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Self-help books get the 'tough love' treatment

Once known for gentle cheerleading and encouragement, the genre now berates readers with 'you're an idiot' messages.

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A desire to improve and achieve goals is part of American character and history, says John Hinds, an author and reviewer of hundreds of self-help products. The trend started in the 18th century, when self-improvement tips began to appear in booklets and newspapers.

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Self-help book sales quadruple

Today, although book sales are down overall, self-help books continue to expand a multibillion-dollar market. Almost half of Americans purchase at least one self-help book in their lifetimes. The genre accounted for $581 million in sales in 1998, but today that number has quadrupled to more than $2 billion.

It's not surprising that self-help has moved to the small screen, finding ratings success with shows like "Dr. Phil," which premièred in 2002. The Oprah Winfrey-promoted psychologist doesn't mince words when it comes to berating his guests for their choices and telling them to change.

"It's somewhere between a serious psychological show and 'Jerry Springer,' " Mr. Real says. It was only a matter of time, he says, before the book industry picked up on this penchant for punishment.

Theories abound as to why self-help has taken this turn and what it says about contemporary US society – particularly women, who are the primary audience for such books.

Americans who pick up books these days often expect to be entertained, experts say. And an irreverent tone is not only entertaining, but also appeals to young people tired of politically correct prose.

"Sometimes 'harsher' is perceived as 'more expert,' " critic Real adds.

"There's so much soft-pedaled research out there," says Jennifer Kasius, executive editor at Running Press, publisher of Freedman and Barnouin's books, "like this or that may be good for you – we don't know what to do. It's refreshing for someone to come out and say, 'No, shut everything else out and listen to me.' "

Besides the surface appeal of the tone, the underlying message seems to jibe with how pop culture portrays women.

Self-help books reflect culture

"Self-help books reflect whatever the prevalent ethic of the culture is," says Wendy Kaminer, the feminist author of "I'm Dysfunctional, You're Dysfunctional," a critique of the self-help movement. "This is how a particular group of women sees itself." Bombarded with media messages that demand physical perfection, many women feel guilty about their weight or relationships. Instead of being put off by a self-help author's insults, these women are drawn to it as the kick they need to achieve their goals.

These books address modern women who find themselves competing with men in the workplace, but still facing – and sometimes embracing – a sexualized, traditional view of female worth and power, Ms. Kaminer says. This tough-love movement also follows the trend of groundbreaking self-help books appearing in worrisome times. For both men and women, "We desire certainty in uncertain times," says Real.

This is an age of "new insecurity" in American life, says Micki McGee, author of "Self Help, Inc.: Makeover Culture in American Life." With divorce and competition for jobs more prevalent than ever, Americans can't just maintain their appearance or job skills, they must constantly improve them. "For all our claims to egalitarianism, we live in a society where we see ourselves as competitors – for jobs and for affection," Ms. McGee says.