The Self-Help Compulsion: Searching for Advice in Modern Literature

Book Review by Laura Grace Simpkins

Beth Blum. Columbia University Press. 2020. ISBN 9780231194921.

During my teenage years, I was an avid reader of Stieg Larsson’s scandi noir trilogy Millennium, best known for its first title, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2005). I loved the main character, Lisbeth Salander, and a few might be alarmed to hear that sixteen-, seventeen-year-old me admired the reclusive, recalcitrant, unforgiving, bloody-minded, violent protagonist, who wore her black-dyed hair cut brutally short and had pierced her nostril and eyebrows. Yet I found consolation in this unlikely figure. Lisbeth, or rather Larsson through her, taught me to embrace my oddness, my antisocialness, my anger, and make those traits cool, desirable—attractive even. Both guided me through some tempestuous times.

I’m not alone in turning to fiction (often the most unexpected of examples) to alleviate real-life problems, instead of or complementary to conventional options like counselling, medication, or traditional self-help books. Beth Blum, assistant professor of English at Harvard University, in her latest publication, The Self-Help Compulsion: Searching for Advice in Modern Literature, sketches out the history of this very phenomenon, where people like me read fiction for advice—irrespective of the author’s original intentions. Blum precisely locates where fiction and self-help have intertwined pasts, presents, and futures; how they overlap, influence, and respond to each other; and the arbitrariness of the split that pits ‘surface’ and ‘simplifying’ self-help writers against ‘frivolous’ and ‘out of touch’ novelists. The Self-Help Compulsion is ‘inspired by the globetrotting history of self-help itself’ and Blum brings her attention to self-help culture in countries including Nigeria, Japan, and Ireland (37).

In contrast to the geographic and temporal shifts Blum enacts, her focus is predominantly trained on the encounter between self-help and the literary genre of modernism and is convincing about how the two have and continue to come together. Blum is not the first to shoot a scholarly gaze in this direction (Alain de Botton’s How Proust Can Change Your Life (1997) is positioned at the same intersection); but Blum is ground-breaking in her ambivalence, in her assessment that the self-help/fiction fiction/self-help exchange can be useful as much as it can be useless, or even destructive. Blum queries whether ‘readers will simply impute anything they want’ from texts as she explores how the ‘celebration of uncompromising, radical negativity’ of modern writers has inadvertently inspired a whole new generation of post-self-help texts such as Timothy Ferriss’ The 4-Hour Workweek (2007) and its co-optation and capitalist appropriation of Samuel Beckett’s famous phrase, ‘fail better’ (200) (199). The depressive resignation of modernists like Beckett is apparently appealing to current reader-consumers, ironical and definitely not in need of any hand-holding, given the ongoing climate crisis and the prospect of total mass extinction.

The Self-Help Compulsion is a remarkable work of original scholarship. Insightful, complex, layered, and nuanced, Blum never shies away from tension or contradiction, and certainly made me think about my relationship to different genres of texts and their therapeutic, or at least comforting, potential. Blum’s is the kind of research that the medical humanities needs more of—truly cross-disciplinary work that encourages the creativity, flexibility, and common sense that we in the UK are beginning to see from social prescribing. But I also believe that, without encouraging and seeing investment into the critical and analytical skills required for engaging with literature and self-help alike (Blum’s book, though superlative, is entirely inaccessible to the unacademic reader), the whole venture of something as well-intentioned as reading on prescription is, perhaps, medication wasted.

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