The Rhetoric of Self-Help Literature

The Rhetoric of Self-Help Literature

The genre of non-academic and non-scientific self-help literature has existed for a long time, but experienced an increased surge in popularity in the 1960s, coinciding with several social change movements where the personal was considered political (Riessman & Carroll, 1995). As it was taken up by self-help literature, the texts themselves focused on individual change and betterment of the self. These ‘techniques of the self’ as Foucault called them, are rules of conduct that one uses to transform oneself, to carry certain aesthetic values and certain stylistic criteria (Foucault, 1992 [1984], as cited by O’Farrell, 1997). These techniques may change across the texts as well as during particular eras, but there are some common rhetorical features that can be identified, such as the narrative styles and methods of persuasion. However, it is important to acknowledge that a rhetorical analysis of self-help literature cannot operate in a vacuum and in this essay we must also consider contextual factors in society and culture and their impact on the rhetoric of self-help literature. Using the rhetorical frameworks primarily of Aristotle and Kenneth Burke, we will examine self-help literature’s narrative features, framing of the audience, establishment of the author, and how the texts work within specific cultural and ideological systems.

When beginning an analysis of self-help literature, a definition of the type of texts included needs to be framed. According to Watkins & Clum (2008), media-based self-help interventions include books, manuals or handbooks, audio and visual components, and computer- or web-based programs (1). Sandra K. Dolby (2005), in her study of more than 300 books, developed the definition of self-help literature to include a extensive range of texts: “books of popular nonfiction written with the aim of enlightening readers about some negative effects of our culture and worldview and suggesting new attitudes and practices that might lead them to more satisfying and more effective lives” (38). Some researchers use the term ‘bibliotherapy’ to refer to the subset of written, print-based materials, but there is no consensus on the definition and particular modality. Many consider inspirational forms such as spiritual texts, or autobiographical works to be included in bibliotherapy. Riordan et al. (1996, as cited by Watkins & Clum, 3) state that through identification with the characters and their situations, readers and able to develop insight and gain catharsis for their own conditions or issues. For the purpose of this analysis, we will focus on strictly non-fiction books that provide information and techniques for decision-making and problem solving. These books tend to focus on cognitive behavioural therapies as the means of intervention, although other modes such as rational-emotive, transactional analysis are also prevalent. However, it is important to note that this essay does not include a media audit or research study, and is not from the psychological perspective, so a breakdown of the rhetoric of these individual subgenres and means of intervention could render much different results. In this essay, we will focus on self-help literature generally, and the rhetoric used by the author to persuade the reader to take action or make life changes.

Cheng (2008), drawing heavily on Dolby (2005) and McGee’s (2005) work too, identified three commonalities among this type of self-help literature we have defined. First, they were rooted in a particular time and place in history, relating to specific social problems and reasserting traditional Western values. Second, recent research suggests that the increase of self-help literature was fuelled by the focus on the ‘self’ of modern society. Third, when looking at the non-academic and non-scientific genre of self-help, there are several common rhetorical features that depart from traditional non-fiction narratives. The genre uses rhetorical devices such as “personal narratives, metaphor, parables, analogy, and metacommentary” and has a problem-solution structure, despite the context or type of problem (Cheng, 2008: 3).

Self-help literature, as a non-academic and non-scientific genre, has a unique rhetorical frame: the situations the authors include, the narratives or anecdotes selected, the argumentation patterns, and the way they construct and address the audience or reader. Cheng (2008) identified two main ways self-help literature frames the audience: as either the “clinical expert bestowing knowledge upon a passive, ignorant, and ill reader who ultimately needs grace to be healed” or through the development of an ‘authentic self’ where the author is the “coach, guiding and encouraging the active and informed reader to reclaim her true self” (3).

Bookstores dedicate entire shelves to the Self-Help genre, including subtopics such as ‘Health’, ‘Psychology’, ‘Parenting’, ‘Relationships / Love’ and even for Dummies. Some people consider the classics of the genre to include How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie (1936) and The Power of Positive Thinking by Norman Vincent Peale (1955). Samuel Smiles originally published Self-Help in 1859, and Isabella Beeton’s Book of Household Management for women was published as a full volume in 1861. If we continued digging, we would see that the trend of self-help literature is not a new phenomenon. Our focus is on the more recent influx of self-help literature, which begins with the industrialization of the West during the eighteenth century.

This period was a time of industrial stress, cultural and social upheaval that required the education of the recently elevated masses. We can see this reflected in consumer-focused advertising of this era, which drew on cultural and ideological systems to offer consumers ‘happiness’ or ‘love’ or ‘satisfaction’. Through this consumption ethic (Marchand, 1985), advertisers positioned their products as the ‘solution’ to achieving those desires; Individuals could use these products for self-improvement and to be trendy, cultured, well-mannered, successful, smart, et cetera. Self-help literature is not much different in this sense. Instead of attributing these personal anxieties to industrialized society, texts (and authors and publishers) relied on the principle of individuality, including notions of choice, autonomy and freedom (Rimke, 2000) to sell copies and persuade readers. “Rather than viewing individuals and individualism as the historical product of intersecting social processes and cultural discourse, proponents of the principle of individuality, which is crucial in self-help rhetoric, assume the social world to be the sum aggregation of atomized, autonomous and self-governing individual persons” (Rimke, 2000: 62).

Dana Cloud (1998) traced the origins of therapeutic discourse to the industrialized era and coined the term ‘rhetoric of therapy’. Cloud believed that therapeutic discourse used the language of personal responsibility, adaptation, and healing, and the self-help movement developed from this notion of democratic self-determination. This is the rhetoric of the ‘self-made man’—a mythos that Ramage states is part of the American “success rhetoric” of the late eighteenth- and twentieth-century (2005). However, this ideology did not change the hegemonic systems in place, which places one social class in a position of power to another social class. The self-help movement, according to Cloud, placed a responsibility for solving personal problems on the individual, who may often be the poor, working class. As we move into the modern day, we can see the influence marketing and sales have also had on the self-help genre. “Long-time investigators in the field of self-help (e.g., Rosen et al., 2003) content that professional standards have take a backseat to commercialization factors in marketing self-help products” (Watkins & Clum, 2008: 15).

Burkeian theory is incredibly apt in analysing self-help literature, as Kenneth Burke believed that all language and communication was rhetorical. His definition of rhetoric was the use of words by human agents to form attitudes or induce actions in other human agents. He defined the rhetorical function of language as the “use of language as a symbolic means of inducing cooperation in beings that by nature respond to symbols” (Burke, 1969: 43). For Burke, he believed storytelling through particular situations and frames served to generalize far beyond the particulars of the story. These types of stories produce specific attitudes, attitudes that shape and define how we cope with situations. We know how to respond to these specific situations because we recognize the form. Burke believed these stories name an “essence” that operates on an abstract level that can then be applied to various contemporary situations with a “timeless” appeal (Burke, 1938 [1998]: 596-7). By identifying with the reader, appealing to them through elements of identification and similarity, and familiar forms, the author can persuade the audience and produce meaning, transferring agreement with the form to agreement with the content. Burke’s Forms would classify self-help literature as the Qualitative Progressive Form, which establishes a relationship between parts and the outcome is more probable than absolute.

In his essay “Literature as Equipment for Living” (1938) Burke states that inspirational literature is a “strategy for easy consolation” as it fills a need, and “there is always a need for easy consolation” (Burke, 1938 [1998]: 595). He posits that simply the act of reading is what allos the readers to succeed, cynically stating that the readers will make no serious attempt to apply the text’s suggestions. “The reading of a book on the attaining of success is in itself the symbolic attaining of that success” (596, emphasis in the original). For Burke, the symbolic form of merely reading gives the reader the aura of success.

Aristotle’s three artistic proofs, or modes of persuasion—ethos, pathos, and logos—are also aptly applied to self-help literature. Considering the ethos of the speaker and their message means assessing the author’s credentials, their authority to administer this help. Many self-help authors have some initials following their byline, indicating a professional or medical degree. Although all readers may not feel the need to research or read further into the author’s PhD or find out what “FRCPC[1]” stands for, the inclusion of these initials in the author byline lends a certain credibility and trustworthiness to their words. The author’s textual authority as a professional and expert knowledge is also part of their ethos. “Based on interview data, Simonds (1992) found that editors often seek self-help books that merely sound authoritative” and often books authored by uninformed celebrities are more popular than texts by educated professionals (Watkin & Clum, 2008: 15, emphasis in the original). The biographical information included on the book would also exude their wealth of experience and knowledge, whether it is true or not.

The pathos of self-help books is evident in their intent: to assist the reader with overcoming a problem or changing some part of their life, attitudes or beliefs. Texts will often seek to generate feeling of inadequacy among prospective consumers, thereby posing the purchase of the book as the solution. Ramage (2005) found in his assessment that many books relied on ‘sincerity’ and proposing that readers ‘be sincere’ too. Classical rhetoric often focused on the agency of the speaker, and the power of their words and ideas on the audience. It was believed that the speaker needed to know the audience’s values, ideas, and opinions in order to persuade them. This focus on the individual is demonstrated through the text hailing the reader, the writing expressing a concern for their problem, assurance that they are not alone, and the use of emotive stories.

Frequently, storytelling is a method used to demonstrate to the reader that others have experienced these same issues and overcome the problems they faced. These anecdotes serve as emotive hooks, appeals to the reader’s emotions of vulnerability, fear, and anxiety. They appease the reader by offering stories through which they can identify with the speaker and seeks to draw the reader into the text. Aristotle believed that our emotional responses tell us about the nature of society and ourselves. The rhetoric of self-help texts address the fear and anxiety a reader experiences, using language to reassure, calm, and assuage any hesitancies. Some of this is marketing rhetoric, in the case of the book’s cover and description, but this appeal of pathos is also evident in the literature’s content. The use of pathos alone is not a sufficiently strong mode of persuasion, as it can often fall victim to the local fallacy of manipulating the reader’s emotions. But, as a rhetorical form to draw the reader into the text and the appeal, it can be a powerful in establishing a starting point and further develop the text’s argument. Recurring thematic stories—also present in Samuel Smiles’ classic Self-Help (originally published in 1859, 2002 reprint)—are intended for an audience eager for stories of success or those who “attained independence through their own labours” (2002, xvii). Repetition of these tales “enabled [Smiles]’ Victorian readers to imagine themselves in situations analogous to those experienced” (2002, xvii) in the text. In the introduction, Peter W. Sinnema (Smiles, 2002) states that this “iterative mode incited [Victorian readers] to conscientious emulation”.

The third mode of persuasion, logos, can differ based on the text examined, but we can consider some general attributes of self-help literature and how they use logos, or reasoning. Logos often includes the process of demonstration, and while it is not feasible to physically show a reader changes, the use of anecdotes and storytelling as previously mentioned can serve to demonstrate the messages. The text frequently leads readers through a series of self-administered exercises, assessments, questionnaires, surveys, and checklists. The use of these assessments or assignments allows the reader to judge their own characteristics and inform their decisions and personal direction (Rimke, 2000). The text thereby leads the reader through a series of tasks to assist in identifying problematic behaviour and self-understanding without explicitly telling the reader what to do. It also allows texts to cater to a number of different readers at different stages of self-understanding.

In modern society, self-identity and the creation of one’s self and one’s identity is a common site of negotiation and a frequent topic of Communication studies. The introduction of modern institutions “interlace in a direct way with individual life and therefore with the self“ (Giddens, 1991: 1). One of the most frequent critiques of self-help literature is the focus on the “personal rather than political or cultural” (Watkins & Clum, 2008: 18). “[I]ndividuals, not social institutions with their disparate structures of power and privilege, bear the brunt of criticism and the responsibility of change” (Watkins & Clum, citing Ebben, 1995). Samuel Smiles asserted that an individual has the freedom to develop himself, free from bureaucratic interference, or the negative and restrictive function of Government, to be “active agents of their own well-being and well-doing” (36). Rimke (2000) echoes this sentiment but explains that part of self-help’s popularity is the ability to govern oneself, and make changes in a society wrought with systemic and institutionalized problems.

The ideology that through self-regulation and self-discipline, you can change yourself or create a new identity is a strong idea in self-help literature but this idea of the ‘authentic self’ or a ‘true identity’ is wrought with problems. Foucault, who believed that no one has sole access to truth and knowledge, expresses one of these critiques; he saw the concept of identity as a form of subjugation, by conforming to social norms and the status quo; we as a society are yielding to fixed boundaries of hegemony. Another critique of the concept of identity creation is whether readers are simply changing their beliefs instead of problematic behaviour. This is reflected in Leon Festinger’s Theory of Cognitive Dissonance, where he found that when faced with a situation where our beliefs and behavour are out of alignment, it is easier to change our beliefs instead of our behaviour. For Festinger, this would mean that self-regulation and self-discipline are simply matters of the mind, not autonomous changes of the individual.

As Cheng (2008) noted, the self-help genre addresses the concept of ‘self’ in two frequent ways: either the “autonomous self as individual, unattached, and unaffected by others” or “the social self as informing and informed by others as well as obligated to others” (2). Depending on how the author frames the audience, the language and mode of persuasion changes. For example, the frame of “authenticity to self” uses the language of self-determination to persuade and hail the audience. According to Entman (1993, as cited by Cheng, 2008), framing is the selection of a particular reality and making these aspects more ‘salient’ to promote a particular solution, interpretation, moral evaluation or treatment of the problem. The author makes particular choices in regard to the lexicon, enthymematic reasoning, imagery, stereotypes, and characterizations included. Authors may also address the audience in a particular way, hailing them in the text as “you” or even “our/us/we” to create personalization. Other authors anticipate a reader’s reaction and create a fictionalized dialogue, or what classical rhetoricians called prosopopoei, within the text (Cheng, 2008).

The flexibility of the application of self-help literature firmly places it below Plato’s Divided Line of Knowledge. In the visible order, the realm of Opinion, one can consider modalities of possibilities in real life arguments, as Stephen Toulmin believed. Human beliefs are not logical and analytical, but if we consider the context, the content, and the substantial or practical argument, we can see the personal justifications behind the argument. This process of human engagement is what makes these arguments hold up, and even if they are not perfect explanations or reasons, they are still important to human beings. Self-help literature touches on this notion indirectly by the sheer breadth of options and subtopics available; there is no one absolute, logical argument or reasoning that fits everyone, the science of logic does not always work in normal life. As well, the techniques of self-help literature can change across the subgenres as well as particular time in history. We have attempted to identify some common rhetorical features within non-academic and non-scientific self-help literature, such as the narrative features, framing of the audience, modes of persuasion, and establishment of the author’s authority.

[1] Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians of Canada