We’ve all mocked a “live, laugh, love” poster at some point, a celebrity book on “living a better life”, or the mind/body trilogies stacked on smart-thinking bookshelves. But my issues are not with this genre of literature, or even with the boardroom girl-boss.
Instead, I’m concerned with how the guidebook and its related forms (pamphlets, manifestos, handbooks) has infected social justice subjects – and how this is killing critical thinking. One example is the recently published Rebel Bodies – A Guide to the Gender Health Gap Revolution by Sarah Graham (2023), billed as an “inclusive and empowering manifesto for change in women’s healthcare”. It is a distinctly utility-based approach to ridding ourselves of gender disparities in healthcare. Similar is How Men can Help – A Guide to Undoing Harm and Being a Better Ally by Sophie Gallagher (2022), sold as an essential book for any man who is or wishes to become right-thinking. “A guide to” used to merely preface travel books but now there is a slew of graphic guides and concept books across every subject area: feminist manifestos, and various forms of “miniature literature”.
It’s not really about the size of these books, or necessarily the content. It’s fact they demarcate a border around a crisis. They contrast with texts such as Amber Husain’s Replace Me (2021), which didn’t pretend to be anything other than a critically engaged polemic (in this case on precarious employment and capitalism). Online, guidebooks go so far as to be customisable – the BBC has a popular personalised guide to saving money.
This would not be a problem if it was all about Spark Notes and Cliff Notes – breaking down GCSE syllabus texts. But the how-to guides are extending to subjects of greater import than Wuthering Heights: ending capitalism, the feminist revolution – no subject is too big. It is implied there is a beginning and an end to solving such crises.
Furthermore, our obsession with instructive thinking, lukewarm advice and tracing-paper approaches means we don’t see how “social change” can happen randomly or unintentionally, out of the bounds of these guidebooks. Perhaps this is no surprise given that oblique ways of learning are going out of vogue – the government is currently taking a decidedly vocational turn, favouring “practical” subjects over poetry.
Are how-to books so popular because it is harder (if more rewarding) to dwell on the “why” instead of the “how-to”? I’m not arguing for the glorification of dusty books with impossible prose. Nor am I proposing that we have no guidance, and are left to lose ourselves in the words. Instead, I’d suggest we turn to writers like Ursula K Le Guin who present feminism in imaginative, poetic and more-than-human terms. Or that we work with literature that subverts guidebooks wonderfully – like the pioneering theorist Sara Ahmed’s recent The Feminist Killjoy Handbook (2023).
The squirm-inducing statement “well-behaved women seldom make history” may have made it onto a host of T-shirts and novelty mugs, yet here we are playing by the rules of all these social justice manuals.
[See also: The uncomfortable truths of Hag feminism]