Writing Manuals for the Masses: The Rise of the Literary Advice Industry from Quill to Keyboard

Written by prof. Jan Baetens.

Writing Manuals for the Masses: The Rise of the Literary Advice Industry from Quill to Keyboard (New Directions in Book History) by Anneleen Masschelein and Dirk de Geest, eds.
London: Palgrave-Macmillan, 2020

Open access: download the book here: https://link.springer.com/book/10.1007%2F978-3-030-53614-5


Writing is a solitary business, slow and extremely time-consuming, without any guarantee of success, symbolic or financial. Nevertheless, nearly everybody dreams of becoming a writer, even a published and successful one. But how to get there?

Talent is not an option. It may help, but it will never be sufficient. Money is not a solution either. Success is like love: you can only sell it, not buy it. Moreover, in technologically enhanced societies financial thresholds are low: online self-publishing costs close to nothing, while talent and genius are old-fashioned concepts which our participatory but highly meritocratic culture has replaced by commitment and hard work. Yes, you can… become a writer. But once again, how to get there?

Luckily, there exists something like writing advice, and during the twentieth century literary counseling has turned into big business.

Writing Manuals for the Masses is not the first book on this practice, which is as old as literature itself, but it is certainly the one that addresses this type of counseling from so many different perspectives and with such a sharp eye on the purposes, needs, and desires of all stakeholders (those in need of advice, those offering it, and all those who function as matchmakers between the two previous groups). The book gives an excellent historical overview of the many ways in which literary advice has grown and evolved, “from quill to keyboard” as the subtitle nicely puts it. But the book is doing much more. It also discusses specific contents (what beginning or aspiring writers are supposed to do), specific techniques (how are literary counselors packaging their advice), and specific contexts (how to study literary advice as a market). In addition, it also tackles the highly sensitive problem of the deeply rooted suspicion toward literary advice, if not the violent rejection of it.

The key question of the book is not that of the raison d’être of literary advice (a false question, it suffices to notice that it exists, while everybody who has ever tried to write knows how necessary it is to feel a hand on one’s shoulder), but that of its incredible explosion since the early twentieth century (and there are no signs that the success of literary advice will not continue to boom in the decades to come).  What are the reasons behind this success? Is it the democratization of culture? The universal pressure to get one’s own 15 minutes of fame? The links between the subfield of literary advice and the larger field of the self-help business? Or why not the effectiveness of these manuals?

Perhaps we should also ask these questions in more negative terms: who is to blame for the success of literary advice? The refusal of formal education to include it in the classic curricula? The collapse of the traditional gatekeeping system and the vanished prestige of traditional officers of taste? The aristocratic skepticism of established writers dismissing amateur writing?

Writing Manuals for the Masses asks all these questions, without emphasizing specific answers. The book is an inspiring mapping of the field of literary advice, which we must now give a place near the very center of literary writing as a cultural practice.

The Way of All Flesh

Written by Prof. Jan Baetens

I have no idea whether Yukio Mishima is (still) a key figure in queer and LGBTQ studies, but his lesser known 1963 novel The School of Flesh would be a good starting point of a broad and stimulating cultural analysis (original title: Nikutai no gakkō; I read the book in French, for as far as I know there exists no English translation, unless of course one considers the US/UK release of Benoît Jacquot’s movie adaptation a case of intermedial and interlinguistic translation).

However, like all great works, the novel is not only of interest for one specific perspective or target group. The School of Flesh can also be read from other angles, such as for instance the reflection on the permanently shifting models of what the words “modern”, “contemporary” or “fashionable” may mean in specific yet simultaneously very diverse communities. Mishima highlights the fundamentally relative character of these references while at the same time bringing to the fore the no less fundamentally stable structure of some underlying cultural tropes.

However, like all great works, the novel is not only of interest for one specific perspective or target group. The School of Flesh can also be read from other angles, such as for instance the reflection on the permanently shifting models of what the words “modern”, “contemporary” or “fashionable” may mean in specific yet simultaneously very diverse communities. Mishima highlights the fundamentally relative character of these references while at the same time bringing to the fore the no less fundamentally stable structure of some underlying cultural tropes.

At first sight, this love story between an “older” upper class fashion retailer (she is in her late thirties) and a young and wild (he is twenty-one) but poor and lower middle-class student exclusively interested in “money” and “getting rich” (when they meet he works as a barkeeper/prostitute in a gay night club), is also a superb case study in the ephemerality of cultural canons –and I am taking here the position of a 2021 Belgian reader, intrigued by the way in which Mishima describes cultural change in Tokyo in the early sixties. Published in 1963, that is only some years after the great Ozu movies observing the destruction of traditional Japanese family structures due to the American occupation, Mishima’s novel foregrounds the French craze, all cultural referents of modern life having turned French: the luxury industry (special perfumes by Patou), cuisine (precooked French fries), fashion (the turning point in the book is a show with the latest creations of Yves Saint-Laurent, himself present behind and before the curtains and ridiculed by Mishima as a narcissistic pussy), and above all French literature. The reading of French literature is a must. Business men are scorned for speaking English (as we know, Mishima was extremely nationalist) and not-reading books, that is French books. The female protagonist has strong opinions on Beauvoir’s Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter, the half-savage half-dropout student has less books then clothes (and all he reads are economy textbooks).

Mishima analysis is sharp: fashion, cuisine, luxury, and linguistic snootiness (Belgians visiting Tokyo share the same astonishment caused by the great number of French words in the public domain), are still there, and what happened in Tokyo has now become a universal phenomenon in almost all parts of the world. But what about the item that the novel presents as the heart of the matter, namely the prestige of French writing? For today’s readers of The School of Flesh, the literary references of the novel’s world will have become quite exotic (did you ever read Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter? or did you ever feel guilty for not being well read in recent French writing?), and that fading away of literature as the pillar of art and culture is of course not a detail in a book obsessed with the clash between traditional and modern, that is Japanese and Western ways of life. Mishima’s treatment of French literature is complex and ambivalent: French writing is at the same presented as an instrument against Americanization and a tool in the hands of those eager to abandon traditional Japanese culture. Yet as the very acme of culture, it also represents a kind of indirect survival of traditional Japanese culture, and its disappearance from the field of French culture, soon to be reduced to luxury and life style items, also hints at the devastation of “real” culture.

However, the changing status of French “signs”, which both aggressively emerge (food, fashion, logos, icons) and ineluctably withdraw from the center of culture (to be on the page does no longer suppose the reading of the latest French works, as shown by the attitude of all those wanting to make money), is only one layer of Mishima’s cultural work. Underneath, his novel also displays the ruthless return and stability of the mechanism of social distinction and the social comedy and agency through the manipulation of cultural signs. Today, Mishima would undoubtedly have used other cultural frameworks, but the vital link of “school” and “flesh” would definitely return. Culture is a something that has to be learned and whose learning does not come for free, while the mastery of signs and codes is something that is not just used for “Bildung” but also and perhaps even chiefly for sex.

“The Personality Brokers: The Strange History of Myers-Briggs and the Birth of Personality” by Merve Emre

Written by Prof. Anneleen Masschelein.

It is always great to read a piece of research that you would have wanted to write yourself: thoroughly researched, fascinating and funny. The Personality Brokers is such a book. The book starts off as a personal quest as well as an archival research into the origins of the famous Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), a personality test frequently used by human resources and professional coaching. Personality type is characterized by a combination of four letters, determined along four axes: the world you prefer (Extravert versus Introvert), how you take in information (Sensing versus Intuiting), how you make decisions (Thinking or Feeling) and how you structure your life (Judging and Perceiving) (nowadays, there is a fifth axis, determining how confident you are).

The test is based on a questionnaire in which every question has to be answered in quick succession of one another. The MBTI normally has to be administered by a trained professional, but there are plenty of free online versions to be found as well. (https://www.16personalities.com/) Considering the widespread use and popularity of this and other personality tests and assessment in the twenty-first century, it’s not a surprise that the book is a bestseller, garnering excellent reviews (except from people within the MBTI brand community who don’t like the critical tone) in both literary and economic journals. Once you’ve finished the book, you cannot help but marvel at how a test – which became so successful as to evolve into a verb (typing), which brings it on a par with google – was created in the first half of the twentieth century by Katharine Cook Myers, a housewife who meticulously observed her daughter, Isabel, in order to perfect her education system. Katharine not only monitored her daughter, but also counseled her friends and neighbors on educational matters. When she discovered the writings of psychoanalyst Carl Gustav Jung in the 1930s, she was able to perfect her system into the first version of the MBTI chart, even though she never had any formal psychological training. Later in life, Katharine passed on her creation on to her daughter Isabel Myers-Briggs. Unlike her mother, Isabel was not happy to be just a stay-at-home mum and after a failed career as a detective writer, she devoted herself to the test and eventually found employment within the burgeoning field of human resources. She mostly worked on a correspondence basis, selling her test to small and large businesses to help with the hiring process. It didn’t take long however for her to gather some odd customers as well. The government for example wanted to use the test to train spies in the Cold War fifties era while universities were looking for statistically valid personality tests to screen students in the sixties.

The story of MBTI is an endearing story of two single-minded women who pursue their passion, against all odds and facing great resistance from the (male) establishment. At the same time, it also sheds light on some of the most intriguing aspects of the twentieth century: the interrelation of the rise of psychology and the war; self-improvement and self-care as a replacement for religion in post-War American society; the drive towards categorization and quantification of personality; and ultimately the exploitation of human resources in late capitalism.

One of the most interesting episodes is Isabel’s employment by the Office of Strategic Services, a precursor of the CIA. That the war greatly increased the demand of ways to assess the personalities of soldiers and spies is a well-established fact (it also greatly stimulated psychotherapy and group therapy), but that a government agency bought home-developed tests with no psychological credentials behind them is remarkable. Later on, the test proved to be a challenge for early psychometrics. In a funny chapter, the middle-aged Isabel goes to Berkeley’s Institute of Personality Assessment and Research to join a team of researchers holed up in a San Francisco frat house, for weeks of incessant testing, not just of students, but also of some of the most distinguished creative minds, among whom Truman Capote.

The narrative of strained relationships with the university and different teams of psychologists who weren’t able to either statistically validate or to definitively discredit the Myers-Briggs test, offers telling insights in how psychology, even today, is never a fully scientific (in the quantitative sense) discipline. That the lack of scientific evidence has not hindered the test’s popularity in late-twentieth’s century capitalism is an understatement: the test’s belated and enduring success can be attributed to its simplicity, to the drive for self-knowledge and human capital and to the shrewd business model behind the institute that safeguards Katharine and Isabel’s invention. Although Emre, following Adorno, is very critical of the essentialist and categorizing drive behind MBTI, she is also deeply fascinated by the test’s enduring appeal. She manages to combine the details that she unearths to a compelling insight into our age’s compulsive focus on the self, also described by sociologists like Eva Ilouz. Focusing on the mother-daughter duo as unlikely heroines, and following their dogged determination and weird encounters, the book reads like a novel that is impossible to turn down.