The very first self-help book I ever bought was Dare to Be Yourself, by Alan Cohen. I can't remember too much about the book -- or how I summoned the courage to walk up to the cash register with its theatrical subtitle (How to Quit Being an Extra in Other Peoples Movies and Become the Star of Your Own), but I do recall finding a strange kind of solace between its covers, which was the colour of Violet Crumble packets.
If you haven't read the book and don't particularly care to, the only thing you need to know is that the first chapter opens with an epigraph from the song ‘Woodstock’ by Joni Mitchell. ("We are stardust. We are golden.") That was essentially the spirit of Cohen’s oeuvre. I have no idea what my 15-year-old self did with that kind of information, but it's safe to say that the early exposure had somehow immunised me against a lifetime of addiction to the genre.
While many of my female friends have had similar self-help phases, it seems like most guys in my social circle (single or otherwise) have never been susceptible to the charms of authors like Cohen or John Gray. A quick walk down the self-help aisle confirms a lack of offering for men -- and nowhere is this barrenness more apparent than the relationship advice shelves.
In fact, according to a 2008 survey, 78 percent of all relationship and family books were bought by women. It's a disappointing turnout, given that even HBO's navel gaze-y show Girls attracts a larger male to female audience split (56 percent of the 'linear audience' are men) -- and the series is nothing if not about feelings. There's also a growing demand for thoughtful reality shows like ABC's Making Couples Happy and online projects like filmmakers Mark Levin and Jennifer Flacket's candid web series, The Man's Guide to Love. The latter has attracted such a cult following that it’s currently being adapted into a book and a spin-off movie. Could it be that there's a whole untapped market of relationship books for men?
But first, let's take a look at what makes a self-help best seller. On Amazon.com, some of the most popular relationship titles currently include:
Act Like a Lady, Think Like a Man, by Steve Harvey
Why Men Love Bitches, by Sherry Argov
The Power of the Pussy: Get What You Want From Men: Love, Respect, Commitment and More!, by Kara King
Rules Of The Game, by Neil Strauss
Not Your Mother's Rules: The New Secrets For Dating, by Ellen Fein, Sherrie Schneider
In a recent interview with Publisher's Weekly, editor Sara Carder pointed out that, “To stand out in today’s crowded marketplace, you simply have to have a great title and concept—and preferably one that can be gotten in an instant.”
Indeed, the central message that emerges from these titles seem to be surprisingly consistent -- namely: what you’re doing wrong and how to regain control. In their own unsubtle way, each author targets a specific area of insecurity and promises to deliver an “ah-ha” moment that ultimately cures your self-defeating love pattern.
As xo Jane writer and self-confessed dating advice book addict Leslei Ananny puts it, “The problem is that dating and marriage self-help books operate on the same assumption that all self-help books use to some extent, which is that you must be wrong, sick, ignorant or making poor decisions, or you wouldn’t need help.”
This might explain why the language used in these books is often serrated, mimicking an overheard bitching session or locker room rant that’s disguised as the genre’s much celebrated tough love approach. But a bigger question remains --- how does the self help industry get away with marketing advice that not only trades on sexual inequality but is also quite literally supported by women’s hip pockets?
One of the reasons why guys are less likely to turn to self-help is because they are rarely framed as the source of the problem. Consider, for example, this little gem from the preface of Harvey’s Act Like a Lady, Think Like a Man:
“If there’s anything I’ve discovered during my journey here on God’s earth, it’s this: (a) too many women are clueless about men, (b) men get away with a whole lot of stuff in relationships because women have never understood how men think...”
And from Argov’s mission statement in Why Men Love Bitches:
“This book addresses the the very issues that men won’t. He won’t say, “Look, don’t be a doormat,” “Don’t always say yes,” “Don’t revolve your whole world around me.” This book is necessary because these are things that a man will not spell out for his partner.”
Put simply, these books suggest that to be successful in love is to out-manipulate men and to understand -- to the best of our ability -- how our partner’s fault relates to our own.
“Society is set up for women to be passive,” writes Jezebel’s Anna North. So even though ladies are encouraged to (secretly) “take charge” of the relationship, men are still expected to adopt the role of the instigator when it comes to things like dating and marriage.
“Thus it expects something of women while denying them actual control over it — basically, women are supposed to wait around for this socially-constructed metric of personal success to just happen to them. It's no wonder that women seek ways to gain some control over the situation.”
And if that’s the kind of emotional heavy lifting women are expected to do on their own, is it any surprise that guys don’t see the need for self-help?