By Quirke, Antonia
New Statesman (1996) , Vol. 138, No. 4956
An excellent documentary about self-improvement manuals (The Grandfather of Self Help, 2 July, 11.30 am, Radio 4) told the story of the journalist Samuel Smiles, whose book Self Help was published on the same day as The Origin of Species in 1859, and went on to sell more copies than the Bible that century.
Still a huge seller in Japan, Smiles's book promotes "energetic action" and "unremitting study", insisting we can all become Great if we put in the hours. Smiles was a stickler of such stupendous proportions that, by his standards, most historical figures wouldn't even be labelled talented. Van Gogh dying poor, for example, renders him no greater than a missing-link anthropoid, some git on the bus squirrelling away at his stick of Nicorette. Ditto Modigliani. And Jeff Buckley for being so careless as to go swimming on a full stomach.
Breaking things up, the editor of the Idler came on the programme now and then to insist that charisma beats diligence, and at one point even dissed Tony Benn (is that legal?) and his romantic ideal of people cycling keenly to work with their cheese sandwiches. The whole thing was charming.
All self-help books are useless, of course. I mean, take, for instance, He's Just Not That Into You, the American mega-seller that promotes hardline tactics for women in dead-end relationships, and apply its advice to some of the great romances of literature:
"Dear HJNTIY, I am in love with my boss. He dressed as a gypsy to fool me into revealing my feelings but still fails to make a move. Please help."
"Dear Jane, if a guy is happy to hang out with you wearing earrings and a petticoat then he's definitely not that into you. Wake the fuck up."
"Dear HJNTIY, I turned down a sailor's offer of marriage seven years ago, but then he went on to make millions in the Indies. …