Guest Notes

Literary notes

11 December 2021

9:00 AM

11 December 2021

9:00 AM

The new self-effing help books

In a bookshop at Adelaide airport last Christmas I saw a well-dressed woman, seemingly in her mid-sixties, looking studiously at the front and back covers of a book entitled The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck: a counter-intuitive approach to living a good life. I was intrigued. What had piqued her interest in this book? She did not strike me as someone in need of self-help. Maybe she was thinking of buying it for a niece or nephew who was having a rough trot. Or maybe, I thought, she was turning over the same kind of conflicted thoughts that I have about books like this – unimpressed by the profanity in the title whilst wondering why they bothered with the asterisk.

This is all the rage now with self-help books. Hardly any new book in the genre is published without a ‘fu*k’ or a ‘sh*t’ in the title. But whilst the publishers might give credit to the prowess of their marketing departments, I like to think that the founder of the self-help book, an English writer by the name of Samuel Smiles, would not be smiling down on the books of today.

His 1859 work, Self-help: with illustrations of character and conduct, is considered the bible of mid-Victorian liberalism. The betterment of society, according to Smiles, is achieved through individual self-reliance. He says that grace in the human condition can be attained through care in domestic economy and by aspiring to the character of ‘the true gentleman’. The self-help books of today, by contrast, appear to embrace an in-the-trenches perspective where self-empowerment lies in losing your inhibitions with bad language.

I am not here, however, to pass judgment on the content of the new self-help books themselves. They have their merits, I’m sure. My gripe is only with their ‘fu*king’ titles.


For one thing they force us to confront the tension between our higher and lower selves. Let me explain from my own experience. On the one hand I like to see myself as someone with a distaste for gratuitous profanity. ‘A basic spiritual principle of life’, to borrow a line from Iris Murdoch, ‘is an avoidance of vulgarity’. It is with this kind of philosophical guidance that I do my best to keep my language above board. I do so for my own well-being as well as to set an example for my children. I might add that I also take a dim view of bad language when I hear it from others, so much so, ironically, that I remember once, after having put up with a barrage of f’s and c’s from someone trying to make an impression, I was in such an agitated state that it crossed my mind to turn to a self-help book. Maybe Calm the F**k Down, which is part of the A No F**ks-given Guide series, would have helped me on that occasion.

But my hypocrisy was found out early this year when I called into a bookshop with my youngest son. After browsing for a while, I was drawn, like the woman at the airport, to a book entitled Wise as Fu*k: Simple Truths to Guide You through the Sh*tstorms of Life, and I was holding it when my son came alongside. ‘Daddy’ he said, pointing at the cover, ‘what’s the f-cking point of the asterisk?’ I scolded him for his language whilst marvelling at how close the apple had fallen to the tree. He was right. The asterisk was an obscenity.

These titles toy with the distinction between private and public life. A mark of a polite society used to be the observance of the demarcation between the public and private spheres – in dress, conduct and language. But the marketing departments of today earn their points by innovating to undermine this distinction however they can. Maybe they would say that their asterisks act to preserve that distinction, but for me their inanity only doubles the insult. I would be happier to buy the book if either the ‘c’ was put back in or the word was removed altogether, with a preference for the latter.

The problem is not confined to self-help books of course. I went to my newsagent to check my Powerball numbers and on the counter was a box of cards with the title, Do you Have a F**kit Attitude? A self-discovery quiz of fifty awesome questions to work out whether you have a f**k-it attitude, selling for $29.95. I put petrol in my car and when tapping my credit card was distracted by a 2021 page-a-day desk calendar, Unfu*k Yourself: Get out of your head and into your life. Asterisked profanities are closing in on all sides. I even go to other sections of the bookshop, not the Self-Fu*king Help section, and I find myself looking at books like MindF*ck: Inside Cambridge Analytica’s Plot to Break the World, and Why You Should Give a F*ck About Farming.

In one sense the marketing works. These titles get my attention every time. But my prevailing instinct is not to buy a book that advertises itself with low language. The road to self-help, I have always thought, is uphill not downhill. Mr Smiles recommended the traits of the gentleman, which is the character type we might now refer to as the gentleman and scholar. For me, when feeling the need for self-help, that is the prescription that sits me upright again.

Sadly, though, there seems little hope for the future of that more worthy kind of role model. We are trapped in a society that progressively degrades the values we knew when we were young, and there is no way out. Or is there? Here’s an idea. Maybe I could plan a break-away society. I could market it as a new settlement for those who hear the beat of a different drum, one that is well-mannered, politely spoken, and which observes the distinction between private and public. Give me time to raise some funds. Till then, merry effing with an asterisk Christmas. I hope no one sees fit to buy you a self-help book.

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