There was a period of my life when, though I defined myself as a reader and a writer, the words I was consuming weren’t what anyone would recognize as having literary merit. I’d lie in bed for hours, querying Google about “anxious attachment” or “how to set boundaries” or “signs of toxic relationship” and reading whatever came up. I would mainline The Cut’s Ask Polly advice columns, mostly the ones about doomed love. And then I would feel mildly guilty about all of this, flipping through these pages on the exhortatory, warmed-over-truisms portion of the internet.
I could be writing, I chided myself, or at least reading the Edith Grossman translation of Don Quixote perched on the middle tier of the rolling IKEA cart I was using as a bedside table. But I couldn’t help myself. These articles soothed even as they frustrated: reading them, I felt like I was identifying and thus working through the feelings that were kneecapping the rational part of my brain. But why did I still feel so bad all the time?
This sort of browsing carries over into my physical existence even now. I find myself gravitating to the self-help sections in bookstores: Maybe there really are only twelve rules for life. Maybe if I make my bed every morning I won’t feel like such a rumpled person the rest of the day. But I find this predilection embarrassing, too, especially now that my self-identity has sharpened from writer to book critic. After I purchased a copy of Mark Manson’s 2016 bestseller The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck, I walked outside and held it inside my jacket like I was concealing a weapon.
And it’s not just me. Recently, one of my smartest writer friends showed me her nightstand, where she’d piled works by Sylvia Plath, Muriel Spark, Susan Orlean and Selections: The New York Review of Books. But in the nightstand’s lower compartment, behind a door and a CVS value size box of lens wipes, she’d concealed a neat collection of self-improvement books: Gretchen Rubin’s The Happiness Project, The Crossroads of Should and Must, A Year of Writing Dangerously: 365 Days of Inspiration and Encouragement.
Self-help books are generally ignored by the literary establishment for the patent reason that they aren’t literature. The prose tends to be baggy; their advice is dispiritingly banal or downright antisocial. If they are discussed, it is with great disdain. “According to [various self-help gurus’] systems, anyone can learn to be more efficient, more focused, more effective in the pursuit of happiness and, that most hallowed of modern traits, productivity. And if you can’t, well, that’s on you,” Alexandra Schwartz writes, with deepest irony, in her New Yorker piece “Improving Ourselves to Death.” Or consider the manic, highly sarcastic video review Washington Post book critic Ron Charles created for Jen Sincero’s self-help series You Are a Badass. “There are three rules to write a self-help bestseller,” he says mock-earnestly, seated in an armchair. “One, the advice must be shockingly trite, but delivered as though it’s incredibly profound. Two, no matter how repetitive, the advice must be broken into bullet points. And three, the advice must be broken into bullet points.”
And yet! To fault self-help books for their banality is to misunderstand how they actually work. If you’re drawn to a self-help book, something has gone awry in your mental universe—perhaps it’s a diffuse malaise, hard to pin down, or maybe your entire life is a gaping wound. Merely purchasing the book makes you feel better: it’s the act of acquiring something that promises concrete answers in an ambiguous world. It puts agency in your own hands—look at you, taking steps!—in a way that might allow you to contend with feelings you can barely articulate. What the books say, the advice they dispense, is a bit beside the point.
This is depressing, of course; so is life. But I also find something weirdly raw and honest about the pull self-help books exert on vulnerable people. It’s the same pull I feel from books in general—which, if I may be grandiose for a moment, stems from our constant search for meaning in a world that feels meaningless much of the time. Self-help books might be artless and obvious, but isn’t a core concern of literature also how one might live a worthy life? Don’t we read in part to comfort or escape ourselves, to point the way forward, to better ourselves in some ineffable way? Don’t we want the books we read to “change our lives”?
This is, in fact, exactly the way we talk about reading in the abstract nowadays: as something that improves you artistically, emotionally, morally—especially when done on a large scale. In the past week, I’ve been privy to at least three conversations about the astronomically large number of books people managed to read in 2019. A person who has read 100 books in 2019 bears a sheen of virtuousness, elicits cries of awe and envy. “She’s a machine,” we say admiringly. As we set more metrics-driven goals for our reading lives in the new year, the quantity seems to matter more than the quality of the experience. This feels like a form of self-help to me too, just one that’s sanctioned by the intelligentsia. What could be more fetishy and misguided than comparing the lengths of our “read” lists? The counterexamples are obvious: perhaps you spent the year battling through one long, challenging book that really did change your life, or maybe you powered your way through entire shelves of literary fiction that all turned out to be mediocre. These days, every book can feel like a self-help book.
If self-help books soothe people whose lives feel like open wounds, there’s perhaps no class of people who needs the category more than writers do. It was only lately that I realized I was drawn to self-improvement books, and the certainty they sell, because I was a writer—because the life of a writer is marked by insecurity both emotional and financial, rejection at seemingly every turn, and the fact that no one has any idea what you’re talking about when you say writing is hard and you hate it. I think of Annie Dillard, in The Writing Life, who says as much to a local ferryman and then hastily backtracks. “But I rallied and mustered and said that the idea was to learn things; that you learn a thing and then as a matter of course you learn the next thing, and the next thing,” she writes. “As I spoke he nodded precisely in the way that one nods at the utterances of the deranged. ‘And then,’ I finished brightly, ‘you die!’”
So many self-help books have been written by literary writers for other writers that they practically constitute a category unto themselves. The year I graduated college, I read a whole slew of them—Dillard’s The Writing Life, Betsy Lerner’s The Forest for the Trees, John Gardner’s On Becoming a Novelist (I had no intention of writing fiction, but a college nonfiction teacher recommended it), Stephen King’s On Writing. These choices were a direct expression of my own raw terror. I was then one of four interns writing undistinguished blog posts for the website of the members-only magazine of a nonprofit, and the path towards becoming a solvent, successful writer seemed as inhospitable as a depopulated tundra. These books felt like precious kindling, to be clutched to one’s chest.
Take The Writing Life. Its draw is that of a master letting us into the inner experience of the craft, which we quickly find out isn’t just mere craft but a tortured and ill-advised, though noble, way of life. The book comforts, inspires, directs the reader to profitable techniques for solving common problems. “Process is nothing; erase your tracks,” Dillard writes, koan-like. “The path is not the work.” Or: “The writer returns to these materials, these passionate subjects, as to unfinished business, for they are his life’s work.” The book somehow manages to be both self-help and literature.
Part of the way Dillard does this is by abstracting away from the physical reality of writing. Sure, it might look like typing paragraph upon paragraph of one’s half-baked thoughts into Word documents in all caps. But what you’re actually doing, Dillard suggests, involves expertise, surety, physical grace. A writer’s words are “a miner’s pick, a woodcarver’s gouge, a surgeon’s probe,” she writes on the book’s very first page—and isn’t it comforting to think so?
These muscular analogies recur throughout the book. “The line of words is a hammer. You hammer against the walls of your house. You tap the walls, lightly, everywhere,” she writes. “Unfortunately, it is often a bearing wall that has to go. It cannot be helped. There is only one solution, which appalls you, but there it is. Knock it out. Duck.” Part of the aggravation of writing is that much of it takes place in pure abstraction, where everything feels murky, cordoned off from the physical world. Dillard’s analogy addresses that frustration directly and soothes it, by describing the task as something concrete, something that adheres to uncompromising physical laws.We know what we need to do, but that knowledge is terrifying. And so we reach for The Writing Life, a self-help book, any book, to tell us how we might change our lives.
When we read self-help, as when we read in general, we look for ourselves reflected back to us—or, more specifically, we look for our own problems reflected back to us. Practically every other sentence in The Writing Life is an achingly accurate précis of writerly self-loathing and isolation. “If only I could concentrate,” Dillard writes. “I must quit. I was too young to be living at a desk. Many fine people were out there living, people whose consciences permitted them to sleep at night despite their not having written a decent sentence that day, or ever.” Here she is, writing about writing as the lumpen result of the ecstatic vision that spurred you to write in the first place: “And so you continue the work, and finish it. Probably by now you have been forced to toss the most essential part of the vision.” She uses the shock and catharsis of gallows humor: “Why not shoot yourself, actually, rather than finish one more excellent manuscript on which to gag the world?” Dillard sees and understands my struggle, puts it on the page better than I ever could. The mood throughout is therapeutic.
But what I didn’t come away with, in the end, was the ability to write like Annie Dillard, which to some extent is the aspirational calculus underlying the purchase of a book called The Writing Life written by Annie Dillard. I had fallen into the trap of self-help: the notion that simply reading about writing was enough to make me become a writer. Like self-improvement books, these books about writing made me feel like I was making progress, when all I was doing was stalling. When I thought about actually writing, I was seized with yet more fear—I had no ideas. How could I, when all I did was read about how to write?
I just don’t know how to start, I told myself in those early days. Although of course I knew exactly how I was supposed to start. The only way to become a writer is to write—obvious, yes, and also excruciatingly difficult. Just like it’s the hardest thing in the world to break up with someone you know you shouldn’t be with, or to lose weight by eating more vegetables and less processed food and sleeping enough and going to the gym day after day after day. Life advice is straightforward; it’s stumbling through the execution of that advice that constitutes how we spend our actual lives. Our ecstatic visions always give way to lumpen results.
Which is why I think the trap of self-help is really the trap of being human. The only real way forward is forward, we know that. And yet we’re also saddled with the unbearable knowledge that we are each responsible for our own actions, that no one can really do anything for us, that we are on our own. (Or, if you want to put it in more self-help-y terms, that the key is within ourselves alone.) So we’re desperate for ease in our lives—sometimes all we need is the promise of a shortcut. Self-help offers up that shortcut. We know what we need to do, but that knowledge is terrifying. And so we reach for The Writing Life, a self-help book, any book, to tell us how we might change our lives.
But it’s only in actually living our lives that we can change them. Sometime in the last few months, it dawned on me that I felt differently about myself as a writer now—freer, somehow. An odd, unaccustomed sensation arose when I looked back at the trail of attempts and failures, acceptances and praise and deafening non-responses I’ve strung behind me as I’ve worked. I guess you could call it confidence. I’ve always looked for answers in books, but this, I realized, was something no amount of reading could give me.