From Sheila Heti through to The Worst Zine – take comfort in ten no-nonsense takes on the self-help book
Lena Dunham is the latest in a long line to put her spin on the much-maligned 'advice' volume in Not That Kind of Girl. To be fair to Dunham the book's tagline – "A young woman tells you what she’s “learned”’ – does red-flag the idea that one human being telling another how to feel, think or live, is essentially nonsense. The jury's out until the book's release next month but in the meantime let's take a look at some alternative spins on self-help in the literary world.
This is about as close as a book can get to a self-help book while still being good. The New Yorker called it conversational philosophy, which is correct. It is a tribute to Glouberman’s brain, really—Heti writes in the foreword: “One day, I told him I thought the world should have a book about everything he knows.” I’m glad she did. A wise tome.
Lena Dunham’s book is a fine one, because she writes well. Not because she knows anything you don’t. In fact, the best parts of the recent New Yorker excerpt are about the failure of advice to effect anything at all:
"I hang up and feel the panic subside for the first time in days: Relationship Expert Dr. Judith Sills has helped me. And fast. It wasn’t like Margaret, where I talk around something and she nods and we discuss a Henry James novel I’ve read only part of and then we meander back to the topic of my grandmother and how I’d kill to be asleep and then I compliment her shoes, which are, as always, fabulous. I asked a question and Dr. Judith Sills gave me an answer. And now I have the tools to fix everything.
I call my mother. “I love you,” I say. “You’re my mother, and I need you, but in a different way from before. Please let us change, together.”
“That’s fucking bullshit,” she says. I can tell she’s in a store."
Kristin Dombek has been writing her excellent, highly literary advice column for some time now. You can submit your own questions by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. Do not expect the easy version of the answer. To a recent advice-seeker who cannot abide the strictures of the workplace, she writes:
Everything is upside down. Your life is sold to serve an economy that does not serve your life. So should you turn to crime, if you haven’t already? Do whatever it takes to avoid participating in this “construct,” risking hunger, imprisonment, or dependence on people with real jobs, who’ve learned to keep their heads down? Should you learn to do a better job hiding your soul from the oligarchs and make what is beautiful on nights and weekends, if you can get them, when you are not too tired, and have not drunk yourself into numb oblivion?
Endorsing somebody’s tumblr ‘Asks’ probably seems flippant, but it doesn’t happen that often that a writer answers them in what I think is the exact right way: direct but mannered, stylised but not affected. Adult mag founder Sarah Nicole Prickett maintains snpsnpsnp.tumblr.com. On it, she has answered a few readers’ questions with this great tone of, like, frenzy/calm/candour. Prickett’s advice about wedding-wear is great (“& if still stuck, just wear a new silk minimal slip, borrow your richest friend’s shoes, and make your hair shiny and clean”) but her advice about work and dads reminded me that good writing is pretty much always didactic, because readers think by example. Anyway—if you have a problem, ask her.
When somebody you care about dies, advice is so completely fucking useless. Kathleen McIntyre’s dad died and then she started a zine about grief and dying, which she aptly called it The Worst. The only thing you can maybe do that is helpful when you’re messed up in this particular way is to talk to other people who are also experiencing The Worst thing, and that’s what this zine is for. Writing and communicating with other grievers can make you feel way less like a zombie. I mean, everything’s useless in the face of death, but it could help.
Those advice columns in magazines can read as pretty self-parodic. But sometimes direct parody is better, at least because it happens on purpose. The blackest of black comedies, Nathanael West’s second novel Miss Lonelyhearts (1933) skewered the hollowness of women dispensing advice to other neurotic women by casting the journalist who authors the “Miss Lonelyhearts” column as a hard-drinking, miserable man. Things go wrong, advice doesn’t help, disaster ensues.
Legendary cartoonist Lynda Barry is the absolute best. This book is part memoir, part scrapbook, part deep inquiry into the nature of objects and the fabric of day to day reality. But mostly it will teach you how to create things, if you want to and are finding that difficult. It is rhapsodic, pretty, and it will help you.
Whenever anybody writes anything about the guy from The Make-Up they always mention how he was Sassy magazine’s “sassiest boy in America” in 1990. I wonder how he feels about it. Anyway, he also writes books. I get irritated with his in-depth theories of everything, because they’re not true but an idiot would definitely believe him. The advice he gives on how to be in this book is good, though—the essay “Group Photo”, especially so.
Irma Kurtz is 78 years old and has been Cosmo’s advice columnist for 40 years. This is her memoir. The thing that blows my mind about this book is how Kurtz has had not only to grapple with all the strange permutations that trouble can take in a person’s life, but also how those troubles have rippled and changed and mutated according to shifts occuring due to the passing of time. She’s advised people across history.
MEGAN BOYLE’S ASK.FM
I don’t think there is any other “alt lit” writer I like as much as Megan Boyle. Her book selected unpublished blog posts of a mexican panda express employeeis the best, but I like her for subjective reasons including her seeming personality. She just came back on Ask.fm. You could ask her for advice on it, I bet she’s good at it.