'So many ways of being better': Contemporary US fiction and cultures of self-help
This thesis investigates the relationship between contemporary US fiction and cultures of self-help in order to illuminate key concerns around selfhood and authorship. It seeks to question dominant understandings of the relationship between self-help and fiction which often fail to account for the irreducible multiplicity of ways in which contemporary authors engage with self-help cultures, and, instead, argues that the self-help industry, which has both expanded and diversified from the 1980s onwards, acts as a generatively elastic site of inspiration as well as antagonism for authors of the past 25 years. I explore the cultural, critical, and aesthetic work self-help performs in contemporary literary fiction, showing how self-help discourses enable novelists to negotiate broader anxieties around the role of the self, the writer, and the text in modern US life. My project uses comparative and close readings, socio-historical contextualization, archival research, and an original author interview to interrogate the often oblique ways in which eight contemporary writers stage encounters with cultures of self-help and popular psychology in their work. David Foster Wallace, Paul Beatty, Tao Lin, Myriam Gurba, Sheila Heti, Miranda July, Benjamin Kunkel, Alexandra Kleeman, and Ben Lerner all critique and satirize therapeutic self- improvement cultures for their entanglement with late capitalist privatization, but, at the same time, they find unique aesthetic, philosophical, and political opportunities in holding the multiple and contradictory practices of self-help in tension. The first two chapters consider how late-1990s writers engage with and enact performances of self-help authority, in part through giving inspirational commencement speeches. A first chapter on David Foster Wallace and a second on Paul Beatty reveal contrasting fantasies of self-help voices and unified didactic communities that point us towards new ways of understanding writerly worries around the operation of literary authority in a fragmented public sphere. The next two chapters explore how the self-help of time management becomes, for certain ‘autofiction’ writers, a means of interrogating conflicting rhythms of self, society, and artistic flow. Asked to understand themselves as creative freelance entrepreneurs, they use self-help practices to manage their time and selfhood differently. Chapter 3 reads Tao Lin’s use of ‘quantified self’ time-tracking and reparative psychedelics alongside Myriam Gurba’s dual attraction to forward- looking creative productivity advice but also trauma recovery and queer time cultures that look in other directions. Chapter 4 demonstrates how diverse self-help time theories undergird Sheila Heti’s plays between managed temporality and alternative founts of artistic ‘infinity’ time. The fifth and final chapter considers how Benjamin Kunkel, Miranda July, and Alexandra Kleeman question socially dominant self-improvement discourses of the body and brain but remain intrigued by self-help’s promises of neuro-bodily change and connection. My thesis concludes with a reading of Ben Lerner's autofiction trilogy which shows the writing of his mother, bestselling feminist self-help author Dr Harriet Lerner, to be crucial to his ethical and aesthetic vision. I use Lerner's trilogy to draw together the main concerns of this thesis and show how his ambivalent engagement with a range of self-help techniques beyond the terms of the liberal humanist ‘self’ trouble the easy distinctions between self, other, and society so often mobilized to critique contemporary literature and self-help texts alike.