by Julia Martin, Altitude, Volume 1, Article 3, 2001.
PDF Version: Mars 2, Venus 0: Exploring Self Help Books
The self help book is the most tangible narrative produced by the self improvement movement, and it regularly tops the best seller lists both here in Australia and in the United States. The idea of combining know-how with personal transformation is a potent offshoot of the North American psyche, one which is prone to regular satirical treatment in Australia, but continues to dominate our non fiction market. This article will examine a few of the particularly persistent qualities of the self-help tradition. It will then examine how they are expressed in John Gray’s well-known book, Men are From Mars, Women are From Venus, which was a New York Times best-seller for 140 weeks, and has sold more than four million copies in 86 languages worldwide since its release in 1992 (Bader 1). Examination of this text will show that Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus is another manifestation of the mind cure tradition, a movement that emphasises individual empowerment and simultaneously removes it.
I wish to emphasise from the start that I am not against the entire self-help movement. My own reading of self-help books, and talking with others who read them, leads me to believe that there are a great number of these publications that can assist people. If one is to define self-help books as publications which aim to resolve individual problems or provide knowledge to enhance individual decision making, then the aims of such books are not harmful per se. But within the genre of self-help, the means offered to reach such noble-sounding ends can differ wildly, from books of the ‘know-how’ variety (how to manage money, or deal with a life-threatening illness) to the more radical, sometimes harmful, end of the spectrum.
Julia Martin completed her PhD at the School of English at the University of New South Wales. Her thesis is on diaries of the Enlightenment period and the fiction of the unified subject. Other research interests include self-help movements; autobiography; and electronic publishing.