Literary Self-Help? Can It Exist?

nymagcoverI’ve been thinking a lot lately, as someone who studied the “canon” in college and attended one of the most prestigious (positive connotation)/hoity toity (negative) universities in the world, about my love for so-called self-help literature that has crossed over into best-seller territory, and even, some say (some more derisively than others) into “chick-lit” territory.  Over the last five years, I’ve fallen in love with titles like Eat, Pray, LoveTiny Beautiful Things and Wild, all three by women who fearlessly share their bottom hitting and weary introspection that allowed them to make themselves a ladder.  I’ve also developed an obsession with Taylor Swift (I may or may not have been blasting 1989 on my way back from yoga today).  I’m not sure why I feel that’s relevant, but it is.  I’ve also been devouring psychology books, including Unquiet Mind by Kay Jamieson, several self-help books by Harville Hendrix, Amalie Chance, and Steven Carter and Julia Skotol as I’ve been seriously trying to answer for myself questions about how I fare in my relationships.

In my current MFA circles, this is generally met with scorn, especially by my male peers, a scorn that bristles my neck hairs and sends me into fits of defensiveness.  I’m not sure what it is that so irritates my colleagues: that these writers are commercially successful with “the masses” as opposed to an elite, referent loving crowd; that these writers are commercially successful when my peers are not; that these writers are successful women writers; or that they dare to bare their deepest faults and most earnest wishes for wholeness in an wholly un-ironic way in writing when irony seems more hip(ster) these days.

I came across a self-help column in New York Magazine through a friend from high school posting it on her facebook (side note: this alone is reason enough for me never to quit facebook: I have pruned my friend list to people A. I actually keep in touch with in the non-virtual world or B. who continue to post fascinating articles that don’t get lost the way they do in my twitter feed, since my twitter feed is swept up by professional organizations who post 2-5 times a day).  This article reminded me of why I have fallen so hard for such titles when my own inner literary snob side cringes in embarrassment (driven no doubt by said colleagues above, some who include professors).  The answer, written by “Polly” for the “Dear Polly” column, hit me like a stack of ill-placed books.  I felt seen.  I felt my deepest, most obsessive questions about myself and my past failed relationships answered, not definitively, but answered in a way that gave me much needed perspective.  The blend of kind-hearted exasperation and teasing alongside serious reflection on matters of the heart in the response made me feel wrapped in a blanket just out of the dryer.  Like a small fluffy kitten curled itself deep into the darkest, dankest place in my own heart.  I felt a little bit of good-natured shame at recognizing myself in the plea that prompted the response.  I don’t know why it’s often easier said than done for smart, over-achieving women to find successful relationships–but it is.  I myself have been torn in knots over someone who fits the general description of this article to a damn T several times–and I couldn’t ever figure out why!

I’m coming to a place in my life where I don’t mind owning my hurt, because it means owning also what I’ve learned over the years by making such mistakes–and what I’ve learned has opened me up to appreciating someone more fit for me. And aren’t those kind of changes what drives most character studies in great literature?  Isn’t there a sort of quest involved in improving yourself?

Some of the titles I mentioned above get flack for not being more interested in the social plight of non-white women, especially when their healing process takes them to other countries/wildernesses  to benefit from expensive tourism.  And I get that.  But in today’s post-Freud world, how can we start to educate and improve the world around us if we can’t first start with ourselves?

I may just be posing this to make myself feel better about my current trend in book selections.  But I wonder what other readers think?  Can “self-help” lit be literary?  What about “chick-lit”?  Are these categories useful or out-dated?


As a personal update, Daisy went a week flea free, until my new boyfriend found some on her this morning before we hit up the farmer’s market.  After all that work last Friday, which was supposed to last a month.  I’m devastated.  I am the kind of person who hates feeling like she did EVERYTHING SHE WAS SUPPOSED TO DO, and the result was still a failure–and in this case, a waste of a lot of money I don’t really have at this current state of being on my third Master’s degree.  I’m pretty sure I used every flea product on the shelf at home depot/the pet store in one way or another in the past three months.  I wonder if I am just to accept fleas as a reality until winter, when hopefully they might all die of frost.

In professional news, next week is Writer’s Week here at UNCW.  I’m looking forward to my get out of grad class free pass in order to check out some writerly conference style events and readings.  As an added bonus, my students don’t have anything to turn in this week, and I get a break from grading, too–though some are coming in for grade-panic conferences, now that the semester (whut) is nearing to a close.

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Filed under famous writers, literature, north carolina, pets, poetry, positivity, psychology, reading, self-help, teaching

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