Merrill » 2015 » April

Letter to the thing I wished I had written: A Letter to the “Chicken Soup for the (Your Noun Here)” Series

Posted April 7th, 2015

About a year ago I was asked, by an Australian salon/charity called Women Of Letters, to write ” a letter to the thing I wish I had written.”  After I slowed down long enough to understand what that could possibly mean, I noticed that the proceeds were going Edgar’s Mission: an animal rescue and that I would be reading with the extremely brilliant Tim Minchin and Moby, among others. So I wrote the following “LETTER To Chicken Soup for the Soul” and now it has been published (along with letters by Susan Orlean, Tim Minchin, Moby, Josh Radnor, Ayelet Waldman and many many others) in a very entertaining book called AIRMAIL, which I highly recommend if you’d like to donate to an animal rescue and get a free book for your contribution. Here is a link to the book that lets you look inside. Below is my contribution.

Dear Chicken Soup for the Soul:

You had me at Chicken Soup. And when I say “HAD ME,” what I mean is ‘repulsed me’ from the moment I heard those words in your title. And not just because I’m a vegetarian. No, I shifted immediately to a deeper level of irritation. The words Chicken Soup instantly conjured for me boring corny clichés about the healing powers of Jewish mothers. And before you start calling me a racist, understand that I was raised by a Jewish mother whose healing powers were few and far between, and whose link to charming old world folk wisdom was at best questionable. She was, after all, the one who explained to me “If someone seems gay, that means they aren’t because why would they want you to know?”

I guess I should also add that her connections to Judaism were so tenuous she sometimes served ham on Passover. And even she was pushing chicken soup as a panacea despite the fact that it had no noticeable effect on any ailment ever to befall me, including hunger.

But getting back to your title; There’s also the word “soul,” the presence of which usually means the reader is about to embark on a mind numbing journey through greeting card spirituality. I know that many people hunger for this kind of thing. Fortunately I am not among them because I am able to get most of my cloying sentiment needs met by paying regular visits to my aging aunt, a woman who actually underlines the important parts of a Hallmark card poem before she gives it to you.

On the other hand, even grade school children know that it’s wrong to hate a book for its terrible title. Perfect example: I wrote a book called ‘Its my Fucking Birthday’ and if you were to judge me by that title alone, would you get an accurate picture of me? Okay, bad example. That title does give you kind of an accurate picture of me. Almost an x-ray.

But all that aside, Chicken Soup, (if I may call you by your first name) I decided to sit down and analyze your contents and give you the fair chance you’ve earned . And you know what? I learned a lot.

First of all, I learned it wasn’t true that most of what you have to say can be found in Mothers Day Cards or on bumper stickers. No! Not true at all! Some of what you have to say can be found in corporate ads for telephone calling plans, and on the sides of Celestial Seasonings Tea boxes.

Yes, I was correct in presuming that you are, in fact, maudlin. Yes, your phrasing is common, your basic ideas platitudes steeped in magical thinking… but the more I read, the more obvious it became that this is precisely why you are so beloved. By then I’d noticed that there was not one volume of you. There are 200 plus different Chicken Soup titles, all direct descendants of your family, bringing the total of your offspring to 112 million in print in 40 languages… each and every one of you emblazoned with a banner boasting how internationally cherished and admired you are.

And you never have to worry about getting a bad review because as each of your new offspring hits the stores, another devoted segment of your target demographic rushes out to buy you sight unseen, just like they do with any new variety of gummy bears. Look at all those titles you’ve spawned: Chicken soup for the Soul: Happily Ever After,  Chicken Soup for the Soul: Answered Prayers,  Chicken Soup for the soul: Devotional Stories for Wives, (the cover featuring a woman pondering her steaming hot mug full …I don’t know what’s in there, I want to say ‘human waste’ but of course its probably chicken soup.)

Talk about branching out! There’s also Chicken Soup for the Soul: NASCAR, Chicken Soup for the Soul: Hooked on Hockey. Chicken Soup for the Dieter’s Soul, . Chicken Soup for the Soul. I Cant Believe My Cat Did That, Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Golf Book.Chicken-Soup chicken-soup-for-the-soul-indian-fathers-400x400-imadghuvng5abkgcYes, you have successfully managed to address every conceivable human preoccupation with the possible exceptions of Zombies and Painful Rectal Itch. (And by the way, congratulations. I understand Chicken Soup for the Soul: Painful Rectal Itch is finally being published this spring!)

Okay…Its not easy for me to admit that I’m jealous of your unqualified success; or that it’s a teensy bit infuriating to someone like me (who works for years on a book and sees just a fraction of your sales) that you don’t even have to write your damn stories yourself. You just compile them from other people who probably only get a modest honorarium but are nevertheless totally thrilled about getting their story published in a best seller . I bet all you ever have to do is mumble the words “Chicken Soup for the Soul: Annoying On-Hold Music” and the next thing you know hundreds of people have offered you heartwarming tales highlighting how annoying on-hold music changed their lives for the better.

Damn. I wish I knew how to create a self perpetuating franchise like you’ve done, where I could wake up in the morning thinking “Chicken Soup for the Soul: Potato salad!” and then run in to see how many more millions of dollars had accumulated in my bank account. And that was before you launched your new line of ACTUAL soups. Which, according to their nutrition labels, are 24% sodium, so in the interest of truth in advertising maybe you should re-label them “Salt, With chicken soup flavoring”Chicken-Soup-for-the-Soul-Foods-Jar-FINAL-755x1024

Yep, you’ve got humans from 40 different countries right where you want them, just like that goddam blurry parrot, which is a video I ran into on YouTube of a parrot that does absolutely nothing. He’s not even in focus yet 300,000 people clicked on him just on the outside chance they would get to see a parrot do something, anything at all, blurry or not.

The sad truth is although I would like to have come up with you so I could sit back and watch the money pour in, I have no more idea how to write the kind of content you thrive on than I would how to insert a few fresh details about dark matter into a book by Steven Hawking.   Much of what you say makes no sense to me. It doesn’t reflect the world I live in or the way the people I have met behave. Give you an example: In the Chicken Soup for the Soul: Stories about Hope, Answered Prayers and Divine Intervention a daughter is yearning for her departed father who “always began every conversation with ‘Have I told you get today how much I adore you?” . I was reading this story when I was stopped in my tracks because I couldn’t imagine a Dad saying that. I mean, I had a pretty nice Dad but when I try to recall his most frequently repeated remarks I come up with “WHADDYA NUTS?”. And of course the mantra to his personal religion, Negative Zen, which went “Come on. Lets go so we can get back.” Anyway in your story, the dad dies and the woman prays for a message from him from the great beyond. And although she never receives one, by the end of the story she still feels her prayers were answered because she received an amazing message from her mother instead. What? You’re telling me that THE PAYOFF to the story is that she gets a last minute walk on from a character who wasn’t even mentioned in the rest of the story? What kind of story telling is that? She would flunk out of any creative writing class I’ve ever taken.

You give a lot of peculiar advice too. In another of your stories you say “We need 4 hugs a day for survival. We need 8 hugs a day for maintenance. We need 12 hugs a day for growth” We do? 24 hugs a day? I don’t think I have had more than a 2 hug day at any point in my entire life including on Christmas and the days when I have sex. If a man came into my life demanding 24 hugs a day, I would immediately take out my copy of “The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders” to try and pinpoint which personality disorder was causing this behavior .

To me the life you describe in your pages is a life inspired by sayings on refrigerator magnets and anecdotes about how God talks to us through personalized license plates. And so I have written you this letter, Chicken Soup for the Millions and Millions of Things, knowing I am never going to find a way to publish anything as successful as you. Especially one that doesn’t even require me to sit down and write. Because I have always been told “write what you know.” And the truth is I never know what the hell you’re talking about.