To make chicken soup, you first need chicken broth: a highly concentrated elixir that ideally contains all the basic elements of your eventual soup in their most potent form. If co-creator Jack Canfield is to be believed, the story of the creation of the first Chicken Soup for the Soul book is a suitable broth for the whole world-spanning, hundreds-of-millions-in-sales series.
Writing in the 20th anniversary edition of the collection, Canfield details a story as aggressively feel-good as anything that’s appeared in the literally hundreds of Chicken Soup for the Soul books since. Inspired by overwhelming audience demand to collect the just-so stories he was telling in his motivational seminars, Canfield got the name from the series in a meditative vision involving the literal hand of God writing it on a chalkboard.
He and co-creator Mark Victor Hansen presented the idea to more than 180 publishers, and when the rejections came pouring forth, they turned to a mixture of faith and stick-to-it-ive-ness, both lighting a candle at a Catholic altar and resolving to do five things a day to promote the book.
This combination earned them their uplifting ending: The initial book and subsequent series – Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul, for the Parent’s Soul, for the Canadian Soul, and so on – became nearly as ubiquitous as its culinary inspiration, going on by some accounts to be the third-best-selling book series of the 1990s, and spawning an empire that includes, 30 years after the first book, not only publishing but also a line of pet foods and a rapidly expanding online streaming empire. And the book continues to pop up on bestseller lists: A Christmas-themed Chicken Soup, for instance, made the list in mid-December.
Much of that expansion, and quite probably longevity, owes to the series’ current publisher/editor-in-chief, Amy Newmark, and her husband William Rouhana, who bought the brand from Canfield and Hansen in 2008 (Rouhana is chief executive officer of the larger Chicken Soup for the Soul Entertainment, which handles the other brand extensions). Though Newmark’s story is not as straightforwardly schmaltzy as that of her predecessors’ self-mythology, it does embody the twin strains of salesmanship and soul-warming that are perhaps a more accurate picture of the Chicken Soup for the Soul empire, both as it was and as it stands.
On the one hand, she takes credit for dropping the cutesy “Chicken Soup for the Blankety Blank Soul” title formulation that limited the series’ ability to target more specific topics: Modern books follow the “Chicken Soup for the Soul: Very Specific Subject” style. She also is proud of keeping the books at a very reasonable price point, noting in conversation that for the price of a few greeting cards, you could instead purchase 101 short stories.
Her understanding of the series is not all brand management, though. Newmark has been living with an untreatable form of cancer nearly since taking over the series. So when she speaks about the power of reading and editing inspirational stories from real people – each Chicken Soup for the Soul book attracts 4,000 to 5,000 submissions per title – she knows of what she speaks. She likens each book to having a group-therapy session in your pocket, another reason each title’s specificity is important (albeit more so when the subject is living with traumatic brain injuries or raising children on the autism spectrum than telling funny dog stories). And she sees these effects not only in her own life but in the lives of readers and writers who reach out to her to tell them what these stories mean to them.
“Even people whose stories aren’t published will often reach out to us to thank us for focusing on a specific subject,” Newmark explains. “They thank us for helping them understand themselves more, for helping their families understand them. That was something I was surprised by at first: A lot of people are telling us stories they haven’t told anyone, even the people closest to them. People sometimes shock even themselves with how open they end up being about their innermost feelings.”
If pouring out your soul to a paperback as often as not sold by the drugstore checkout aisle seems a little, let’s say, strange, both the fact of it and any intellectual dissonance it might provoke speak to an underlying truth that fuels the series, even if it tends to remain subtext: The thing we need most in our lives is meaning, and there is precious little that wants to help us find it. (Perhaps especially circa 1993 until now North America.) In Chicken Soup for the Soul and Chicken Soup for the Soul-adjacent parlance, this is usually expressed through the slightly smarmy idea that people just want to hear some good news, something uplifting, that this modern go-go world just doesn’t have time for a nice story about a boy who cut the lawn for his elderly neighbour and learned that racism is bad, and ain’t that a shame.
The core of truth that supports that edifice, though, is that, though we are not born and do not live alone, unless we are absurdly lucky enough to have people in our life who not only care deeply about us but also are pretty good at succinctly articulating it, it sure does feel that way. There is not much in the world that is interested in seeing how we’re doing, much less helping us do better. There is even less willing to do it without wanting a hefty upfront cost or monthly subscription attached. (Or even just the cost of a couple greeting cards. Although in fairness here, Chicken Soup for the Soul books do also pay their contributors: US$250 and 10 copies of whatever book your story is published in.)
There are definitely healthier, more meaningful, more aesthetically pleasing ways to grasp some meaning than flipping through a few dozen purposefully cheery anecdotes sold by a publicly traded company. There are also, it apparently needs saying, profoundly more toxic ones. Whatever its contradictions or qualifications, this series has spent 30 years trying to tell people that their life might seem a bit nicer, a bit easier, a bit better if they listen to people and try harder.
Even if it’s not the messenger for you, it’s hard to say that’s not a nourishing idea.
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