Sunday, October 02, 2005

Self-Help Authors—For 'Em or Agin 'Em?

Yesterday a young Harvard graduate who had written a self-help book approached me, introduced herself, and said, in a decidely confrontational voice, "You're against me."

"I'm not sure what you mean," I said.

"I read your web site," she said. "And you're against me and what I do."

I paused to consider her. She looked genuinely angry.

"No, I'm not against you," I said. "I'm against a culture that tells us that we can do it all alone. And I'm against a society that provides not even the most minimal safety net for its citizens."

She looked puzzled.

Sometime later she said, "I want to offer you some advice about your web site. I'm a smart person—at least I think I'm a smart person—and I couldn't tell what your book is about from your web site."

Apparently. As to whether she's a smart person, I can't say.

So let's set the record straight, at least on the topic of self-help authors and self-help books: Am I for 'em or agin 'em?

Neither, actually. I've met a number of self-help authors and it seems to me that they are mostly well-intentioned. A couple seemed downright brilliant. And most seem to want to help people while making a living doing something they themselves like doing—writing, giving talks and lectures, running workshops. So I'm not against them. Never have been. Doubt I ever will be. Heck, on a good day, that's almost the same thing I do.

What I'm against is a social order that offers only individual solutions to problems that are global, economic, and systemic. And I'm not wildly enthusiastic about an industry that makes people feel as though all their problems are consequences of poor "choices," bad judgment, or lack of willpower.