These books will change your life. The Financial Times, 6 January 2007

How much should one tip a prostitute? Dylan Jones, the editor of GQ and energetic man-about-town, is here to tell you the right thing to do. His book, Mr Jones’ Rules For the Modern Man, touts itself as a kind of all-purpose guide. Even in our apparently relaxed, freestyle age, Jones writes at the beginning, “there are still very definite rules about what you should and shouldn’t do. Not only that, there is also a huge list (contained herein) of new rules regarding work, gambling, style, the sex wars and etiquette; just how do you ask for a pay rise, or read the financial pages of a newspaper, rebuff an unwanted advance, dress your age, find the g- spot, handle a celebrity or cope with failure?”
Jones is astute enough to know that – especially at a time when we’re still trying to keep our new year’s resolutions – there is a ready market for books that try to teach us how to live. He is right that social life is still rife with rules and prohibitions, but his own book seems only to add to the list. Presuming to start at the bottom, Jones kicks off by advising “how to suck up to your boss”. Everyone has an ego, he informs us, so be sure to tell your boss how good you thought he was at clinching the deal/dealing with a client/coming up with a particular solution.
By the end of the first chapter, Jones has worked his way up to board level, and is telling us to have fewer meetings and to keep them short; how to administer a “bollocking” at work; how to hold your knife and fork at a business lunch; how to build an equity portfolio; even how to read the FT. In a succession of relentlessly chipper vignettes, he gives the reader the benefit of his advice on how to undo a bra, how to change a tyre, how to dump a girlfriend (in a public place, in case she turns on you); how to behave at a lap-dancing club (don’t touch the merchandise); and why you should, in fact, tip that hooker (to make sure that next time the service will be even better).
Who reads this guff? And why? “If society has changed at all in the last few decades,” Jones says, “it’s in the way in which style has replaced class as a signifier of success, while the new pagan gods are more likely to be a flash car or a designer raincoat rather than a private banking account or a golf club membership.” Most of his cringeworthy injunctions, however, are not about style at all – rather, his book is a hodge-podge of etiquette, manners and strategies for how to get the most out of life and the people in it.
Jones’s book is one among many “how to” guides on our shelves, which seem to have spread far beyond the self-help shelf into every corner of the modern bookshop. “How-to” books have been around for many years, but the genre has been on the rise for at least the past decade, and bookshops are now overrun with guides to some aspect or other of life. A quick search of Amazon, for example, records more than 60,000 titles with the words “How to” in the title.
Take another example, Blaikie’s Guide to Modern Manners. Thomas Blaikie, a writer and English teacher, gets closer to the truth of our cultural enthusiasm for “life guide” books than Jones when he claims that “the age of e-mails and metrosexuality has thrown up a whole new set of social dilemmas, and your free-and-easy ways have left us in a vacuum of uncertainty and embarrassment”.
Blaikie turns out to be something of a curmudgeon, the Lynne Truss of etiquette experts. He rails against everything from the nuisance of mobile phones (“you don’t need to shout”) to the meaninglessness of most attempts to be mannerly. He does, however, make some interesting recommendations. He urges readers to follow the example of the late chat-show host Russell Harty and terminate dull telephone conversations with the admission “I’ve had enough now.” Annoyed by the ever-expanding reach of the compensation culture, Blaikie advises his readers to “stand up to vulgar, grasping clients and customers. They know they’re just trying it on. They won’t dare to protest if you refuse to give in to their outrageous demands. They’ll crawl away, utterly crushed.” Infuriated by the gutless reserve of the English when it comes to disciplining other people’s children, he goads and chivvies us into action: “Why not intervene if other people’s children are behaving badly? You take your life in your hands. But why not?”
Those who do not take kindly to being told how to behave either by a style guru or a curmudgeon, however, still have plenty in the “life guide” section from which to choose. The Decadent Handbook For the Modern Libertine is a racier and somewhat classier read than either Mr Jones’ Rules or Blaikie’s Guide to Modern Manners, but it also has a good deal in common with them. In her iconoclastic introduction, Rowan Pelling, the former editor of The Erotic Review, notes that her book is “envisaged as an anti- lifestyle guide for people who wish to transform the spirit of the age, or, failing that, ignore it altogether. It’s for those who seek respite from the worst banalities of modern existence: property ladders, yummy mummies, footie daddies, loyalty cards, friendly bacteria, Glade air freshener, decking, Coldplay, The Da Vinci Code and Natasha Kaplinsky.”
Fair enough, as far as it goes. What follows – essays, parables, fantasies and memoirs on the nature of decadence – is presented as a guidebook that refreshes the parts that others cannot reach. Some of the chapters are a little pretentious (see the one about decadent breakfasts, written by a man called Malcolm Eggs), and some are plainly silly (see Guillaume Lescable on “The Art of Cooking a Murder Victim”). But some stand out as gobbets of great writing. Erich Kuersten rhapsodises on “The Lost Art of the Bender”, and Mick Brown writes a magnificent eulogy to Donald Cammell and Nic Roeg’s 1970 film Performance.
Not to be outdone, William Napier finds inspiration in history. “To truly achieve Roman levels of decadence,” he informs the reader, “you will need a great deal of money and no scruples. You will also want a menagerie of wild animals, some obedient slaves with no appreciation of their human rights, and amorous inclinations towards at least one other member of your immediate family.”
To read The Decadent Handbook is to intrude on the private daydreams of an army of louche but rather charming fantasists. Yet the whole enterprise seems a little forced – vulnerable to the accusation that if someone has to teach you how to be decadent, you must be in serious trouble. The handbook, claims Pelling in her introduction, “seeks not to instruct, but to offer diverse inspiration”. Then why call it a handbook, and why package it with notable moments in decadent history and a guide to further reading?
The reason, we must presume, is to make the book chime with the burgeoning genre of titles that refract every conceivable subject into a guide to make your life work better. “How-to lit” draws some of its linguistic inspiration from the management gurus who are notorious for their flagrantly didactic turns of phrase. One management book I was sent about five years ago, which I kept as a reminder of the genre, was titled A Good Hard Kick in the Ass. If how-to lit started off as an offshoot of the self-help industry and grew up in the badly written pitches of management gurus, it is now conquering almost every conceivable discipline. How did our bookshelves become a toolbox of methods for living our lives better? Some valuable clues can be found in Dubravka Ugresic’s gloriously, unashamedly bitchy dissection of the state of the publishing industry, Thank You For Not Reading.
The Croatian academic and critic compares the contemporary books market with the propaganda of the Stalinist school of socialist realism. The only difference is that, where the art of socialist realism promised a bright and shining future for society, these books promise a bright personal future – if only you do what they say.
Visit any large metropolitan bookshop, she says, and the display will be festooned with books about how to improve your personal situation and overcome your demons. There are books about fat people becoming thin, sick people recovering, poor people becoming rich, mutes speaking, alcoholics sobering up, unbelievers discovering faith. This literature of personal transformation, she believes, has so cornered the books market that all writers are now forced to “live Oprah” and the publishing world exploits this shamelessly. The title arrived at for Alain de Botton’s book How Proust Can Change Your Life, one London literary agent told me privately, probably doubled sales of the book. Even weighty works of non-fiction are no longer immune from the functional approach – Heat, the environmentalist George Monbiot’s new book about global warming, was brought to market saddled with the sub-title How to Stop the Planet Burning.
But why stop here? In the current publishing climate, a whole range of classics could surely be touched up to lend them a more contemporary feel. Karl Marx’s Capital: A Critique of Political Economy could become Capital: How to Overthrow the Capitalist System For Beginners; Robinson Crusoe could benefit from the sub- title How to Survive and Thrive On a Desert Island; Pride and Prejudice might shift a few more copies if it were subtitled How to Bag a Rich Husband and Live Happily Ever After.
In a post-cold war age, where political allegiances and ideologies often give us little in the way of guidance, many of us have turned inward in search of inspiration. Ideas, as a consequence, find it difficult to get a hearing unless they promise to turn our lives around or help us to get ahead. If the rise of “how-to lit” is as unstoppable as the rise of the self-help industry from which it takes its cue, perhaps the best we can hope for is for more imaginative attempts to subvert the whole genre.
This Diary Will Change Your Life 2007, yet another addition to the genre, is a fitfully funny compendium of surreal new year resolutions penned by “Benrik Ltd”: ad-agency veterans Ben Carey and Henrik Delehag. Among other things, the pair suggest that we join an extremist organisation and out-extreme those involved, demonstrate in favour of the government, and befriend a telesales person.
At the beginning of April 2007, they advise claiming to see the Virgin Mary in an everyday object, while in September they suggest starting a business from your garage. The corporate world, they note, is rammed with billionaires who claim to have started from their garage, so to do so “will give your business empire the homespun authenticity that consumers demand these days”.
By the end of October, they are urging us to send our DNA to the authorities: “These days, it is only too easy for an innocent citizen to get mixed up in some global security scare by mistake. You may be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Or an acquaintance may mention you under torture.”
Excellent advice, surely, and the kind which beats learning how to hold your knife and fork.