Transformational texts: genre, discourse and subjectivity in the self-help book

Collingsworth, Jean (2011) Transformational texts: genre, discourse and subjectivity in the self-help book. Doctoral thesis, London Metropolitan University.


This research used selected structuralist and post-structuralist theory to investigate the notions of genre, discourse and subjectivity in the contemporary self-help book. It argues that these texts have links with classical and modern ethics of optimum living and are predicated on an ontology of transformative possibility which is expressed through typical rhetorical strategies. Furthermore, that the publications are a significant element in the therapeutic discourse prevalent in contemporary society. It suggests that as well as being a highly successful commodity, the self-help book is theoretically remarkable for two reasons. Firstly it operates as a redemptive paradigm for the reader; secondly it is an 'actantial' genre because each text participates as a 'protagonist' in the 'heroic' narrative of transformation which it articulates. Furthermore a self/subject dyad inhabits the genre because while advice literature is predicated on a humanistic discourse of essential, telic selfhood, critical analysis detects the underlying dynamics of socially-constructed subjectivity. Three levels of subject activity in the self-help book are distinguished: sub-stratum (ontological level of humanistic assumptions), inter-stratum (archetypal level: the reader as 'hero'; the book as 'helper' etc.) and super-stratum (the level of every-day matters). The research concludes that the selfhelp book is a paradoxical phenomenon for the cultural theorist because it asserts the survival of personal agency in the postmodern episteme which has seen the discrediting of grand narratives and the decentring of the human subject. Additionally, the lexicon of genre studies is extended by the coining of new terms to better describe the emergence of 'symbiotic' commercial materials and a generic twelve-step sequence of discourse emergence is also offered. This traces the discourse of post-traumatic stress from its diffuse beginnings to its present linguistic entrenchment in commercial publications. The research is thus original at two levels: it provides a detailed exploration of the self-help book qua text and extends the reach of critical theory.

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