This week Emma Watson revealed she's a devotee of a bizarre manual in which sentimental stories have inspired millions and made its charmed creator the unlikely King of Self-Help...
YOU'D be hard pushed to find anyone who doesn't love a bowl of old-fashioned chicken soup, that deliciously soothing elixir that seems to cure all flu symptoms magically, healing sore heads and hearts alike. But it is metaphorical chicken soup that healed self-help enthusiast Jack Canfield and made him into one of the most successful motivational gurus in the world. Rather than bottling the so- called "Jewish penicillin" (named in honour of the countless grandmothers who perfected the recipe) Jack, 66, and his business partner Mark Hansen cooked up what is the biggest selling non-fiction franchise in American publishing history in the early Nineties: Chicken Soup For The Soul.
With more than 250 titles published and more than 100 million copies sold around the globe, Chicken Soup are the second best known books in the world. The top spot is held by a boywizard named Harry Potter. So it is apt that Harry Potter actress Emma Watson is the latest celebrity to be photographed carrying a Chicken Soup book, quietly extolling the virtues of the self-help series and catapulting the founder and sometime author of the books back into the spotlight. Wealth, beauty, love and success: with a self-help book the world is your oyster whatever you crave. The possibilities are limitless, you can unlock the key to happiness, even find the meaning of life – at least that's what Canfield would have you believe.
Yet the genre of self-help is not a recent invention. Cicero was writing "On Friendship" and "Duties" in the fora of ancient Rome. But it has really exploded into popular culture over the past 50 years and has almost become a new secular religion. Chicken Soup, though, is self-help with a difference. Rather than instructing on behaviour and outlook Canfield's creation is a collection of sentimental and often corny short stories which are somehow supposed to turn the lives of their unfulfilled readers around, as if by magic. In its first year of release eight million copies were sold.
In the past Canfield has described his difficult childhood, growing up with divorced alcoholic parents in West Virginia and that story of his unhappy youth is now a weapon utilised at motivational seminars to illustrate his mantra, the message he spreads daily both in his books and public speaking: never give up. "Every one of us knows what we want, we can feel it," he says. "If you could have anything you want, no limitations, what would you do? "Everyone has an answer from little kids to adults and that's their core essence. If we all just fully do that which we're passionate about and understand the principles of how to bring that about, then I believe the world would work perfectly and that's why I do what I do."
But are success and happiness really quantifiable and if so who is qualified to instruct us on how to achieve what we all want so much? If money is the answer to all our problems, then Canfield must be a happy man but his personal life has always been flawed. With two divorces behind him clearly he cannot yet give seminars on to how to make a marriage work. But now on his third union it is at least reassuring to see he is utilising his lifelong mantra. He has also spoken proudly of his five children whose careers range from drummer to hip-hop artist to singer. "All my children are great risktakers. It's not that they never get scared or they never feel rejected but they seem to rebound very quickly."
For one of his sons, however, this is not the case. When Oran Canfield was one, Jack left Oran's pregnant mother to shack up with a masseuse. Oran, the drummer, is now in a band called Child Abuse whose repertoire of songs include those entitled Preemptive Priapism and I Hate Me. He is a former heroin addict who has been in rehab seven times. Last year he published memoir Freefall, in which he detailed, as well as his descent into the depths of addiction, the anger he felt for the father who abandoned him. Even though Jack Canfield spends his time saving and healing others he has been incapable of doing so with his own family.
But the monetary success of the Chicken Soup brand and indeed Jack's seminars is indisputable. More than a decade ago Canfield had seven titles in the New York Times bestseller list, earning him a place in the Guinness Book Of Records. In 2005 he had an estimated fortune of £20million. And in 2008 Canfield said: "I have been paid as much as $64,000 for one day of consulting. I just add the fee into our normal company's earning. I once sold $165,000 of books after a talk I did to 7,000 salespeople. That was pretty good." And it appears that money rather than the altruistic desire for everyone to realise their true potential was always Canfield's driving force.
In 1989 he was a 45-year-old teacher £100,000 in debt living on a diet of noodles. He craved wealth so much that he stuck a replica $10,000 bill above his bed so he could focus on his one goal in life every night before he went to sleep. Finally the day came that he had a eureka moment: "It was as if God had reached down and touched me on the shoulder." The world's population, he thought, was in dire need of uplifting and what better way to do this than gathering together selections of heartwrenching short stories, which would "make you cry and make you want to pick up the phone and call your mother".
So Canfield and his business partner Hansen collected moving stories of love, loss and inspiration until they had 101 of them. Canfield came up with the title of the book after the words Chicken Soup appeared to him in a vision. "I said to myself, ‘What does this mean?' And this inner voice said to me, ‘You remember how Jewish grandmothers give chicken soup to children when they're sick?' I said ‘Uh-huh.' ‘Well,' said the voice, ‘there are a lot of sick people out there and they need something to heal them.' "
Despite coming up with a genius title, Canfield was to face yet more adversity. One hundred and forty three publishers turned down Chicken Soup but the 144th decided to award the pair a £1,000 advance. Chicken Soup For The Soul was published in 1993 and A Second And Third Helping followed. Canfield began to enjoy financial success, finally fulfilling his quest for "riches plus altruism but mainly riches". But what exactly is the secret to the success of the Chicken Soup books? Canfield said in an interview several years ago that he enjoyed reading the Da Vinci Code.
"It seems to be revealing deep secrets in the universe. It is wonderfully illuminating as well as being a great adventure story. You can't stop turning the pages to find out what happens next. My reading of it slowed down towards the end because I didn't want it to finish." Chicken Soup is the Da Vinci Code of the self-help world, universally appealing to the masses with its corny schmaltz and with endless opportunities for sequels and prequels. Twenty years after Canfield had his eureka moment, despite him selling the majority share of the company in 2008, Chicken Soup the brand is still going strong.
Sixty-two new titles have been published since the takeover and Chicken Soup are constantly striving for new ways to reach wider audiences. Next stop, Chicken Soup the movie? Perhaps with a starring role for Emma Watson.