November 10, 2017
Men, maybe it’s time to man up and accept some help from yourselves
by Sarah Healy
Man up! There’s no crying in publishing! Do you think Jonathan Franzen would pick up a “self-help” book? Nooooo! Would Ernest Hemingway read Who Moved My Cheese? Absolutely not. Would Norman Mailer be caught dead checking out Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead at his local library? Get real, nerd.
This, at least, reflects a lot of the public perception about who buys so-called “self-help” books. But many men’s aversion to reading self-help (or inspirational) books has certainly not stopped them from writing advice.
At Quartz this week, Youyou Zhou reports that, while men are less likely than women to pick up self-help books, they are overwhelmingly the ones writing them. Analyzing data from Goodreads, along with other studies, Zhou finds that women reading self-help books are most often getting advice from men, while men tend to shy away from self-help books — especially those written by women.
It’s important to note, as we have in the past, that in the US women read more books than men, and different ones. (Zhou, and the research she cites, use only two genders to study and quantify the trends.) Zhou cites market research that finds the US self-improvement industry is worth $11 billion and growing. This includes books and audiobooks as well as “motivational speakers, websites, seminars, personal coaching, online education, weight loss, and stress management programs.” The market for books alone is estimated to be worth $776 million. Of the best-selling of those books, Zhou finds, fully two-thirds are written by men and read about equally by men and woman. But of the remaining third, written by women, only seventeen percent of readers were men.
The term “self-help” was coined in 1859 by Samuel Smiles, a Scottish intellectual and government reformer. Alain de Botton has argued in the Guardian that, although most self-help books are written by “Americans of the most sentimental and unctuous sort,” they have a venerable and cherished place in literature. He notes that the label might be applied with perfect accuracy to the writings of intellectual heavyweights like Marcus Aurelius, Seneca, and Thomas à Kempis. Zhou picks up on the intuition, investigating how readership breaks down for books that might be tagged as self-help or different genres:
Self-help books tagged with biography, memoir, and autobiography have more female readers. Those tagged with psychology, business, science, philosophy and religion have more male readers. Books tagged with self-help alone see highest percentage of female readers.
Zhou also cites a study conducted by the University of Calgary, which found that “men are more likely to read books relating to careers, while women are more likely to read books about interpersonal relationships.” Noting that women, who bear “disproportionate responsibility for domestic labour and emotional work,” may as a result “have more at stake in their engagement with self-help books,” the Canadian researchers write, “Self-help books oriented toward female readers have been particularly successful not because women are more gullible than men, or because they have more spare time; rather, such books have been successful because they address the concerns of women in the context of substantial political-economic and cultural change.”
In other words, women are reading self-help books for the same reason they avail themselves of other tools: because they really do find them helpful. If their association with women causes those tools to be smeared as low-brow, so be it.
The bottom line? Maybe it’s time for men to start listening to women. Or, goddamn it, to learn to ask for help.
Sarah Healy is an intern at Melville House.