Bestseller Hell

John Carroll reviews Jack Canfield and Mark Victor Hansen's "Chicken Soup For The Soul".


John Carroll
January 28, 1997 1:00AM (UTC)

for most of us who read, the bestseller lists are
a strange mixture of the utterly familiar (books reviewed in
every supplement; books by old anchormen or young
cartoonists; crossover novels by Amy Tan or Toni Morrison;
and potboilers by the eternally prolific Clive Clancy
Ludlum) and the entirely strange (the books purchased by
people who do not read the other books, the novels from another planet and the self-help books from entire spiritual
upheavals that have barely penetrated our literary radar).
For every "Alias Grace" there is a "Conversations With God,"
for every "Dilbert Principle" there is a "Make the
Connection." It is my plan here, from time to time, to read
the books that no one is talking about, those bewildering
books that have moved mountains and purchased yachts,
and then tell you what I've found.

As of this writing, "Chicken Soup for the Soul" has
spent 140 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. It
is such an elderly bestseller that it contains an
inspirational story ("Make It Come True") featuring that
can-do guy O.J. Simpson.
In fact, Nicole Brown Simpson was still alive when this
book made it on to the list. That seems impressive until you
compare it to "The Road Less Traveled" by M. Scott Peck, which
first achieved listdom during the latter years of the Reagan
administration.
"Chicken Soup for the Soul" is subtitled "101 Stories
to Open the Heart and Rekindle the Spirit." This is not
strictly true. The book starts with narratives, but soon
wanders off into original poetry, extended versions of old
jokes and lists — lots of lists. "Chicken Soup for the Soul"
resembles nothing so much as a collection of unsolicited
e-mail — a purchase would amount to self-spamming.
Essentially, the book is a greatest hits album for
motivational speakers. The two listed authors, Jack Canfield
and Mark Victor Hansen, contacted their colleagues in the
inspirational seminar business, and the colleagues responded
with their most surefire routines — like the tale of Felix Mendelssohn's humpbacked grandfather. "Chicken Soup for the
Soul" was only the first of what now appears to be a cottage
industry — "Chicken Soup for the Soul for Women," another
collection, is also on the bestseller list (10 weeks), and
the "Chicken Soup for the Soul Cookbook" is also available.
The entire five-page contributors list at the back of the
book is a frantic network of cross-promotion; videotapes,
audiotapes, books, posters, bumperstickers, you name it.
Many of the inspirational stories are about
motivational speakers and how they achieved success. The
transitive verb "to keynote" figures often in these tales,
as in "he keynoted the conference." These are the names of
the seminars led by the contributors to this book: "Tough-minded Management," "Prosperity Consciousness," "You Were
Born Rich," "Self-esteem and Peak Performance," "I x V
= R (Imagination with Vividness Become
Reality)."
Here's what you'll find a lot of in this book: crippled
children, rare blood diseases, people taking time out to say
"I love you," executive vice presidents, wise-cracking
athletes, wise and calm old people, fund-raising techniques.
Here's a sample of the prose in the book: "The startled
boy started to sob and sob, and he couldn't stop crying. His
whole body shook. He looked up at his father and said
through his tears, 'I was planning on committing suicide
tomorrow, Dad, because I didn't think you loved me. Now I
don't need to.'"
Because "chicken soup" is, historically, a specifically
Jewish panacea, I decided to count the number of times the
word "Jewish" appeared in the book. I also looked for
mentions of Jesus, Mohammed, African-American (or its
variants), gay, God, sex and anvil — "anvil" was the control
word.
"Jewish" appears not at all, although among the
contributors are a Shapiro and a Cohen. Jesus and Mohammed
don't make it either, although God (or "the Lord" or,
surprisingly, "Y*W*H") rates a dozen mentions. "Gay" is not
mentioned, although "sex" does rear its lovely head from
time to time, mostly as a topic for seminars. And, although
"African-American" does not appear, sundry code words
("ghetto," "slums" and "Harlem") pop up with some frequency.
The ghetto is a place that you have enough belief in
yourself to leave (if you're there), or that you deliver
turkey dinners to (if you're not).
So who is buying this book? Who is reading it? Is it
evidence of a deep spiritual malaise combined with an
equally deep spiritual cluelessness? I think so. This book
comes from the same world as disease-of-the-week TV movies,
Hallmark cards, oil paintings of seascapes found in better
motels and Clinton's second Inaugural speech. It exists in
a comforting imaginary world without ethnicity or pain — a
mechanistic world where everything makes sense, has a
meaning, teaches a lesson. I think it's used by camp
counselors, middle managers, lay preachers and confused
parents who are called on to explain something which cannot
be explained, to offer canned hope because the fresh stuff
is not available. This book provides the wan, temporary
solace of a Duraflame log. What's sad is that so many people
think that's sufficient.
Mostly, then, this book is the secular equivalent of a
prayer breakfast. It creates an island of warm emotions and
calls it common ground. These stories, and the seminars that
produce them, are the spiritual arm of the corporate
culture. They are vague and bland the way a memo is vague and
bland; they provide uplift but not underpinnings. By the end
of the book, I felt oddly as though I had been listening to
pious speeches at a testimonial dinner for a Mafia don.
The most problematical figure is co-author Mark Victor
Hansen, described in the author's bio as "a big man with a
big heart and big spirit." In one of the stories, he tells
the tale of a 13-year-old Girl Scout who sells cookies with
such pathological avarice that none can deny her. Hansen
presents her as a model of healthy motivation.
In another, Hansen claims to have cured a child of
terminal leukemia by having an audience of believers chant
"Yes! Yes! Yes!" Hansen's 800 number is thoughtfully listed,
should you yourself be troubled with unwanted
metastasization.

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