Book Reviews & Essays

I Change, You Change

Self-help memoirs take on not the exceptional challenge, but the everyday one.

A version of this article was originally published January 20, 2013 in The New York Times Book Review

About halfway through her new memoir, “Data, a Love Story,” Amy Webb pauses to address the reader. Up to this point, the author’s online hunt for a husband has yielded little but farcically bad dates. In frustration she begins an analysis involving scatter plots and word clouds to discern the laws of success in online dating. “I want to reveal what I found,” she tells us, “so that you can improve your own dating profile.” (Spoiler alert: showing skin is a plus; lengthy “About Me” sections are a turnoff.) We then follow Webb as she uses her discoveries to lure Mr. Right. And, presumably, we close the book with a sense of how to do the same.

We often read autobiography to glimpse a life unlike our own. Ulysses S. Grant allows us to witness scenes from the Civil War; Patti Smith invites us into her glamorously gritty 1970s New York. A recent memoir cliché is the survivor’s tale of abuse or addiction, vying for maximum woe. We can’t or wouldn’t want to have all these experiences ourselves.

But it’s time to christen a new subgenre: the self-help memoir, a kind of long-form personal narrative fused with life coaching. I change, you change. For the authors of these books, the selling point is not that their challenges are exceptional, but that they are common. Like us, the authors are just trying to find true love or raise good kids or enjoy life more. Nobody is claiming to have braved captivity in the Colombian jungle.

They do, however, claim to bring something special to readers — some wisdom gleaned through happenstance or research — that equips them (and by extension, us) to meet life’s ordinary challenges. Their authority stems not from academic credentials, like the Ph.D.’s and M.D.’s flaunted on the covers of standard self-help books, but from personal experience. The resulting books are how-to guides written in the first person rather than the second, in the past tense rather than the imperative.

Blending autobiography with advice is not entirely new. Authors as diverse as Benjamin Franklin and Helen Gurley Brown have already done it, brilliantly. But such books could now fill an entire Barnes & Noble shelf — and most of the authors strenuously try to keep out of the (perceived second-tier) self-help section. In many cases, the self-help memoirists have actually acquired their experience in order to write about it, a reversal of sorts from the traditional memoir. (This approach also has a name its practitioners may not embrace: “stunt nonfiction.”) The resulting books cater at once to our mania for self-improvement and our gluttonous appetite for first-person narrative.

Consider the queen of the self-help memoir, Gretchen Rubin. Last fall, she published “Happier at Home,” a sequel to her 2009 best seller “The Happiness Project.” Each chronicles Rubin’s methodical efforts to inject her life with cheer. Choosing a different focus each month — marriage, parenthood, work and so on — Rubin makes resolutions like “fight right” and “tackle a nagging task.” We accompany her on a dalliance with acupuncture and on Wednesday excursions with her daughter. She urges readers to follow her example; both books include a chapter called “Your Happiness Project.”

Other authors are less overtly prescriptive. For example, in “No Cheating, No Dying” Elizabeth Weil documents her marriage improvement project, and in “Drop Dead Healthy,” A. J. Jacobs describes his program to become “maximally healthy.” The reader’s self-interest is implied rather than spelled out.

But all three writers share certain distinguishing characteristics. None had dramatic background stories. Rubin was already pretty content, Weil’s marriage was solid, Jacobs simply preferred the couch to the gym. What sets them apart is their improvement designs. They consulted the pertinent studies, carried out experiments and took notes. Weil, for instance, can report that such strategies as “skilled conversation” (taught in a marriage education class) and novel adventures (swimming with her husband from Alcatraz to San Francisco) invigorated her marriage. Though she never counsels her readers, surely most will think on their own relationships while peering in on hers, and perhaps plan their own versions of a daunting athletic escapade.

The self-help memoir hybrid boasts certain clear advantages over its alternatives. Conventional self-help books are embarrassing. Better to be seen on the subway with “No Cheating, No Dying” than “Why Marriages Succeed or Fail: And How You Can Make Yours Last,” by John Gottman, Ph.D. Not only does the latter broadcast your vulnerabilities; it may also offend your sensibilities. Some readers would no sooner pick up self-help than a Harlequin romance, even if both hold content they would appreciate in less stigmatized forms.

The first-person perspective also grants the author credibility, albeit in a different way than those advanced degrees. Like the Amazon reviewers we consult rather than Consumer Reports, like our parenting listservs and favorite cooking blogs, self-help memoirists submit the most persuasive testimony: firsthand reports from people who’ve been there. What’s more, for a writer without a big name or a scandalous past, the promise of guidance excuses the indulgence of autobiography.

Meanwhile, for readers, these multitasking books offer efficiency, combining semi-literary pleasure with practical usefulness. (By the same token, as others have pointed out, many popular science books have a distinctly self-help bent, explaining research that enables readers to become happier, more successful, more creative.) Most important, a personal narrative is a lot more fun to read than a bulleted list of tips and exercises.

The self-help memoir may owe something to a backlash against what Ben Yagoda, in his 2009 book “Memoir: A History,” called “misery memoirs.” (Think of James Frey and Augusten Burroughs.) Critics and readers alike grew weary of the exhibitionism and occasional fraudulence of books like “A Million Little Pieces.” Whereas these hell-and-back accounts traded in total candor about dark secrets, the revelations in self-help memoirs are limited. To varying degrees they mete out information about the authors and their families, but only to the extent that it’s relevant to the subject at hand. And author is subordinate to subject here, whether it’s the quest for happiness or health or a more magnetic online dating profile.

The result is sometimes what may seem an oxymoron: the discreet memoir. Jacobs, for example, writes in “Drop Dead Healthy,” “Julie doesn’t want me saying exactly how often we have sex.” (He does, however, disclose he has hemorrhoids.) Thanks to such tact, self-help memoirs are less likely to incur wrath and lawsuits. Even Burroughs, who was sued by the family depicted in his first book, has changed his ways. His most recent book, “This Is How,” purports to offer “help for the self.”

According to Yagoda, autobiographers in the 18th and 19th centuries routinely began with a preface to justify the seemingly egomaniacal enterprise. They often alluded to Horace’s dictum about poetry — that it ought to delight and instruct. Certainly we all hope to learn something when we read about other lives — whether to enrich our understanding of the world, to find role models or to put our own minor problems in perspective. The difference today is that the lessons of self-help memoirs are more explicit, and more grounded in everyday life. Horace would not likely have envisioned instructions quite as mundane as “tackle a nagging task.”

The journey from wretchedness to redemption is one of the most common narrative arcs in memoir, from St. Augustine onward. But rather than redemption, the self-help memoir culminates in improvement — fitting for a culture in which the most fashionable addictions are lattes and ellipticals. The self-help memoirist goes from suboptimal to systematically upgraded. And so can you.

Source: The New York Times Book Review

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