Megan Hustad was working as a book editor when she decided to reconsider her lifelong contempt for self-help and success literature. She was in her late 20’s, and she had already fled New York City once, having moved here at 22 and failed to get a job in publishing. She was fresh out of the history department at University of Minnesota at that time, and with her lack of connections and big city know-how, the closest thing she could find to an editorial gig was a managerial job at the Rizzoli bookstore on 57th Street. Dismayed and helpless, Ms. Hustad packed up and moved to London with her boyfriend and took art classes for a year. At 25, she came back, and eventually landed an assistant position at Vintage Books.
Then, in 2005, Ms. Hustad left the publishing industry, declared herself a freelancer and started working on a how-to guide for artsy young people with liberal arts degrees who were as bewildered by the realities of corporate life as she had once been.
“Contrary to what you hear all the time from all manner of pop culture drivel,” Ms. Hustad said, “you cannot stroll into advanced capitalism and blithely expect these large corporations—with their ways and means that long predate you—to make way for your particular special brilliance. Or care that you know your Jacques Lacan.”
Before she started working on the book, titled How to Be Useful: A Beginner’s Guide to Not Hating Work and due out from Houghton Mifflin in May, Ms. Hustad had never taken success literature or self-help books seriously, let alone turned to one for advice.
“I just thought it seemed tacky,” she said. “I thought if you’re clever, if you’re really smart—and of course I wanted to be seen as clever and smart—you should be able to discern whatever life lessons you need from Middlemarch. I thought you should be able to read a novel or look at art and be able to distill what you need to distill.”
When she started interviewing and researching for her book, she found that her friends and acquaintances—a lot of them book editors, journalists, magazine writers and M.F.A. grads—felt the same way: Most of them had never read any success literature and believed the whole genre to be a classless sham designed to prey on the insecurities of the simpleminded and the gullible.
As Ms. Hustad puts it in her introduction, these “tenderhearted and creatively inclined” people essentially regarded success literature “as the exclusive reserve of ultraconservatives and finance majors.” And yet, Ms. Hustad thinks, it is precisely these tenderhearted people—the angsty young men and women of the city’s so-called creative class—who need to be exposed to the stuff most urgently.
They are the ones panicking, after all, reeling and trembling as they realize that they are not good at their jobs, that they have not read anything and that they are not fun to talk to. Sending e-mail makes them nervous, and when they go to parties, they have conversations with people and spend the whole time thinking about how to get out of them. Instead of showing up with their wits and one-liners intact and ready to go, an entire generation seems to be on the verge of panic. Times are desperate, in other words—perhaps desperate enough that these people are ready to admit that they cannot survive modern life on their own after all, and are willing, finally, to seek salvation in the self-help aisle of the bookstore just like everybody else.
MS. HUSTAD IS just one of a handful of authors who have recently written (or are in the process of writing) self-improvement books in various forms intended for those creative-minded sophisticates who ordinarily dismiss the genre out of hand. Among them are former Random House editor in chief Daniel Menaker, who is working on a guide to the art of conversation; French literature professor Pierre Bayard, whose deceptively tongue-in-cheek How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read has become an international bestseller; the editors of literary journal n+1, who have published a pamphlet for college students and recent graduates who are anxious about what they’ve read and what they haven’t; and Jonathan Melber and Heather Darcy Bhandari’s as-yet-untitled book for artists trying to navigate the world of gallery owners and museum curators. And then there’s The New York Times’ David Shipley and Hyperion editor in chief Will Schwalbe’s Send, a guide to e-mail etiquette that, though not explicitly targeted toward any one demographic, holds a particular appeal to editors and writers preoccupied with the quality of their written communications.
If this little branch of self-help has a patron saint, it may well be Andrew Boyd, who describes his 2002 book Daily Afflictions: The Agony of Being Connected to Everything in the Universe as an inspirational work of “high irony” aimed at people who harbor skepticism and scorn for all things mystical and prescriptive.
The book—published by Norton, “an indication of its literary chops,” according to Mr. Boyd—consists of bite-size nuggets of wisdom and philosophy, many of which are accompanied by quotations from the likes of Marx, Hegel, Sartre and Kafka.
Mr. Boyd said Daily Afflictions was not meant to be a parody of self-help but a playful impersonation of it delivered in a tone informed by the “Western existentialism of Rilke, Nietzsche, Camus et al.”
“Nobody’s too smart for the right self-help book,” Mr. Boyd said. “The urban creative population scoffs at it, but we all have our weak spots, and there is a serious, sincere, maybe even relatively simple cut-to-the-chase kind of straightforward book that can actually speak to us and do us a great service in our moment of need.”
Daniel Menaker—who worked at The New Yorker for 26 years before becoming a book editor in 1995—evidently agrees: His forthcoming book, tentatively titled A Good Talk and slated for release in 2009, will offer readers practical advice on how they can improve their conversational skills.
Mr. Menaker describes A Good Talk as a narrative how-to guide in the model of The Elements of Style and Lynne Truss’s best-selling grammar primer Eats, Shoots & Leaves. Its target audience? Anyone who gets nervous when they’re talking to someone they don’t know intimately, whether it’s over lunch or at a cocktail party at the offices of The Paris Review.
The advice Mr. Menaker will offer will be based largely on his own “years of trembling,” he said, but the kids today, with their e-mail and their texting, are having difficulties he never had to face. And conversation, he said—that is, really, really good conversation—is consequently “in retreat.”
“I’m a Yeatsian, or a sort of neo-Hegelian. I think things go in cycles,” Mr. Menaker said. “I think right now, sitting down with people and talking to them about one thing or another is in a kind of abeyance, largely because of the Internet and also because there is an overriding ethos in our culture for action and productivity.”
Mr. Menaker’s book could, theoretically, prove just as useful to a young investment banker as it could to an editorial assistant. And yet, who stands to respond to it more urgently than those bookish, sensitive people Ms. Hustad interviewed for her book, the ones whose self-esteem lives and dies on their ability to engage others with their words?
The same can be said of Mr. Bayard’s How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read, which implores people to stop feeling ashamed about all the books they’re not familiar with, and learn instead to play along during the “awkward literary confrontations” that take place when they come up.
TO BE SURE, creativity-themed how-to guides have always existed: There are countless books on the market about how to draw better, how to write more believable characters, how to edit, how to free your imagination, etc. But this current crop is not offering readers tips on how to be better at their craft, but teaching them, more broadly, how to be people.
Which is to say, despite the fact that these books deal with how to act and how to carry oneself in public, the anxieties they’re responding to are rather deeply existential. Yes, Mr. Bayard’s book seems like an instruction manual for faking erudition, but the reason people crave such a manual is that they genuinely feel like failures and are scared of being in the world.
According to Marco Roth, one of the founders of n+1, there are more college graduates than ever wandering around New York feeling undereducated and under-read.
“You can’t learn everything in four years,” Mr. Roth, who participated in a panel discussion about college and reading that was included in n+1’s recent pamphlet, said in an interview. “And what’s happened in the history of thought in the 20th century is, the number of fields has multiplied and the amount of specialized knowledge has grown exponentially. The old systematic education model couldn’t work anymore.”
What We Should Have Known, he said, was supposed to be an antidote to the mania for self-improvement: an attempt to comfort people who are overwhelmed and crippled by their literary regrets—to say, essentially, “it’s okay.”
Can Mr. Roth, Ms. Hustad, Mr. Menaker and the rest of them really make us all feel “okay”? Hopefully! Therapy is awfully expensive.