Nicholas Sheppard looks into the new wave of profanity-laden self-help guides
Walk into any bookstore these days and you'll likely come across an ever-increasing number of self-help books with barely censored swear words in the title, their authors so disruptively honest, so irrepressibly matter-of-fact about how we ought to pull ourselves together, that they give the impression of having left their knuckle indents on the books that bear their names.
Mark Manson, author of The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck, has released a follow-up in time for Christmas: Everything is F*cked. Manson is rivalled for output only by the prodigious Sarah Knight, whose titles, nestled among wisdom of the Buddha and works on colonic irrigation, include Calm the F*ck Down, Get Your Sh*t Together, and The Life Changing Magic of Not Giving a F*ck. (Calm The F*ck Down is the fourth book in Knight's No F*cks Given series.)
Other recent entrants in the genre include John Kim's I Used To Be a Miserable F*ck, and Corla Naumberg's How to Stop Losing Your Sh*t With Your Kids. Kim's work contains an impressive 53 usages of the word f***; but this pales compared to the 176 instances in Manson' s The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck. An online search offers up a seemingly unending array of similar titles: F*ck Feelings, Get Your Sh*t Together, 52 Ways to Live a Kick-Ass Life, How to Stop Feeling like Sh*t, Un-F*ck Yourself, Un-F*ckology and, simply, F*cked.
"I think my audience are the people who think they don't like or need self-help," Knight has explained. In other words, the titles allow people to approach a genre they may normally not associate themselves with and which goes against the grain of their natural instincts for shrewd self-reliance.
The shock value and humorous posturing allow people to buy the books at a slightly cynical remove, as well as with a sense that the authors are give-it-to-you-straight people who aren't out to stiff them. Those people, a little prickly and standoffish about wanting help in their personal lives, seem to be receptive to what they perceive as no-bullsh*t content. These authors aren't just dispensing good advice, they're shaking some sense into you even if, at times, it seems as uncompromising as the passengers lining up to get Elaine to calm down in the film Airplane. Turn to any page and prepare to get a dose of expletive-laden hard truths.
The modern trend, with its "disruptive" realism emerged from blogging, where editorial distance and discretion have long been dispensed with as people gravitate towards honest, relatable and unfiltered content. People want to know that other's lives are as messy, mistake-ridden, angsty and full of compromises as their own, and to feel validated in their view that the world is wearying and demoralising, before setting on the path to remedying their flaws and developing coping strategies.
In this sense, it's a kind of push-back against the 90s and 2000s' transcendental, healing-crystal- feel-good industry popularised by the likes of Deepak Chopra, whose empowering mystical flattery assured his readers that "You and I are just saints in the making".
The new wave of self-help is having none of it. "For decades," says the blurb to The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck, "we've been told that positive thinking is the key to a happy, rich life..." But the key to a good life, according to Manson, is "the realisation that sometimes Sh*t is F*cked up, and we have to deal with that."
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According to Manson, we should "stop distracting ourselves from life's inevitable disappointments, chasing s*** like money, success and possessions." The new trend, steeped in gritty everyday realism, is also very much about the individual and illusionless about role-modelling and cults of personality. Sarah Knight even refers to herself as an anti-guru. This contrasts with the crazy earlier vogue for historical role models in self-help guides: The Leadership Secrets of Atilla The Hun, Gandhi: The Heart of an Executive, Confucius in the Boardroom, If Aristotle Ran General Motors, Make It So: Management Lessons from Star Trek the Next Generation, Elizabeth 1 CEO: Strategic Lessons in Leadership from the Queen Who Built an Empire, etc.
In the end, though, the new wave of brawny, expletive-ridden self-help books are often pawing in the same old litter-box. Chapter headings reveal that, ultimately, much of the books are chicken soup for the soul: Balance work and fun, Don't be a martyr, Spend time energy and money on things that really matter, Just because things are falling apart doesn't mean you can't pull them back together, Do things that make you feel alive, Don't take yourself too seriously.
Once you get past the titillating obscenity, these books are essentially a light clip around the ear – followed by a comforting arm around the shoulder. Then again, in the modern world, that's pretty much what a lot of us need, prompting us to regain perspective about the things in life we should give a f*** about.