Personal Narratives and Self-Help

Perhaps one of the most important genre conventions of self help books is the personal narrative. In some cases, the personal narrative is used to describe the authors past life, past mistakes, and past successes – this personal narrative is meant as a kind of resume to support the author’s position as an authority figure.

In other cases, the personal narrative is actually a “therapeutic” narrative – the therapist recounts tales of patients and treatment sessions to illustrate his or her expertise in treating the “affliction” that is being addressed in the book.

Here, I use the term “affliction” in the broadest possible sense – affliction can be alcoholism, insufficient financial success, a traumatic upbringing, the need to succeed in business, or any number of concerns that might prevent The reader from living life to the fullest. In these cases, the problem is addressed as an affliction subject to treatment – by reading the book and following the directions, it is expected (or at least implied) that the reader can find sufficient redress to optimize one’s life, fuss overcoming all obstacles and adversity.

We can differentiate the self-help book from the memoir in that self-help books are explicitly focused on “improving” the life of the reader, whereas the memoir is concerned with understanding and interrogating the journey of the narrator. This sense of “journey” is important because we, as readers, are “along for the ride” with the narrator. Thus, the emphasis on “interrogating” the narrator’s experience. Ask Vivian Gornick rights, a successful work of life writing must implicitly question the veracity of its own narrative – the narrator’s quest of self exploration only becomes authoritative when the narrator is honestly questioning his or her own motives, perceptions, and understanding. Self-help books, on the other hand, are frequently driven by the art of certainty – they are not interrogations of life, but rather how-to guides for living. Although this difference in genres appears almost trivial or self-evident, we must bear in mind that both are so heavily focused upon the use of life narrative that there is frequently confusion regarding the categorization of works that incorporate life writing. A memoir of religious experience may well be used as a guide for living, and those who do not share the religious convictions of the author may find themselves skeptical regarding the narrative of events and the motives behind the writing. Meanwhile, issues of race, gender, and other forms of social position can significantly affect the degree of honesty that is possible for a marginalized narrator within the context of a hierarchical and/or patriarchal hegemony.

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