Self-Help Books – The Marmite of Literature

For someone as stubbornly independent as myself, the idea of reading a self-help book is somehow an insult to my intelligence. (Note: Stubborn independence is also another way of saying I like to think I’m cleverer than perhaps I actually am.)  Self-help books carry a certain stigma for a not inconsiderable portion of society. There are those, on the other hand, that swear by them and attribute much of their happiness and success to such books.  Self-help books are the Marmite of literature. To demonstrate this point, I typed the following phrase into a few popular search engines: “self help books are…” Take a look at the most common suggestions:

yahoo self help 2 google self help 2bing self help 2

While Yahoo offers some more positive options, the overwhelming negativity of Google users (incidentally the more popular search engine) is hard to ignore. And Bing users follow the Google crowd (unsurprisingly), though with a somewhat underwhelming use of vocabulary.

So, why don’t we like self-help books? As for my personal reasons, I have already mentioned one: I think I’m too clever and too independent to need advice on how to live my life from a book. In addition, the popularly negative opinion of the genre results in a sense of shame and embarrassment when choosing to buy or read such books.  In truth, while reading my newly bought copy of Feel The Fear And Do It Anyway by Susan Jeffers on the train earlier today, as the ticket conductor approached, my initial instinct was to hide the thing, throw it onto the adjoining seats and pretend it had been there long before I boarded, or else attempt to flush it down the train toilet – though such plumbing is often barely able to cope with the passing of its usual contents, let alone a whole book. In any case, association with such literature was to be avoided if at all possible – or so I thought.

As I consider it, there is a certain type of person who I imagine reads self-help books. The stereotype begins simply with a gender: female. It is not a surprising statistic to anyone that the majority of those who read and buy self-help books are women. On some level, some confused pseudo-neo-revival-feminist sort of way (I’ve given up trying to keep up with the different waves), I do not want to be one of those women. Images of Bridget Jones’ bookshelf spring to mind… As one continues to consider this, it becomes increasingly plain to me that all the defining characteristics of the “Self-Helper” boil down to negative female stereotyping. If you need to read a book to get you through life then you are somehow weaker, less capable, less effectual – more “feminine”.  Of course, any good self-help book will cover this misconception in order to soothe any such anxiety and relieve the pangs of feminist confusion – Susan Jeffers does just this. There is indeed a trap I fear falling into, i.e. by reading self-help books, I will only read and not do. But if this is something you have considered yourself, don’t panic, because there is a self-help book with the words “fear” and “do” in the title, so it must be exactly what you need: Feel The Fear And Do It Anyway! As titles go, this one really isn’t bad, compared to such titles as Why Men Marry Bitches by Sherry Argov.

Here another particularity of my aversion to self-help books presents itself: cheesy titles and saccharine mantras. This reason relates back to my own sense of superiority, feeling that I have to lower my own intellectual standards – English Literature Graduate, don’t ya know – so as to tolerate the cloying language of self-help books rather than appreciate the potential wisdom to be found therein.  I find myself fighting this exact reaction as I read Jeffers’ book, with varying degrees of success.

Why, then, you may wonder, did I buy the book at all? Well, as someone who aspires to become an actress in the future, it seems only prudent to educate myself in the world of acting.  As a student of literature, the natural thing for me is to buy a book. So, I bought The Actor’s Handbook 2013-14 published by Casting Call Pro. On the cover it reads “Your guide to getting work and getting noticed”. I had, somewhat unwittingly, bought my first self-help book. It is not, however, written in the typical tone of a self-help book.  It is not a volume with page upon page of generative, powerful positivity, a means of discovering that force within yourself that has been there all along, teaching you, encouraging you, cheering you on until the sun shines brightly upon that beautiful soul of yours. No. The Actor’s Handbook is a series of lessons in realism. The very opening paragraphs state how categorically rubbish it can be to live the life of an actor sometimes. Once reading the entire introduction, I am left feeling a tad shell-shocked. But this does not last long.  The momentary sense of dejection, the “why am I doing this to myself?” feeling, quickly dissipates, as determination returns.

I am scared of the future I have chosen for myself. Having told people through my 3 years at university that I will go to drama school and become an actress once I graduate, it is now becoming a reality and I have to follow through on that promise.  But it is not a promise I have made to anyone else, it is a promise I have made to myself. I am scared, but I am trying not to be.

So, partly as a recognition of my own fear and desire to overcome it, partly in an attempt to counteract the fear-factor of The Actor’s Handbook, and partly because I thought it would make an interesting blog if I compared the two, I bought Feel The Fear And Do It Anyway.

And so, Mr Train Conductor, do you want to see what book I’m reading? I’ll happily tell you about it, because I am not ashamed – Oh. You don’t want to. Fair enough, you have a lot of tickets to check… But that’s not the point! The point is, I’m reading a self-help book, and that’s ok!

For anyone who is interested, some further reading on Self-Help Books:

“A Short History of Self-Help, The World’s Bestselling Genre” by Jessica Lamb

“‘Shelf-help’ books set to fill publishers’ coffers in 2014” by Vic Groskop


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