Monday, March 20, 2017 | 2 a.m.
Most self-help books make exhausting demands of their readers. The endless list-making and inventorying. The frequent deployment of the encomium “Yay, you!” The tacit assertion that “journey” has not been overexposed as a result of the “Don’t Stop Believin'”glut. It’s easy to conclude, why can’t someone just write a self-improvement book called “Canceling Lunch” and be done with it?
Cynics, take heart. A new literary genre, which might be called anti-self-help or anti-improvement, is upon us.
Granted, reading a book that coaches you on how to reject self-help is like downing a shot of Patrón to get the nerve to stop drinking. But it appears to be working. Both “A Counterintuitive Guide to Living a Good Life,” by Mark Manson, and Sarah Knight’s “How to Stop Spending Time You Don’t Have With People You Don’t Like Doing Things You Don’t Want to Do” were best-sellers. (Those are the subtitles. The titles use a pointedly vulgar phrase synonymous with “not caring one bit.”)
Now comes one of the better-written entries in the genre, “Stand Firm: Resisting the Self-Improvement Craze,” which made its author, Svend Brinkmann, a psychology professor in Denmark, a media star there.
“Our secular age is shot through with fundamental existential uncertainty and angst, and this makes it difficult to stand firm,” writes the erudite Brinkmann, who, compared with his profane and jokey American colleagues, is the Max von Sydow character in this Woody Allen movie. Brinkmann’s book, like Manson’s, takes the stand that life is hard and you’re not special, so instead of focusing on shallow quantities like happiness or success as defined by others in our culture of constant acceleration, you should acknowledge your limitations and learn to love your morning bowl of pebbles.
Some of Brinkmann’s prompts, such as contemplating your own mortality daily, are comically doomy. In “Sack Your Coach,” a chapter about severing the ties with your therapist, he writes: “Consider sacking your coach and making friends with him instead. Perhaps buy the coach a ticket to a museum, and ask what lessons life has to offer if you direct your gaze outward instead of inward.”
In the chapter “Dwell on the Past,” he writes: “When someone presents plans for innovation and ‘visions’ for the future, tell them that everything was better in the old days. Explain to them that the idea of ‘progress’ is only a few hundred years old — and is, in fact, destructive.”
O, to have a camera to capture earnest Brinkmann adherents as they respond to their office manager’s explanation of new petty-cash accounting procedures with, “You know, the idea of progress is only a few hundred years old.” This reality-based Bravo series practically writes itself. Or what about a coffee-table book comprising photos of the moment when therapists are terminated by their patients and handed tickets to a Seurat show? It could be a glorious new direction for the “Humans of New York” author, Brandon Stanton.
That said, Brinkmann distinguishes himself in the anti-improvement genre by taking an essayistic approach rather than a how-to one and by seamlessly weaving into his arguments the philosophies and writings of thinkers like the Stoics, psychologist Barbara S. Held and novelist Haruki Murakami. But more important, Brinkmann brings to the genre a refreshing dose of classical restraint, particularly as it relates to tone. To wit, his book, unlike Manson’s, does not refer to its reader as “dumbass.”
Which brings us to the question: What’s with all the F-bombs, guys? Knight’s book, patterned after “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up” by Marie Kondo, is essentially a decluttering guide, but for a life, not a residence. Knight told The Toronto Star that she’d counted how many times she had used the obscenity in her slim book “and it’s something like 732.” She continued: “Somebody asked me if I had beat ‘The Wolf of Wall Street,’ so I Googled and found that ‘The Wolf of Wall Street’ used the [expletive] like, 500-and-something times. So I have well exceeded.” We all have our goals.
The year 2014 saw the publication of “Good Manners for Nice People” who sometimes utter this particular expletive; 2015 brought “One Shrink’s Practical Advice for Managing All Life’s Impossible Situations” (again, a subtitle) and 2016 brought “Get Out of Your Head and Into Your Life” with even more creative obscenity affixed beforehand. Why can’t these writers use their indoor voice? It would be easy to blame network television’s efforts to keep up with the hipness of premium cable, or to the success of Adam Mansbach’s one-joke bedtime manual for children, or to the reduced presence of gatekeepers in a world in which the president posts policy on Twitter that he has not run by his advisers.
But I prefer to look at the writing style of the self-help genre itself. Take a sample from the Manson book. He’ll make an interesting point, such as: “The desire for more positive experience is itself a negative experience. And, paradoxically, the acceptance of one’s negative experience is itself a positive experience,” but he indents it on the page as a pull-quote, and runs it in bold type. Then he adds, “I’ll give you a minute to unpretzel your brain and maybe read that again” — and then he restates the premise, only this time in italics. In such an ecology, the only possible intensifier is a curse word. Or maybe 732 of them.
I love well-deployed profanity. But while a dose of gritty humanity is a welcome contrast to the earnestness of Kondo or the mindfulness of the stress expert Jon Kabat-Zinn, a 732-unit-tall mountain of it suggests a lack of imagination. Or a cumulative juggernaut that is operating outside the purlieus of human agency.
Come September, when Houghton Mifflin Harcourt publishes Robert I. Sutton’s “The [Expletive] Survival Guide,” whose title uses coarse English to refer to “a jerk,” and which is a follow-up to his book “The No [Expletive] Rule,” l expect further escalation in this particular arms race. I’m imagining that the book will reach out and punch its reader in the kisser. Or maybe it will cut off its nose to spite its own face.