In 1993, Jack Canfield and Mark Victor Hansen were motivational speakers working out of California. Canfield was president of the Foundation for Self-Esteem. Hansen delivered inspirational talks to business organizations. As a result of their careers, the two men knew well how to find the perfect anecdote and thought that they could package a collection of particularly affecting and inspirational stories as a successful book. They projected that it would take them three months; it took two years. And once they had completed the manuscript, called Chicken Soup for the Soul, it was turned down by thirty-three publishers, sometimes on the grounds that the stories were too "nicey-nice."
Today, however, the success of the "Chicken Soup" series is staggering. Over seven million copies of that original book have been sold, and successor titles roll off the assembly line as fast as the authors (now joined by many co-authors) can put the collections together. In addition to repeating their initial success (they are up to a "sixth helping" of chicken soup), they have published books targeting numerous special audiences: mothers, couples, women, singles, kids, teenagers, college students, pet lovers, golfers, and more. In a 1998 interview, Canfield said there were seventeen full-size books in print, four being printed, and four mini-books already out (A Little Sip of Chicken Soup for the Soul). Taking all titles together, thirty million copies had been sold in English-language versions, and an additional three million in foreign-language editions.
At that time, Canfield, Hansen, and their colleagues were actively working on thirty-two more titles and planning an additional twenty. Currently in the works is Chicken Soup for the Celtic Soul. The authors have also negotiated promotional arrangements with such companies as Campbell's Soup, Gibson Greeting Cards, IAMS pet food, and Rhino Records (which produced a country-and-western CD to accompany Chicken Soup for the Country Soul). There is now a "Chicken Soup" Website—www.chickensoup.com—where one can sign up for a daily serving of soup or hire a member of the Chicken Soup Speakers Bureau ("Souper Speakers").
What is Chicken Soup?
Because the authors receive so many Chicken Soup stories from their readers, they have tried to describe just what they are looking for in a Chicken Soup tale:
It is an inspirational, true story about ordinary people doing extraordinary things. Chicken Soup stories are personal and are filled with vivid images. In some stories, the reader feels that he or she is actually "there" in the scene with the people involved. Chicken Soup stories have a heart . . . but also something extra . . . that element that makes us all feel more helpful, more connected, more thankful, more passionate, and better about life in general. Chicken Soup stories often end with a "punch" . . . creating emotion rather than talking about it. The stories should leave the reader with one or more of the following: Goosebumps or butterflies, heartfelt tears, an "aaaaah" feeling, a good belly laugh, or a more exalted reason to feel alive.
In its current version, Chicken Soup for the Soul carries a blurb from Nathaniel Branden:
Telling stories is one of the most powerful ways to teach values and open doors to new possibilities. In this rich and varied collection, everyone will find a few stories that strike a special resonance—stories one will treasure and want to share.
I cannot disagree with that, if the emphasis is on "a few." In the original Chicken Soup, I found a moving love story about Moses Mendelssohn. (But later I had to wonder if Chicken Soup stories are true, for I found one about a Notre Dame football player boasting on the witness stand and later protesting he had been under oath. That is an anecdote most often told about frank Lloyd Wright.) In Chicken Soup for the Single's Soul, I enjoyed a humorous essay by Dave Berry, but then why not just buy a book of Dave Berry's?
In the vast majority of cases, the Chicken Soup stories are too schmaltzy for my taste, and, in many cases, too religious. Yet reactions differ. A recent college graduate to whom I gave the College Soul book stayed up late into the night in order to finish it. Every story in the book seemed to remind her of something that had happened to her in college. A cat and dog lover found the stories in the Cat and Dog Lover's Soul to be a mixed bag, some good, some "sappy." A mother admitted that she loved the stories in Chicken Soup for the Mother's Soul and cried after almost every one. A married man read three entries in the Couple's Soul volume and "gagged on the sentimentality." Evidently, each person must decide for himself, so here are three examples.
A father takes his sons, aged three and seven, to play miniature golf; the price is $3.00 for adults and for kids over six. The father tells the attendant their ages and hands him six dollars. "You could have told me the older one was six; I wouldn't have known the difference," says the attendant. "That may be true," the father replies, "but the kids would have known the difference."
A woman is divorced and her teenage daughter becomes increasingly rebellious, until one night she is arrested for drunk driving and the mother is called to the police station. The mother does not speak to her daughter until the next afternoon, when she gives her a gift-wrapped box. Opening it, the daughter finds a rock and a card. The card reads: "This rock is more than 200 million years old. That's how long it will take before I give up on you."
A friend of Buckminster Fuller meets him at a conference and learns that Fuller's wife, Annie, is gravely ill. Long before, Fuller confided to this friend that he had promised Annie to die before she did, "so that he could be there to welcome her." Soon Annie lapses into a coma, with little hope for recovery. Fuller flies to her bedside in Los Angeles, sits down, and quietly dies. Hours later, his wife follows.
Beyond Chicken Soup?
Say what you will about their quality, the Chicken Soup books provide inspiration, uplift, comfort, solace, and consolation—in brief and memorable doses. They thus serve a legitimate spiritual need, which once was satisfied by Bible stories and the lives of the saints. The question Objectivists need to ask is: What vehicles—factual, fictional, or poetic—might compete with the Chicken Soup stories and satisfy the same spiritual needs but in a secular fashion, and at a sophisticated level as well as a popular one?