A self- help approach to swear by
Bestselling author Sarah Knight is a leading light of the phenomenon of straight- talking self- help books that refuse to mollycoddle readers, writes Tanya Sweeney
More often than not, self- help tomes have often run a very short gamut, from foggily ethereal to downright condescending. Many of these books have promised much and delivered little, being equal parts fluff, faux- empowerment and sloganeering. It was only a matter of time before someone spotted the gaping hole in the market: self- betterment for people who abhor being told what to do.
Welcome to the world of the sweary self- help book, a phenomenon that has shaken up the usually Zen outpost of publishing.
Its origins can be traced back to 2011, when the children’s book Go the F** k to Sleep, by Adam Mansbach, became a global bestseller. It was swiftly followed by a maelstrom of turn- the- air- blue titles: Michael and Sarah Bennett’s F** k Feelings, Mark Manson’s The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F** k, Faith G Harper’s Unf** k Your Brain and, closer to home, Irish author Caroline Foran’s Owning It: Your Bullsh* t- Free Guide To Living With Anxiety.
The appeal is obvious: most of these titles open the self- help market up to people for whom the very idea is anathema – people who hate being told what to do.
“There has been a real explosion of those titles, starting with, I think, [ Jen Sincero’s] You Are a Badass,” observes author Sarah Knight. “They’ve been able to find their audience – this core group of people who either didn’t like or feel like they needed self- help books.
“The response I get from readers all over the world is, ‘ This is like having someone giving me a swift kick in the ass, as opposed to the friend who will just placate me in the moment’. People have written to say that the books have helped them in a way a doctor or therapist might not have been able to – maybe because it’s a bit more blunt and pragmatic.”
It can’t necessarily be said of every wellbeing guru, but Knight certainly talks the talk. At the very least, she appears to be living her best and most serene life: we Skype from her home in the Dominican Republic, which she shares with her husband, Judd.
Previously Knight had worked for 15 years as a book editor in New York on titles such as Gillian Flynn’s Dark Places and Jessica Knoll’s Luckiest Girl Alive, though curiously had worked on zero titles in the self- help category.
Yet the road from there to here didn’t necessarily run all that smoothly. The death of a childhood friend reminded Knight and her husband that life can indeed be short, but pulling the ripcord on a successful career, one where Knight’s personal identity was tied to her professional success, wasn’t initially without trauma.
“When I quit my job, I had so much more creative energy,” she recalls. “I read the Marie Kondo book [ The Life- Changing Magic of Tidying Up] and, walking down the street, I had an idea to write something about not giving a f*** and the idea of doing a decluttering popped into my head. It was a combination of inspiration and then having the mental space to get it done.”
“It” became the publishing hit of 2016, The Life- Changing Magic of Not Giving a F** k. On the surface, the book was a parody of Kondo’s decluttering instruction tome, but at its heart was a message that many evidently needed to hear.
Knight’s book enjoyed a moment, offering readers the tools to free themselves from social obligations they didn’t want to fulfil and friendship ties that were more hindrance than help. A year later, a similarly irreverent title, Get Your Sh* t Together, enjoyed equally healthy sales. Each one is breezy and banter- heavy, shot through with warm humour and colourful language. And, as Knight notes with pride, her latest book, Calm the F** k Down, has “surged ahead” in terms of pre- orders, making her into something of a self- help behemoth.
“I feel like the books are sort of a repre-
■ Self- help guru Sarah Knight has a no nonsense approach to self- improvement.