To Each His Own Self-Help Book

In the beginning, there was the self-help book. With its stirring message of movin’-on-up empowerment and its ten directives for highly effective living, the Bible is the cornerstone on which today’s human-potential industry is founded. Yet the products from self-help authors never garner the same respect as the book that started it all. No other class of contemporary writers grapples as nakedly or as forcefully with life’s deepest, most enduring questions—How can I make others like me? How can I make money? How can I get laid?—but to what ends? Newspaper book reviewers would sooner appraise Danielle Steel’s annual Christmas letter than Tony Robbins’ latest volume of psychological jumping jacks. Citadels of higher learning are even more indifferent: Courses at both UC Berkeley and Harvard University have celebrated the drive-by iambs of rapper Tupac Shakur, but where are the seminars devoted to self-help giant Zig Ziglar, who, in between advising CEOs and government officials, has been helping car salesmen and real-estate agents maximize their productivity for almost four decades now?

Success soothes the cold slap of indifference, of course. Every year, the publishing industry produces more than 3,500 self-help titles, and every year the sickly, the fat, the lonely, and the indebted turn a handful of these books into bustling cottage industries. According to publishing industry research firm Simba Information, self-help books took in $650 million in 2003. Similarly, Tom Butler-Bowdon, a self-help sommelier who has penned a handy guide to the genre, 50 Self-Help Classics, estimates that over the last hundred years, upwards of half a billion copies of self-help books have garlanded our wretched planet. On the one hand, it makes you question their efficacy. On the other, imagine how miserable the war-torn, disease-ridden twentieth century would have been without the salves of Dale Carnegie, Dr. Norman Vincent Peale, and John Gray.

As successful as self-help has been in print, however, it took television to fully capitalize on its potential. Doubt, pain, joy, faith, embarrassment, hopelessness, triumph—the buffet of supersized emotions generated when people attempt to radically transform themselves is endless, and shows like Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, Extreme Makeover, and The Swan lay out a feast for emotional voyeurs. Suddenly, self-help isn’t just utilitarian anymore; it’s entertainment, too.

So why don’t more self-help publishers play up the vicarious appeal of their various titles? Indeed, as the industry evolves, it’s getting more entertaining all the time. With thousands of titles glutting the market, it gets harder and harder to come up with a fresh angle, so self-help authors, who are by nature overachievers anyway, work extra hard to develop winning ideas. Sometimes fate intervenes, creating unprecedented scenarios ready to be strip-mined. For a genuinely interesting account of capitalism’s adjustment to a Code Orange world, see the most perversely upbeat title of the fall publishing season, Dan Carrison’s Business Under Fire: How Israeli Companies are Succeeding in the Face of Terror—And What We Can Learn From Them. (Sample question: “After a terrorist attack, do you call your customers, to do a little PR?”)

More common than a new angle, however, is a new target audience. In today’s one-size-fits-me world, the generalist approach of self-help classics like How To Win Friends and Influence People and The Power of Positive Thinking is countered by titles designed for increasingly specific audiences. And while you may not be an erotically challenged Bible-thumper or a would-be hip-hop Lothario yourself, what better way to learn about the aspirations, ideals, and fears of such creatures than by reading the self-help literature that’s been tailored especially for them?

Before reading Real Questions, Real Answers About Sex: The Complete Guide to Intimacy as God Intended, for example, I was under the impression that Christians already know far more about sex than they actually want to. After all, Hollywood and various other engines of our depraved pop culture are poisoning us all with a permanent smog of hardcore obscenity—according to faith-based cultural exterminators like the American Family Association and Morality in Media.

Yet Real Questions, Real Answers suggests that there are still many Christians with only the most remedial knowledge of carnal hydraulics. And apparently they’re aching to know more. Can a penis break? Must I vacuum to earn sex? How can we live with Grandpa’s exhibitionism? These are just a few of the queries that married Christian sexperts Dr. Louis and Melissa McBurney field in their frank look at the ins and outs of consecrated crotch action. Alas, being a Christian sexpert is sort of like being a three-fingered pianist: Against a long list of forbidden fruit in love’s secret garden (porn, penis rings, cybersex, stranger lust, anal sex, bondage gear, homosexuality), the McBurneys valiantly insist that a wedding ring is the hottest sex toy of all. It’s not a very convincing argument, but they give it a good try.

Unlike God, who has reservations about vibrators, all-powerful Fox News deity Bill O’Reilly enthusiastically endorses them. This, at least, is the claim of Andrea Mackris, the former Fox News producer who says that O’Reilly frantically self-helped himself during degrading, nonconsensual phone calls he made to her last summer. With Mackris leveling her charges just weeks after the publication of O’Reilly’s latest foray into advice-mongering, The O’Reilly Factor for Kids: A Survival Guide for America’s Families, opportunistic critics have jumped all over the story: What kind of role model, they demand, is a man who commits extramarital phone rape?

The truth, however, is that The O’Reilly Factor for Kids could have used a heavy dose of the surreal imagination that O’Reilly allegedly displayed while subjecting Mackris to imaginary tales of Caribbean shower sex starring her, him, a loofah, and, in a positively Dr. Seussian touch, a falafel. Minus such whimsical lapses, The O’Reilly Factor for Kids doesn’t have much going for it.

Theoretically, this book should have been a spectacular mismatch between author and audience. But instead of bitch-slapping trembling tots into cowed submission, as he does with the guests on his TV show, O’Reilly plays it like a butch Mr. Rogers, gently instructing his charges to avoid cigarettes and to be nice to their parents. The aggressively uninspired tone is somewhat amusing, especially since O’Reilly had a co-author. (It didn’t really take two human beings to craft the sentence “Parties are the dessert of life, not the main course,” did it?) And in an effort to show he’s down with the shorties, O’Reilly occasionally interjects instant-message shorthand into his narrative. But after a few perfunctory IMHO’s and TTYL’s, you can tell his heart’s not really in it. Cyber-banter’s the communication style of a younger generation; O’Reilly no doubt prefers the phone.

With the exception of Deepak Chopra, contemporary self-help tends to be dominated by extremely white men like O’Reilly, John Gray, Tony Robbins, and Richard Carlson. Thus, it’s refreshing to see the emergence of Tariq “K-Flex” Nasheed, author of The Art of Mackin’. Originally published in 2000 by a small press in Chicago, Mackin’ has reportedly sold more than 100,000 copies over the last four years. Now, Riverhead Books, the publisher of best-selling financial guru Suze Orman and best-selling guru guru the Dalai Lama, is bringing out a new edition of Nasheed’s book.

Going a step further than the spiritually minded Lama and the money-oriented Orman, Nasheed proclaims his ability to get “the paper, the power, and the pussy.” In the pages of The Art of Mackin’, though, it’s the pursuit of the third “P” that claims most of his attention. With a combination of Machiavellian dispassion and
hip-hop posturing that often reads like unintentional satire—just a few steps away from Tim Meadows’ old Saturday Night Live character, the Ladies’ Man—Nasheed lays out his rules for using “pimp game as a form of manipulation (not deceit) in order to get what [you] want from women.”
With its emphasis on honesty, logic, and self-discipline, The Art of Mackin’ is a weirdly decent book, and yet also a depressing one. Based on Nasheed’s characterizations, macks aren’t misogynistic so much as misanthropic, fundamentally cynical about human nature, and obsessed with looking out for number one. For a book devoted to sexual attainment, there’s virtually no sense of pleasure in The Art of Mackin’, and certainly no romance. In Nasheed’s worldview, women aren’t people one actually connects with on any sort of human level, even temporarily. And they’re not even sex objects to hedonistically enjoy. Instead, they’re merely stereotypes to analyze, codes to crack.

Still, if macks seem as unsympathetic and humorless as sharks, don’t judge them too quickly. They may display an almost preternatural self-assurance, but as The Art of Mackin’ reveals, they’re just as susceptible to bouts of low self-esteem as any of us. In such instances, Nasheed advises, the key is to look on the bright side of things. “Start giving positive affirmations to yourself such as, ‘I have a nice smile. I’m a fun brother to be around. I’m smart. My game is tight. I have a nice speaking voice,’ etc.” For self-help voyeurs, it’s money shots like this that make the genre so rewarding: Even when you just go looking for entertainment, you end up learning something new!