Signs from Women’s Advice Books

Praising and encouraging are very dose to pushing, and when you do that you are trying again to take control of his. Think about why you are lauding something he’s done. Is it to help raise his self­esteem? That’s manipulation. Is it so he will continue whatever behavior you’re praising? That’s manipulation. Is it so that he’ll know how proud you are of him? That can be a burden for him to carry. Let him develop his own pride from his own accomplishments.

Robin Norwood, Women Who Love Too Much (1985)

Best-selling advice books for women published in the United States in the later part of the past century offer a glimpse into an important future trend in American popular culture. This trend is a curious, Іаііегчіау parallel to the very different cultural shift Max Weber describes in Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Just as Protestantism, according to Max Weber, "escaped from the cage” of the church to be transposed into an inspira­tional “spirit of capitalism” that drove men to make money and build capi­talism, so feminism may be “escaping from the cage” of a social movement to buttress a commercial spirit of intimate life that was originally separate from and indeed alien to it.1 just as market conditions ripened the soil for capitalism, so a weakened family prepares the soil for a commercialized spirit of domestic life. Magnified moments in advice books tell this story.

The current cultural shift differs in the object of its ideas (love and not work), in the social sphere it most affects (the family and not the economy), and in the population most immediately influenced (women, not men). The cultural shift reflected in advice books concerns a more marginal ide­ology—feminism—and the commercial transmutation of it is a shift that is smaller, I hope, in scale. Like the earlier trend, this one represents the out­come of an ongoing cultural struggle, gives rise to countertrends, and is uneven in its effect. But the parallel is there.

To explore evidence of this shift, this parallel, let’s turn to best-selling advice books for women published between 1970 and 1990 as a likely bell­wether of trends in the popular ideas governing women s approach to inti­mate life.2 For, like other commercial and professional conveyors of guid­ance, advice books are becoming more important while traditional spheres of authority, families and to a degree churches, are becoming less so. Thus, while the counsel of parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, ministers, priests, and rabbis holds relatively less weight than it did a century ago, that of professional therapists, television talk show hosts, radio commentators, video producers, and magazine and advice book authors assumes relatively more weight.3 While people turn increasingly to anonymous authorities, the emotional problems t hey wish to resolve are probably more perplexing than ever.

Like other commercially based advice-givers, the authors of advice books act as emotional investment counselors. They do readings of broad social conditions and recommend to readers of various types how, how much, and in whom to “invest” emotional attention. They recommend emotional practices—such as asking the reader to think of “praise” as “manipulation”—to cast doubt on the sincerity of one’s own praise and to detach oneself from another person, as the advice book writer Robin Norwood recommends in this essay’s epigraph. Writers also motivate their readers by hitching investment strategies to inspirational ideas and images buried in “magnified moments” inside the parable-like stories that make up much of these books.

Neither author nor reader, I imagine, is much aware that they are offer­ing or receiving “emotional investment counseling.” Rather, authors see themselves as giving, and readers see themselves as receiving, helpful advice. Sometimes it is. My basic point is that helping and being helped are matters of such overwhelming importance that any cultural shift that “thins out” the process through which we give care to one another or empties the content of help should make us stop and think about where we’re going.