Beth Blum’s illuminating study examines the relation between literary fiction and the advice literature we commonly shelve under “self-help.” Blum’s thesis is that opposing disinterested art to practical punditry is somewhat simplistic. It obscures how “the self-help compulsion”—our desire to make whatever we read relevant to our lives—has always been central to literary culture high and low, before and after the modernist denigration of instrumental reading. Blum’s historical perspective suggests that high modernism and the self-help industry evolved into mutually compensating extremes: at the period when self-help developed into a commercial juggernaut (between the 1880s and the 1920s), the tradition of literary experimenters from Gustave Flaubert and Henry James to Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, and Franz Kafka defined themselves “partly in recoil against self-help’s instrumental materialism” (19). In today’s even more “advice-saturated culture,” Blum argues, classic modernism is “experiencing a revival as...
The Self-Help Compulsion: Searching for Advice in Modern Literature
Günter Leypoldt is professor of American literature and culture at Heidelberg University. He is author of Cultural Authority in the Age of Whitman: A Transatlantic Perspective (2009), editor of Intellectual Authority and Literary Culture in the US, 1790–1900 (2013), and coeditor of Reading Practices (2015) and Authority and Trust in US Culture and Society (2021).
Günter Leypoldt; The Self-Help Compulsion: Searching for Advice in Modern Literature. Modern Language Quarterly 1 June 2021; 82 (2): 257–260. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/00267929-8899165
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