Ten million doses of 'Chicken Soup' -- Why on Earth are these runaway bestsellers?

August 18, 1996|By MICHAEL PAKENHAM

It is irresistible to call the little homilies soupy. It's inviting to alliterate them off as saccharine, sentimental, sugary, simplistic, sappy. They are what, in simpler days, were called "inspirational." Taken singly or as a whole, these stories first seem to have one common characteristic: to distill that infinitely, undecipherably complex thing that is the human experience into a smiley-face button.

About 10 million copies of collections of them have been sold, which is identical to the worldwide sales of "Bridges of Madison County" and ten times the total sale of the 109-week best seller "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil."

Surely, the Chicken Soup books have been read by greater numbers. They are the sort of volumes that people press earnestly into the hands of their most treasured, troubled friends, unabashedly wishing them happiness.

First launched in 1993, after 30 publishers rejected it, the initial "Chicken Soup for the Soul: 101 Stories to Open the Heart and Rekindle the Spirit," written and compiled by Jack Canfield and Mark Victor Hansen (Health Communications, Inc., 308 pages. $12.95, paperback), has sold 5.25 million copies.

It and all its sequels are compilations of anecdotes - some with well-known attributions, many obscure, some anonymous - with one common quality: The celebration of individual self-affirmation.

"A Second Helping of CSS," (my abbreviation) published in 1995, has sold 2.25 million copies. "A Third Serving of ...," out this year, has already sold 1.25 million copies. Also just out is "CS for the Surviving Soul," which has sold 100,000 copies; "CSS Cookbook" published in 1995, has sold more than 300,000 copies. There are also two pocket-size books, "A Cup of CSS" and "Condensed CSS."

There are large print editions, translations, and more to come. (Yes, all the covers do look a bit like Campbell Soup cans - or Andy Warhol paintings.) And, if mockery is taken as the highest mark of success, the enterprise was capped this month with the emergence of "Rubber Chickens for the Soul, Bad Dog Parody, 33 1/3 Stories to Rekindle Your Heartburn."

What is it all about?

Simple: The stories are -many of them are - viscerally powerful, capable of affecting almost every sentient human creature, save possibly Oscar Wilde, who is dead. I defy any but a heart-numb person to read Gloria Steinem's piece about chess players in a Harlem public school without weeping at least one single, joyful tear.

Canfield is president of the Foundation for Self-Esteem. Like his co-author, he is a professional "presenter," a group leader in self-affirmation and "leadership" workshops. The Soup books' stories were drawn together partly as content and partly as serendipitous byproduct of his and Hansen's courses.

I set out the other day to try to clarify the soup. That took me to one of Canfield's workshops, at The Omega Institute for Holistic Studies, a "New Age" center near Rhinebeck, N.Y., the immensely peaceful, bliss-inducing site of workshops by people like Canfield, Deepak Chopra, other celebrants of positive attitude, self-examination and self-improvement - plus some improbables such as Andrei Codrescu ("Exquisite Corpses").

In action before about 50 people enrolled in his two-day session, Canfield wears a blue shirt and khaki trousers and no tie. He is fit, graceful. He talks engagingly and well. His hands keep each other constantly busy. He has a fine smile. It is constant except when he turns deeply serious, delivering a homily (all are in the books). Then, as the anecdote reaches bright, affirmative climax, the smile returns to his face like the sun on a clear June dawn.

He exudes physical comfort, personal peace. There is unrelenting intensity but not a single gesture is frenetic. He does not behave like a coach, a haranguer; there's no driving of fist into hand. He insists, again and again, that his sole purpose is to prove that "everybody can live their own highest vision." It is near to impossible to resist the idea that he is a Nice Guy.

Hugging replaces prayer

Canfield has made a name for himself for hugging. Within the group, everybody hugs strangers, a half-dozen or more, a device to break down impersonality, isolation, anonymity. There are other, strangely powerful, regimens of connection. Try, with a stranger, answering, with a single phrase, the relentlessly repeated question "Who are you?" for three unbroken minutes.

At the end of two intense days, everybody - everybody - goes away feeling better.

Canfield's devices are well within a tradition going back to the 1920s, one that had a huge resurgence in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The doctrines are fairly simple: "Decisions free you." "Negative thoughts are self-limiting." "Anger is self-defeating." "You are in control."

A great deal of it is common sense stated affectionately. The workshop and the books have familiar roots in Norman Vincent Peale's "The Power of Positive Thinking" and Dale Carnegie's "How to Win Friends and Influence People" and the work of Napoleon Hill before them. A descant of curious modernity is supplied by bits of meditation, popularizations of Eastern religions, ecological imperatives. Nothing seems driven by prohibitions, except not to be negative, nor cruel.

Driving away in the lush August countryside of the eastern Hudson Valley, through tiny, crossroad villages, I passed fraternal halls - Masons, Elks, Odd Fellows. A few were still active. Most were not. Churches generally were in better shape, but many of those were abandoned as well.

Those structures were gone or going - benevolent, protective, affirmative, closely knit, positive, ritualized devices of the self-reliant, hope-filled American heart. Their heir is Chicken Soup.

Pub Date: 8/18/96

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