Self-Help Has Never Been More Popular. But Can It Be Literary?

Ashley Rindsberg
Dec 18, 2020 · 15 min read

Since its inception, the genre of self-help has been in constant flux. At times, it’s been exalted, even transcendent, as in the cases of the country’s original self-help thinkers, like Ralph Waldo Emerson and Benjamin Franklin, who helped define the genre long before the term came into vogue. It’s been hammy, if effective, as with Dale Carnegie’s 1936 How to Win Friends and Influence People. In countless more cases, it’s been bottom-feeding, crass and pointless. But it’s always been somewhat ubiquitous in American culture.

Much of the American public’s relationship to self-help is now characterized by voracious, un-ebbing demand and adulation. Still, certain sub-sections of the culture have taken a more critical and generally sniffy view. Recall P.T. Anderson’s skewering of the self-help archetype in the figure of motivational speaker Frank T.J. Mackie in Magnolia, or Greg Kinnear’s wannabe life coach in Little Miss Sunshine, or SNL’s mock self-help show “Daily Affirmations with Stuart Smalley,” in which Al Franken must remind himself, “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it, people like me!”

But in the past couple of decades, times have changed. Self-help has become less a category and more a lens through which American culture filters the world. It now gathers into the broad stretch of its arms topics as diverse vulnerability (Brené Brown), entrepreneurship (Guy Raz, James Altucher, Adam Grant), extreme endurance (David Goggins and Rich Roll), intimacy (Esther Perel), happiness (Gretchen Rubin), hope (Martin Seligman), tidying (Marie Kondo), empathy (Elizabeth Gilbert), success (Tony Robbins) and, more than anything else, money (too many to name). It takes various modalities, from how-to books and speaking tours to online courses and days-long seminars to TED talks and coaching sessions. It’s everywhere, all the time.

The hyper-specialization of self-help, however, has had a positive effect on the genre. Rather than pelting audiences and readers with platitudes, today’s most popular self-help works draw on real expertise and deep experience. Much of this has to do with recent developments in media. The low cost-barrier of producing podcasts and books combined with social media’s ability to target narrow demographics supplies authors with the ability to either find or attract niche-specific audiences in a way they never could before. As a result, self-help filters more general ideas about growth and empowerment through specific categories (like those mentioned above) which makes them feel more compelling and relevant.

One of the few areas that has been resistant (though certainly not immune to) the lure of self-help is literature — or, to be more accurate, that exclusionary sect of literature we refer to as “literary.” In The Self-Help Compulsion, published earlier this year, Harvard scholar Beth Blum argues that self-help and serious literature have long been “ambivalent shelf-fellows.” But, Blum writes, today “the literary vanguard has taken to taken to emulating self-help’s language and packaging” in a way it hasn’t before. Blum cites works like Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be?, Eleanor Davis’s How to Be Happy, and Jesse Ball’s How to Set a Fire and Why as part of the reemergence of a trend that stretches back to the Renaissance, in which literary works draw on ideas rooted in self-improvement, or what Blum calls “a moral lesson.”

While Blum makes a strong case that literary works can and often do take on self-help-like qualities, the opposite question seems just as important, and maybe more urgent: can works of self-help be literary?

This question poses difficulties, especially because the term and the category it describes defy definition. For centuries a debate about what constitutes literary writing has played out, with 19th-century scholars creating the concept of canonical literature, Russian formalists pegging the category to a disruptive approach to linguistic style, and contemporary literary theorists like Terry Eagleton declaring the essentially ambiguous nature of literature, all in attempts to wrap their arms around the question.

If we look at the qualities common to works of literature — a focus on linguistic style as an expression of what we might call the inner state of the work; an emphasis on the inherent complexity of characters; a certain open or expansive pace that invites rumination — we see the thread that stitches them together is interiority — a privileging of inner state over external action. This privileging of the inner explains why a Shakespearean soliloquy, a Victorian novel’s third-person omniscient narration, a modernist’s stream-of-consciousness ramble, and a post-modern dive into the interconnectedness of objects in a room all share the status of literature. Each work is predicated by a type of interiority that feels culturally relevant to the context in which it was created.

More recently, we’ve seen the logic of literature’s interiority play out in the territory of what, not long ago, would have been considered strictly genre fiction. Writers like Ursula Le Guin, whose books fall squarely in the realm of sci-fi, or Marlon James, whose most recent book Black Leopard, Red Wolf is the first in a planned fantasy series, are exceptional literary craftsmen, utilizing the techniques of literary fiction in their works of genre fiction. But, just as importantly, rather than simply telling yarns of political battles on other planets or fantastic epic journeys, both prioritize the internality of their stories. This internality, the essence of the “I”-experience of human existence, lends a universality to these stories and makes them compelling to readers who have never picked up a work of fantasy or science fiction, and never otherwise would.

This leads us back to the recent explosion of self-help, which has not only led to an abundance of new approaches but to a shift in the genre itself. The Practice: Shipping Creative Work (Nov. 3, Portfolio), the latest book by Seth Godin, one of the foundational figures of contemporary self-help, suggests that not only can self-help take on a literary bent, but that if the genre is to thrive in a world caught in a maelstrom of social, economic and political upheaval, it must. Godin is well-qualified to make such a claim — for the past three decades, he has straddled the often-intersecting worlds of self-help and marketing. As a marketer, he has originated many of the core concepts that fuel modern approaches to the field, like the idea of “permission marketing,” which launched a thousand email newsletters with the intent of “turning strangers into friends, and friends into customers.” In fact, the very notion of using email as an e-commerce tool at all comes in part from Godin’s early work running an email-centric startup in the 1990s. (Godin, not without good reason, prefers to say that he “invented email marketing in 1990.”) Godin has also shaped our understanding of strategies like product differentiation, tribal marketing, and guerrilla marketing. To say he’s been pivotal to the field is decidedly an understatement.

But Godin has been equally influential in the field of self-help, where much of his work focuses on the latent abilities of the individual. He investigates this central idea from multiple angles in books like Lynchpin, which asserts that the power to make organizational change rests within almost all of us, if we have the courage and humility to face up to the responsibility. In The Dip he attacks the topic from another angle, arguing that quitting — specifically, knowing when to do so and when to push on — is essential to success of any kind. But more than any other place, Godin’s blog (which now encompasses around 8,000 daily posts) has become a popular destination for those seeking help with their personal growth and self-improvement.

Godin claims his focus has always been on the potential of the individual to create meaningful change and make a positive impact, whether it’s at home, in one’s community, or at a Fortune 500 company.

Given that Godin’s expertise and deepest contributions lie in such outward-facing fields as marketing and self-help, it feels strange to discuss his books in terms of their literary value. For Godin, though, the evolution from outer to inner life has been clear, partly because of his unique role as a gateway between the worlds of marketing and self-help. In reality, Godin claims his focus has always been on the potential of the individual to create meaningful change and make a positive impact, whether it’s at home, in one’s community, or at a Fortune 500 company.

In his 2012 book The Icarus Deception, for example, Godin extracts self-help lessons from literature, putting the Icarus myth through a gestalt shift. He argues that the classic interpretation perverts the original Greek story by focusing only on the warning to Icarus not to fly too high, as the sun would melt his waxen wings. “We tend to forget that Icarus was also warned not to fly too low,” Godin writes, “because seawater would ruin the lift in his wings.”

In reinterpreting the Icarus myth, Godin aims to call attention to industrialists’ stranglehold on Western society, which he argues has persisted for the past two centuries. These industrialists are not merely the captains of industry but proponents of an ethic of obedience and efficiency. In its commonly perverted form, the Icarus myth becomes a cautionary tale against attempting the extraordinary, or aiming high. The rationale behind inculcating this conformist ethic is clear in an industrialized capitalist society, which requires replenishable armies of interchangeable human cogs. And, of course, those cogs must be certified, guaranteed to produce their promised output, a role appointed to the education system. “The education-industrial complex has grown up around the idea that no one has the ability to create useful work without a certificate,” Godin writes in The Practice. If people are built to purpose it’s the certificate, or degree, that serves as the little quality assurance sticker attesting to the fact that the unit has been inspected and okayed.

For the individual, the effects of the industrial ethic have been devastating. In a world that demanded mechanical uniformity, difference became a shortcoming. So we assimilated, kept our heads down — we worked for the system and, by offering job stability and a social safety net, the system worked for those of us for whom it was designed to work.

But Godin believes the super-paradigm by which Western society has functioned is changing before our eyes. The industrial era is drawing to a close. The race to the bottom is over, and it’s been won by mechanization. Meanwhile, digital technologies have enabled creative capabilities that transnational companies with even the most colossal market caps couldn’t have imagined just a few years ago. We’ve reached a point of upheaval, an epochal paradigm shift. The question we as individuals, as communities, and as a nation face is what to do about it. In this new reality, how do we cultivate careers, pursue our ambitions, educate our kids? How do we produce culture — and consume it?

Godin believes the super-paradigm by which Western society has functioned is changing before our eyes. The industrial era is drawing to a close. The race to the bottom is over.

In Godin’s philosophical model, the force that stands opposed to industry is art. This is where the notion of “the practice” comes into play. For Godin, art has a specific meaning that is much broader than our general understanding of the term. Far beyond paint on a canvas or music on a sheet, Godin defines art in The Practice as “the human act of doing something that might not work and causing change to happen.” Art, then, is about unfolding the potential of an individual — any and every individual — at the point where their impact intersects with the life of someone else.

Rather than producing primarily for profit, Godin sees art as the act of producing for positive change — to move someone, to improve or save lives, to entertain or communicate. Godin presents the distinction between art and industry in the two incarnations of Apple: the original version led by Steve Jobs, who looked at the company’s products from the point of view of creating a world in which technology facilitates a highly designed life, and Tim Cook’s profit-engine which exists to sell high-priced luxury lifestyle accessories and status symbols that are not necessarily intended to drive change. To Godin, Jobs was an artist and Cook is an industrialist.

It certainly takes some chutzpah to try and redefine art. Godin’s new definition in particular allows the vulgarity of commerce to encroach on the hallowed ground of great artists who sacrifice mightily for their ideals. Should someone who sells software or iron pellets or bagels fall into the same category as a playwright or a painter? This depends on one’s perspective. According to Godin, the painters in the Chinese village of Dafen, who churn out thousands of oil-painting replicas a day, are not artists — they are human participants in a town-sized painting-making factory. The same assessment, then, might apply to American screenwriters attempting to cash in on the latest CGI-fueled trend. On the other hand, a young woman who has mastered the art of the tea ceremony, or a writer who painstakingly pushes a genre to new places would meet Godin’s definition of a true artist.

In this, Godin’s seeming expansion of the category of art is really a refinement. As he writes, “Art solves a problem for anyone who touches our work.” (His use of the first-person plural also suggests he himself gets to qualify as an artist.) If we hold putative works of art, defined both traditionally and by Godin’s standard, to this yardstick, precious few measure up.

It’s here, in the realm of art, that Godin emphasizes the idea of cultivating a practice. This notion, of having a “practice,” has become commonplace in American culture thanks to the popularity of yoga. And along with yoga, the Buddhist emphasis on process over outcome, of committing to the reality of the moment rather than clinging to a hoped-for future has become mainstream, central to the new ethos of America’s upwardly mobile masses. “If I can train my mind not to wonder ‘what’s next,’ it will help in the moment,” reads a piece of ad copy on Lululemon’s website. The phrase “staying in the moment” returns close to one billion search results on Google, the very first of which is the website of self-help superstar Jack Canfield, author of the wildly popular Chicken Soup for the Soul series.

But outside the yoga studio and beyond the self-help blogs, in our hectic world of likes and views and shares, of personal bests and humble brags, of funding rounds and ceaseless growth, it’s outcome that matters most — or that matters at all. Jettisoned in a sea of screaming me’s, we constantly watch others watch us. As if being spotted might save us, we perpetually monitor for cues of success and failure, measuring ourselves against a constantly moving standard. Our obsession with metrics allows us to quantify our worth with hard data: follower counts, click rate, and the like, all designed to yoke human psychobiology to a plough of profit. The dopamine hit satisfies us, until it doesn’t. In the meantime, our lives slip away.

Against this backdrop, there is no space to cultivate a practice, let alone appreciate the intensity of its rigor. Moments of solitude are now almost reflexively evaluated by their potential to impress strangers. We feel an obligation to freeze moments in digital amber, lest they be forgotten — or, worse yet, lest our own perception of the moment never be appreciated by others. In this, we have made what Enlightenment thinkers called amor propre, a malignant form of self-love based in seeing ourselves through the eyes of others, into the currency of our commerce and the material of our art. The blood-brain barrier of our culture has been breached, our most inner psychic chambers flooded.

The Practice tries to reorient us to the creative process such that it is again possible to bring the interior life to the outer world, and not the other way around. The book essentially provides instruction about how to practice the art of living. Godin borrows from author-thinker Steven Pressfield’s 2011 book, published by Godin’s own imprint, to declare the importance of “doing the work.” Together, Godin and Pressfield echo another Buddhist idea, that it’s the input — the work, the process, the practice — that matters most, not whatever outcome may or may not arise.

But this is where The Practice finds its inflection point, which sets it apart from brand platitudes about living in the moment. Godin links the concept of an inner practice not to a much derided “destination” but rather to an outer purpose. This is an idea is reflected in the book’s subtitle, “Shipping Creative Work.” In Godin’s vernacular, “shipping” is not the physical act of sending something somewhere but the emotional step of putting our work into the world with the intention of making a change and not solely, or even primarily, to serve an inner need to create. This tension — between inner and outer, between expectationless commitment to the practice and the intention-filled act of creation — is where Godin believes potential for true creativity lies.

For Godin, intention affects how we understand the identity of the artist at the center of the creating. What’s essential in the practice of striving to effect a certain kind of change for a specific type of person is not giving into the lure of authenticity (which Godin condemns as a mode belonging squarely in the realm of those who cannot filter their selves, represented by that quintessential creature of authenticity, the toddler). But can we think of the poetry of Phillip Larkin or the stories of Virginia Woolf as devoid of authenticity? What was Basquiat, if not authentic? These examples, however, confuse the magician with the trick. The artist produces with a controlled intention, even (or especially) when she seems to be in her wildest mode, for the simple reason that meaningful artistic creation doesn’t predicate an audience but is predicated by it. Good artists serve an audience’s needs, bad ones serve themselves.

Without an involved audience, “the work” for Godin is little more than tantrum. Instead, The Practice brings the interiority of literary writing into the world in the form of consistent, committed, still-somewhat-risky action. It’s a call to put ourselves on the line in the service of those around us, even if those people are a thousand miles away, by doing the work with a mind to producing change and “merely” (as Godin distinguishes from “just”) shipping that work again and again.

As a work of art itself, The Practice is divided up into aphoristic section headings atop chunks of to-the-point text that often don’t run more than a page. In these short bursts, which together move the larger narrative along, Godin draws in ideas from an incredibly varied set, among them Vincent Van Gogh, Aretha Franklin, Greta Gerwig, Isaac Asimov, and Sam Raimi, as well as artists, jazz musicians, chefs, architects, game theorists, professors, and improv performers. One particularly memorable section features a quote from David Crosby, who once said of Joni Mitchell, “When she found out she was going over people’s heads, she went further.” When Mitchell’s songs struggled to achieve popularity on the radio (they were too aloof and abstract), Mitchell had to choose between pandering to the broad, depersonalized audience of the mass market or maintaining her commitment to serve the smaller group who truly valued her. By choosing the latter, Godin argues, Mitchell’s work achieved not only popularity but timelessness, as it is untethered to the demands of a particular moment.

The Practice is not your typical work of self-help for the simple reason that it defies the genre’s common insistence that, “If you do X, you will get Y.” This is a formula found in virtually every work of self-help, from Brene Brown’s promise that vulnerability will lead to strength to Tony Robbins’ guarantee that you can determine the course of your life by altering your inner state. The Practice makes no such promise; in fact, the idea that there are no guarantees, and no reasonable expectations, is baked into its premise. An oft-repeated phrase Godin uses when talking about a decision to try something new, like writing a book, trying a new recipe, or starting a business, is, “This might work.” He allows space for the phrase’s complementary formulation: “It might not.”

It’s possible that The Practice risks tautology. “This might work or it might not” may soothe our desire for reassurance, but it doesn’t provide much insight into the world. However tautology is a risk Godin is willing to take, as is repetition. Godin’s ideas often flow into one another, swirl back and eddy. But, as Albert Camus wrote, to be classic is to repeat oneself.

In this sense The Practice is quintessentially literary, even performatively so. In its willingness to take risk, to fail and to go un-heeded, the book shows us what it means to draw the inner life into the outer world at a time when it has become especially difficult. How can measured voices be heard amid the cacophony of people banging on pots? Godin’s skepticism about “authenticity” comes back to answer this question. By grabbing at the moment, living on expressed impulse, Godin argues we only add yet another clang to the din. But by transforming ourselves into craftspeople, no matter whether we’re making stained-glass windows or building an app for a startup, we’re able to quietly produce something that makes a small part of the world better. This ensures we are not just noticed but valued, and more importantly, that we’re able to deeply value whatever it is we do day in and day out, that quiet activity which, often unbeknownst to ourselves, constitutes our practice.

Ashley Rindsberg is an essayist and freelance journalist who has contributed to the Los Angeles Review of Books, The Daily Beast, HuffPost, The Times of Israel, The Jerusalem Post, and Publisher’s Weekly.

To read his writing, visit www.ashleyrindsberg.com.

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Ashley Rindsberg

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Ashley Rindsberg is an author, essayist and freelance journalist who writes about things that piss powerful people off.

Curious

Curious

A community of people who are curious to find out what others have already figured out // Curious is a new personal growth publication by The Startup (https://medium.com/swlh).

Ashley Rindsberg

Written by

Ashley Rindsberg is an author, essayist and freelance journalist who writes about things that piss powerful people off.

Curious

Curious

A community of people who are curious to find out what others have already figured out // Curious is a new personal growth publication by The Startup (https://medium.com/swlh).

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