Why self-help still flies off the shelf
Some people will always need a dose of Chicken Soup, writes Cassandra Jardine
Published 02/06/2011 | 05:00
As your eyes slide off Emma Watson's perfectly flat stomach, they land on the book she's reading. What's that? Chicken Soup for the Soul. Oh dear.
Poor Emma. She seemed such a bright girl, a real-life Hermione Granger. It takes a steady head to manage an acting career while studying at Brown University. Throwing in advertising campaigns for Burberry and Lancome, as well as an ethical clothing range for People Tree, have made her appear astonishingly self-possessed and savvy for a 21-year-old.
But the book suggests that being Hollywood's top earner with earnings of £19m in 2009 may not be that wonderful. She could feel unworthy, insecure and wary of those who might befriend her for the wrong reasons.
Wherever I dip into my copy of the original Chicken Soup the "101 stories to open the heart and rekindle the spirit" there is a clunking moral at the end of each brief tale.
Whether you find such tales uplifting or trite depends on your state of neediness. More than 130 million people have thought they might benefit from Chicken Soup's soothing powers: that's the number of copies sold since the first title came out 18 years ago, launching the fastest-selling non-fiction franchise of all time -- worth £112m in books alone.
Positive thinking is not new. Plato, Jesus, Buddha, indeed most spiritual leaders point out that good things happen to those who are kind to others and have the courage of their convictions. The capitalist take on 'being your own success' was provided by Samuel Smiles, whose 1859 book Self-Help was a manual for the upwardly mobile. But the boom in such books has been in the past 20 years.
Authors like to simplify but the life of Jack Canfield, who thought up the much-rejected Chicken Soup idea, is more complex than it first appeared. Last year Canfield's son Oran wrote an autobiography detailing his heroin addiction, which he claimed flowed from his father's abandonment of his mother when his son was one year old.
Such accounts are not welcome among Chicken Soup's moral precepts and triumphs over tragedy. "They are like listening to an idealised grandmother telling stories around the kitchen table," says Nina Grunfeld, founder of Life Clubs -- weekly self-help workshops.
The most easily measured impact of "shelf-help" books is on the profits of publishers and book-sellers. If they worked, the people who buy them might not need so many.
Matthew Williamson, director of the Action for Happiness movement, says: "There are plenty of unhelpful self-help books, which make claims from thinking yourself thin to transforming your relationships in a few easy steps.
"Often what works is the wisdom of ages: accepting yourself as you are and having positive relationships."
In Watson's case, she may be fretting about her many commitments. It's also possible she is reading Chicken Soup as research for her role in The Perks of Being a Wallflower. It tells the story of a troubled teen who is given a reading list by his teacher. Hamlet, The Great Gatsby and Catcher in the Rye feature, but no self-help book.
There may be a moral in that tale.