asking me to visualise myself as Will Smith (he is pretty buff) or if this was coincidence. The hypnosis is intriguing and the book offers a broader scope than most diet books; it concentrates on the connection between overeating and negative emotions. James explains that it takes 21 days to form a habit and the third hypnosis session is designed to be repeated over three weeks, so I will have to wait for the results.
In the meantime, I turned to A New Earth by Eckhart Tolle (Penguin £12.99), author of the international bestseller The Power of Now. A New Earth was Oprah's Book Club choice earlier this year and it makes The Secret look like hard science. Tolle tells us how to shift from 'egoic' to 'new' consciousness; to do this you need to accept his notion of Enlightenment (don't think Rousseau and Voltaire), an ill-defined casserole of transcendent religions. Tolle, like many a self-help author, anticipates cynicism and pre-empts it; if the book does nothing for you, he explains, it's because you're not 'spiritually mature' enough to understand it.
Depressed by Tolle's inanities, I moved on - briefly - to Joel Osteen's Become a Better You (Simon & Schuster £12.99). Osteen, with his frighteningly immobile smile, is the pastor of America's biggest church, in Houston, which clearly gives him some authority in the self-improvement game in the US (the book advance alone netted him $13m). It proposes seven 'simple yet effective' steps to finding one's life purpose and becoming happier, calmer and more sane. But since a God-based set of instructions holds little to inspire an entrenched atheist, I decided to forfeit the prospect of 'becoming a better me' in favour of 'being the person I really want to be', the subtitle of Jamil Qureshi's The Mind Coach (Vermilion £10.99)
Here, at last, was a book that offered some practical suggestions for getting yourself together, based on the tenets of cognitive behavioural therapy. Though the illustrative case histories are long-winded, the chapters are broken down into short, snappy sections that suggest practical exercises ('Learning From Life', 'Working the Confidence Muscle', 'Embracing Your Fear'). Qureshi's method is to help you change your behaviour in tiny increments, in the belief that changing bad habits will in turn break negative thoughts.
Cognitive therapy has become the dominant form of treatment for depression and anxiety disorders because it works by encouraging people to look in detail at how they respond to situations and how those reactions can be changed. It makes sense that the self-help books that work most effectively are those that use the same techniques, offering readers real examples to follow and measurable steps to take - books such as The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen R Covey (first published in 1989), or the excellent Manage Your Mind: The Mental Fitness Guide by Gillian Butler and Tony Hope, reissued in a new edition last year and, for me, one of the best examples of the genre. Yet the hunger for quick fixes and magic bullets remains, especially if it's dressed up in quasi-spiritual language, giving any self-appointed guru the opportunity to make millions from the credulous. Alchemists and snake-oil salesmen have been peddling potions to bring health, wealth and beauty for centuries. These days, they come in book form with accompanying CDs and we go on hoping, irrationally, that there may be something in it this time.
Fortunately, you can now take the opportunity to write a bestseller about how such self-help books changed your life, and if it makes enough money, follow it up with an advice book about how to get rich by writing a memoir about advice books and so on until you die. The audience will always be out there.
Words of advice: Classic self-help books
The Road Less Travelled by M Scott Peck (1978)
A paean to the power of discipline in overcoming life's essential hardship.
Women Who Love Too Much by Robin Norwood (1986)
'If being in love means being in pain, this book was written for you'.
Feel the Fear and Do it Anyway by Susan Jeffers (1988) 'You can drop an awful lot of excess baggage if you learn to play with life instead of fight it.'
Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus by John Gray (1992)
A guide to the yawning gulf between the sexes.
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