JESSICA LAMB-SHAPIRO

WE NEED HEART-TOUCHING, SOUL-PENETRATING STORIES!

ARE SELF-HELP BOOKS MORONIC AND DOOMED, OR CAN THEY DELIVER US TO OUR BETTER SELVES?

DISCUSSED: Inspirational Stories about Publishing Inspirational Stories, Sylvester Stallone, Unhateable Success Narratives, Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations, Victorian “Success” Literature, Chicken Soup for the Dentist’s/NASCAR/Ocean Lover’s/Prisoner’s/Bible Lover’s Soul, Rhetorical Arm-Twisting, Authors Who Aren’t Writers, Knitting with Dog Hair, Heart-Wrenching Tense Shifts, Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography, Silence, Industry, Cleanliness, Chastity, Humility, Wonderfully Fragrant Flowers
Illustration by Tony Millionaire

If every one would see
To his own reformation
How very easily
You might reform a nation

—Nineteenth-century rhyme

A BRIEF TIMELINE OF SOME
SEMINAL SELF-HELP BOOKS

  • The Bible
  • The Bhagavad-Gita
  • Meditations (Marcus Aurelius, second century)
  • The Consolation of Philosophy (Boethius, sixth century)
  • Autobiography (Ben Franklin, 1790)
  • Self-Reliance (Ralph Waldo Emerson, 1841)
  • Walden (Henry David Thoreau, 1848)
  • Self-Help (Samuel Smiles, 1859)
  • How to Win Friends and Influence People (Dale Carnegie, 1936)
  • The Phenomenon of Man (Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, 1949)
  • The Power of Positive Thinking (Norman Vincent Peale, 1952)
  • I’m OK, You’re OK (Thomas Harris, 1967)
  • Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book (Walker Percy, 1983)
  • Self-Help (Lorrie Moore, 1985)
  • The Celestine Prophecy (James Redfield, 1993)
  • Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff (Richard Carlson, 1997–2005)
  • Chicken Soup for the Soul (Mark Victor Hansen and Jack Canfield, 1995–2005)

WE ARE HERE
TO HELP EACH OTHER,
TO HELP OURSELVES

I first learned about the self-help authors’ conference from my father, a child psychologist who writes parenting books. Weeks later, Dad and I sit among six hundred enrolled “students” in the Atlanta Hilton Grand Conference Room, eagerly awaiting the appearance of Mark Victor Hansen with a glassy-eyed expectancy that indicates either excitement or fatigue (it is 7 a.m.). Hansen, who calls himself “The Authority on Human Potential,” co-created the Chicken Soup for the Soul series, and runs fifty to seventy-five seminars a year all over North America. My father, having also written several books of this type, is curious to learn why Mark Victor Hansen is a Mega-Millionaire and he is not. One reason becomes automatically clear: the conference costs $1,000 per attendee, which does not include the cost of transportation and hotel rooms. But most attendees profess not to mind spending the money; as in a real university, they believe the cost will bring them the education necessary for success. Unlike a real university, success here is measured by the number of books sold. In this way, the hopeful self-help magnate is a paradoxical breed, at once altruistically believing himself to be invested in society’s greater good while desiring to secure a personal shitload of cash.

The hotel conference room looks exactly how a hotel conference room should look: chandeliered, windowless, blighted. We sit at long white-clothed tables facing a black stage flanked by gold balloons; each place setting has a glass of water, a Hilton notebook, a Hilton pen, and a doggy bone (we later find out the bone represents our dreams). It doesn’t take long to be struck by the irony of self-help writers being told how to help themselves, as well as the special sadness that attends the relinquishing of authority from an expert to a mega-expert. Almost an hour into the introduction, MVH is nowhere to be seen, and people are getting restless. Meantime, we have learned we must wear our badges at all times, must talk to at least five people at lunch, must not lose our big white binders, emblazoned with MVH’s grin and purple-shirted torso because they will not be replaced.

The attendees vary in age (though the median is mid-forties, I spoke with a pre-teen boy and a pre-death man), class, and race, and several have severe physical handicaps. (I stood in an elevator next to a middle-aged man who held a headshot of MVH in his metal claw, a detail which both moved and terrified me.) The men-women split is about 50-50. Most everyone is taking copious notes, even though the MC is covering minor logistical topics such as famous tiki bar chain Trader Vic’s hours of operation. I peek over at my father’s notepad; it says “drinking opportunities.”

Suddenly the lights dim and the crowd quiets. Speakers blast Tina Turner’s “Simply the Best.” The MC says,

Introducing the man,
The Living Legend,
The person who made the word MEGA mean something…

MVH bounds, actually bounds, onto the stage. The audience goes wild, stands instantly; there are shouts of “yeah!” and “yea-uhh!” MVH crosses the platform more like an NBA star than a middle-aged, balding self-help guru, pumping his arms up and down in a gesture I am pretty sure is supposed to be raising the roof. MVH is 6’ 4” and has a penchant for purple dress shirts (he is wearing one now and in most other photos). He later reveals that purple is the highest color in the electromagnetic spectrum. There is a reason behind every decision MVH makes, and most of it is heavily based on market research (FYI: the number 7 is also “very powerful”).

“Information is the most profitable product in the world,” intones MVH, with funereal seriousness. Then he tells us the story of Chicken Soup. This is the first of many, many inspirational stories we will hear this weekend, and it seems important that MVH’s narrative of publishing inspirational stories is itself an inspirational story. The bread and butter of MVH’s Chicken empire, and, actually, almost all self-help narratives, is the inspirational story. In fact, over the course of the weekend I will hear this particular story more than twenty times, and each time the number of “New York Publishers” who reject the book gets higher (highest: 144), and the number of copies sold gets larger (largest: seventeen million), and the payoff gets concomitantly better.

I will admit to you right now that I have grown to love this story, and, furthermore, that it ignites in me an exponentially growing urge to shout IN YR FACE concurrent with its conclusion. Although many good and popular publications indicate that a readership of irony succubi keep on keeping on, I submit to you that these foreseen and formally drab success narratives, while bizarre and improbable, are unhateable. A man returns home to find his wife and children dead; feeling his life has no purpose, about to commit suicide, he rescues a baby from a swimming pool and finds his usefulness in the world. A nurse works in a hospital caring for “cripples” when a crane smashes through the window and paralyzes her; now she lobbies against the government and is famous and rich. Yes, the ways in which these stories manipulate my emotional response is obvious, yet despite such knowledge, the formula works. After all, is there not something potentially chord-touching in these stories? Do you hate babies, cripples? MVH doesn’t think you do, and he’s right.

MVH employs the same technique his books use to emotionally ignite and detonate his audience. With Polyanna-ish optimism, he tells us story after story of turning tragedy into triumph, lemons into lemonade. For instance, did you know that Sylvester Stallone wrote Rocky in three days? That it was turned down by “every major Hollywood producer”? That they wanted to cast Robert Redford as Rocky? (In the hands of MVH, this gem elicits many a horrified gasp). Did you know that Stallone sold it for nothing on the condition that he would play the lead? Did you know that David fought Goliath with only one stone? MVH uses this exact story sequence to incite zealous, if slightly unfocused, fervor in his audience: he paces the stage, the purple shirt shags back and forth, he waves his hands emphatically, he insists we sing the Rocky theme song. Truly terrible humming and da-da-ing ensues. Some people get confused and sing “Eye of the Tiger.”

MVH’s never-say-die ethos is suspicious but seductive. After all, there is a theory behind the power of the inspirational story, and it is acknowledged in almost every self-help book dating back to Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations: that hearing about other people’s success gives us hope, that hope is the backbone of perseverance and triumph. Have you ever noticed that when you encounter misfortune many people will tell you a similar story from their own lives? That 99 percent of the time the moral of said similar story is that they overcame said similar situation and, most probably, you will too? MVH encourages us to “start from where you’re vulnerable; it endears you to the audience.” The power of these stories, according to MVH, cannot be overestimated; he insists, “we need heart-touching, soul-penetrating stories.”

*

Although the promises of many self-help titles seem facile if not outright disingenuous, the idea that people are capable of self-improvement exists at the heart of Christianity, psychotherapy, and pretty much any philosophy that recognizes man has some measure of free will. Perhaps more than any other historical group, the Victorians embraced the notions of progress, discipline, and self-betterment. During the 1850s there was a surge in “success” literature on both sides of the Atlantic, designed to provide readers with useful knowledge about navigating urban and industrial life and to suggest tactics for “getting on”; the mid–nineteenth century saw many books like Samuel Smiles’s Self-Help (1859), all encouraging men to follow a certain path to self-improvement (Self-Help, published the same year as Origin of the Species, was second in sales only to the Bible).

A blend of precept and anecdote, Self-Help chronicles the lives of men who succeed against all odds (there were no women among these success stories, often attributed to the fact that the intended audience of his books was working-class men). Smiles, a writer for the radical paper Leeds Times, originated the collection of stories in 1845 through a lecture series he gave to an evening school concerned with “mutual improvement.” He chose self-help as his theme, citing examples of what other men had done “as illustrations of what each might, in a greater or lesser degree, do for himself.” The heavily frequented lecture prompted Smiles to write the parables down for further dispensation.

Smiles believed in the stories’ ability to promote change; he writes that, after attending his lecture, “the youths went forward in their course, worked with energy and resolution; and, reaching manhood, they went forth in various directions into the world, where many of them now occupy positions of trust and usefulness.” Smiles explains in his own introduction that the purpose of his stories is to inspire, to “illustrate and enforce the power of PERSERVERANCE [sic].” If enforce seems like an odd word choice here, it most likely reflects the Victorian fanaticism for “uplifting” society, but it could also argue for the didactic potential of parables. Smiles claimed he wanted to detail “the ordinary business and pursuits of common life, illustrated by examples of conduct and character.” Biographies, rather than being seen simply as stories of individual lives, were regarded as demonstrations of “what men can be, and what they can do.” Indeed, each story repeats the narrative structure of a man who “sprang from the ranks” and ends up the “founder of the modern factory system” or sets an example for “the whole cotton trade” or makes an “astonishing achievement, which may be pronounced almost unequalled in the history of mechanical invention!”

Certainly the ever-growing contemporary audience still attests to the inspirational story’s power: Chicken Soup for the Soul, first published in 1995, has spun off into a series of seventy-seven books, including some very bewildering titles like Chicken Soup for the Dentists’ Soul, for the NASCAR Soul, for the Ocean Lover’s Soul. The series has sold eighty million copies and is translated into thirty-seven languages; MVH and co-creator Jack Hanfield hold the Guinness Book Record for having the most books on the New York Times bestseller list at one time (seven books, May 1998). They’ve even started a Chicken Soup brand dog and cat food (if you ever want to see photos of white people hugging dogs, this is your website). MVH is completely unapologetic about his financial success; to him, it only indicates how much need there is for his product. “In case you ain’t got it,” says MVH, “I’m pro-capitalism and free enterprise. My immigrant parents came from Denmark—” Here MVH is cut off by wild applause, either for capitalism or free-enterprise or Denmark.

Coupled with the inspirational story, MVH employs the second favorite rhetorical arm-twist of self-helping success: the imperative command. “Who’s going to build the information empire? Look at your neighbor and say ‘I see you doing it!’” I look at the gray-suited man on my left. I point to gray-suit even though, given that he is teary-eyed, I’m not so sure I see him doing it.

Lorrie Moore’s story collection Self-Help, where she frequently writes in the imperative mode, explores why oversimplified instructions are not necessarily the best tool for confronting human suffering. In “The Kid’s Guide to Divorce,” she writes

Try groaning root beer, root beer, like a dying cowboy you saw on a commercial once, but drink the water anyway. When you are no longer choking, your face is less red, and you can breathe again, ask for a Coke. Your mom will say: I don’t think so; Dr. Atwood said your teeth were atrocious.

Tell her Dr. Atwood is for the birds.

Instead of being revelatory, the imperative highlights the avoidance of the titular divorce; it isn’t mentioned until the last paragraph, and then only briefly: “leave out the part about the lady and the part about the beer.” Moore at once directs our attention to how safe and comforting the imperative is as a mode—not to mention a relief from personal accountability—while pointing to its obfuscating potential.

I will tell you right now that MVH loves the imperative, and uses and abuses it frequently in order to make adults, myself included, do a number of surprising things. By the end of his two hours he has ripped the audience into a near religious fervor:

MVH: Say, “I’m ready.”

AUDIENCE: I’m ready!

MVH: Say, “I recognize my gift!”

A: I recognize my gift!

MVH: Say, “I love selling it!”

A: I love selling it!

MVH: Here’s another great reason to be an author. It’s an impressive career. Say, “I’m an author.”

A: I’m an author!

[side note: part of MVHBM University’s rhetorically spiffy lexicon is the use of “author” instead of “writer.” The reason for this is that an author does not necessarily write books, i.e., MVH is the author of the Chicken Soup series but does not write them].

MVH: J. K. Rowling is richer than the queen of England! Say, “That’s me!”

A: That’s me!

MVH: Touch yourself and say, “I’ve got permission.”

A: [interpreting “touch yourself” in various ways] I’ve got permission!

The call-and-response structure he employs reminds me of a revival, and this analogy is made prominent by occasional shouts of “Amen” and MVH’s admission that he “prayed to the Lord last night that [we] would be successful.” At this point, if MVH commanded us to say “I’m a rhinoceros” and gore our Hilton notepads with imaginary horns, we would most likely do it. It may come as no surprise, then, that toward the end of the lecture, when MVH commands us to grab another person’s index finger and draw a smiley face on the tip, we do. “Say, ‘I see that’s you,’” he directs. “I see that’s you,” we drone. If you have never drawn a smiley face on a stranger’s finger, suffice it to say that it is uncomfortably intimate.

Several people around me are now openly crying, men and women alike. As I watch them, they are, per MVH’s direction, rubbing their heads and saying “this is wisdom.” It’s creepy but also oddly touching. These people are here because they want something and, by the looks of it, MVH is giving it to them. It doesn’t take long to figure out that self-improvement is a psychological machine of fantasy, one where you can always triumph over tragedy, make meaning out of the meaningless. MVH is selling a vision of happiness and hope that grins unabashedly in the face of disappointment and decay. There is also perhaps another reason why we are all vulnerable to the pleasures of the imperative. I have been told what to do, wear, and eat for the last two hours, and it brings me a kind of comfort. It is no accident, I think, that the last time I had this little responsibility for my actions I wore green plaid jumpsuits, had a bona fide mullet, and someone cooked me dinner every night.

I’M OK, YOU’RE OK

I feel I would be remiss in not giving some background, which may reveal a personal bias or stake in this particular topic of inquiry. I was raised by four psychologists. This is a fact I would, as a kid, announce within five minutes of meeting any adult, because it was 100 percent of the time followed by the adult saying “You poor thing,” and the immediate handout of some premium candy. On the downside, my bookshelves were studded with titles like I’m OK, You’re OK and The Anatomy of Loneliness. I used to lay awake at night and stare at the spine of I’m OK, You’re OK, 50 percent because, like many books published in the seventies, it cast a supernatural orangey glow, and 50 percent because, even at age eight, I suspected that I wasn’t OK, or even if I was OK, that being OK was a fragile and revocable state; and that this book held the only chance I had at a future OKness, while simultaneously taunting me with the promise of failure were I not to read it.

With this bias in mind, I decide to interview some attendees to see what their reactions to MVH are. Although some people feel disappointed at the first two hours of sybaritic splendor with little concrete instruction, the majority of attendees are pleased—in fact, “energy,” here synonymous with hope, seems to be what they were searching for. Melissa has no book or even a title yet, but she tells me “the conference is profound. The synergy, the energy in the room, it’s so exciting. Profound; that’s the only word for it.” (I would say about a third of the people I interview are like Melissa: young, excitable, directionless.) Behind me, a man on his cell phone shouts “I’m so excited I had to call you!” Connie, a mother of five from Celebration, Florida, who sports a turquoise pantsuit and a large Jesus-themed ring, says the conference is “very helpful.” I ask her how she likes living in Celebration, a town made by Disney, modeled after a vision of “Main Street, USA.” Connie tells me that she “loves it,” that it’s “ideal.”

ME: What’s your book about?

C: Making homemaking fun, using Disney principles. For example, have an “opening time.” Disneyworld has an opening time, and there’s that magic of walking into the empty park, all set up and ready for fun.

ME: What’s your opening time?

C: Nine a.m.

ME: You must get up awfully early.

C: Yes.

ME: And what’s involved in getting ready for the “opening”?

C: Lots of vacuuming. Mostly cleaning. Straightening pillows on the couch. [Pause] Sometimes I get tired.

ME: I’m tired just talking about it.

C: But then in the morning the world is clean; magical dreams come true.

ME: I guess so.

C: [actually sighs and looks heavenward] I love Disney.

MVH’s agent, Jillian McManus, tells us about another unlikely idea—this one already proven successful. “Knitting with Dog Hair,” she shrieks. “I thought it was the worst idea in the world. But you know what? This lady thought of all the people with dogs and all the people who knit…” she trails off while the audience puts two and two together, wolf-smiling as they collectively gasp with delight, probably thinking: shit, I could do better than that.

Perhaps the best-known self-help book is Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People (Carnegie’s other books are How to Stop Worrying and Live Life and Lincoln the Unknown). The book is not short on big promises, with chapter titles like “The Big Secret of Dealing with People,” “How to Make People Like You Instantly,” and “If You Don’t Do This, You’re Headed for Trouble.” Carnegie micromanages your success down to the reading of his own book, with “Nine Suggestions on How to Get the Most out of This Book.” Carnegie begins, unrepentantly employing the oldest narrative ploy for sympathy,

Did you ever stop to think that a dog is the only animal that doesn’t have to work for a living? A hen has to lay eggs, a cow has to give milk, and a canary has to sing. But a dog makes his living by giving you nothing but love.

When I was five years old, my father bought a little yellow-haired pup for fifty cents. He was the light and joy of my childhood. Every afternoon about four-thirty, he would sit in the front yard with his beautiful eyes staring steadfastly at the path, and as soon as he heard my voice or saw me swinging my dinner pail through the buck brush, he was off like a shot, racing breathlessly up the hill to greet me with leaps of joy and barks of sheer ecstasy.

Tippy was my constant companion for five years. Then one tragic night—I shall never forget it—he was killed within ten feet of my head, killed by lightning. Tippy’s death was the tragedy of my boyhood.

You never read a book on psychology, Tippy. You didn’t need to. You knew by some divine instinct that you can make more friends in two months by becoming genuinely interested in other people than you can in two years by trying to get other people interested in you. Let me repeat that. You can make more friends in two months by becoming interested in other people than you can in two years by trying to get other people interested in you.

There are myriad reasons why this may be the most genius narrative sell ever, and I will list only a few: the box-office gold “a dog makes his living by giving you nothing but love,” the protagonist is a five-year-old child, “pup” in place of “puppy,” the phrases “dinner pail,” “buck brush,” “leaps of joy,” and “barks of sheer ecstasy” all in one sentence, the dog’s name is Tippy, the repetition of “killed” in “killed within ten feet of my head, killed by lightning,” the heart-wrenching shift to second person and present tense in the last paragraph, where a grown man talks to his lost dog somewhere beyond the grave, and the fact that Carnegie seamlessly moves from dog-death to the point of his book in two sentences, a transition that puts Elements of Style to shame.

Published in 1939, at the tail end of the Depression, this type of book was especially attractive to people, historians argue, because it encouraged them to believe success could be achieved through the one thing they had not lost: themselves. This in fact may be what attracts writers to self-help—expertise is based on personal experience, and as such you can pretty much write a self-help book about anything. At our first “networking lunch” my father and I sit with Reecy, a college finance maven, Brenda Star, an iridologist (someone who diagnoses physical and emotional illness by looking at your irises), Cristy, who does something called “ontological design,” a woman who rolls her eyes at everything, and Dr. Darcy, a sex therapist. Dr. Darcy starts us off with a lively discussion of herpes and chlamydia. “One-third of all people have an STD,” she says, “And 25 percent of all teens.” Everyone scrutinizes their pasta primavera, including my dad and me, who are, most of anyone, superdesperate to avoid eye contact. “That’s a lot,” says the eye-roller. My dad and Reecy, the only men at the table, look annoyed. Brenda Star smiles politely and fingers the wooden animal menagerie strung around her neck. “Everyone here gets a free sex question,” Dr. Darcy announces cheerily. Dr. Darcy looks about thirty, with short brown hair and a baby face. She has written and self-published a book called Virgin Sex, about how to make your deflowering a “positive experience.” Reecy gives Dr. Darcy tips on college financing for her kids but refuses the proffered sex advice in return. We are all grateful, I think.

Also over lunch, people discuss formulas for success, particularly book titles and covers. Mahesh Grossman, another conference lecturer, tells us there are two titles guaranteed not to fail: What _____ Knows About ______ That _____ Should Know, and anything with a number in it (Twenty-Five Ways to _____). To wit, one of the tables outside the lecture hall displays 25 Ways to Feeling Good, and a book called What Southern Women Know About Men that All Women Should (apparently, “It’s in the Drawl, Y’all,” “Pretty is as Pretty Does,” and “Always Look Your Best Even When You Feel Your Worst,” suggest possible explanations why this particular Yankee remains unwed).

Since Mahesh G has suggested that his formulas tap into deep psychological if not biological predilections, I ask if his rules can be applied toward the success of all books, even fiction:

MG: That’s an interesting question.

ME: Thank you.

MG: Let me ask you a question: What do people want?

ME: Um. Happiness?

MG: A niche.

ME: I knew that.

MG: So I think in fiction the most important thing is to find a genre. Genre sells.

ME: What if you’re not a genre writer? Like, you’re interested in literary fiction.

MG: Hmm. Well, I do know a guy working on a great book, a literary book.

ME: What about?

MG: It’s a love story from the point of view of a fetus.

ME: The fetus is in love?

MG: No, his parents.

ME: Oh. Right.

MG: He develops hermaphrodite qualities. He sees the past and future. He has to tell his story before he gets born.

ME: Wow.

MG: [Clearly getting bored] Right. It’s going to be a bestseller.

ME: Any other “rules” for fiction writers?

MG: Every novelist should join an improv class. I’m in an improv class. Write that down.

ME: [writing that down] OK.

*

The reliance on formulas, both for the writing of self-help books and for the transformations of their readers, is nothing new; an individual success can propose a universally replicable salvation. Perhaps the best example of the link between formulas and self-betterment comes in Benjamin’s Franklin’s Autobiography (which both Dale Carnegie and Tony Robbins cite as an influence). Franklin states in his introduction that

Having emerg’d from the Poverty & Obscurity in which I was born & bred, to a State of Affluence & some Degree of Reputation in the World, and having gone so far thro’ Life with a considerable Share of Felicity, the conducing Means I made use of, which, with the Blessing of God, so well succeeded, my Posterity may like to know, as they may find some of them suitable to their own Situations, & therefore fit to be imitated. [my italics]

His discussion of his life leads him to a formula for living, as most of these books promise. Autobiography reads like a market report on such failures and successes; an approach, replete with lists, charts, and graphs, that reflects Franklin’s proclivity for scientific method. Upon isolating which, exactly, the important virtues are (there are thirteen), Franklin lists them in greater detail, elaborating, for instance, on what he means by SILENCE,

Speak not but what may benefit others or yourself. Avoid trifling conversation.

Also, INDUSTRY,

Lose no Time. Be always employed in something useful. Cut off all unnecessary actions.

CLEANLINESS,

Tolerate no Uncleanness in Body, Clothes, or Habitation.

CHASTITY,

Rarely use Venery but for Health or Offspring; never to Dullness, Weakness, or the Injury of your own or another’s Peace or Reputation.

Concluding finally with HUMILITY, which according to Franklin means,

Imitate Jesus and Socrates.

Franklin also offers a chart whereby he and his reader can daily, weekly, monthly dutifully record displays of Virtues. So that you will not be overwhelmed, Franklin simply suggests that you track one Virtue a week, and that after thirteen weeks of recording your displays of Virtue, you begin again, and so on and so forth, indefinitely.

Image from The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin.

Image from The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin.
Yale University Press; 2nd edition, April 10, 2003.

MVH divulges a less scientific formula for our writing: REAL WEALTH = IDEAS + ENERGY. He pauses a few moments to let the gravitas of this formula seep in. Projected onto a monolithic white screen, an intractable problem made solvable math equation, it seems so easy. “Stay focused,” he tells us, followed by the sound of 600 people furiously scribbling, stay focused. “I learned that lesson from Colin Powell. Focus. That’s how we won the war in 1992.” My dad and I exchange a familial eyebrow raise; then he pretends to strangle himself, while I shoot at him with an invisible machine gun.

MVH offers his own success like the proverbial carrot for our gimpy, malnourished horse. His website favors words like “riches” and “empire,” and features inspirational stories from the gold-rush age, stories that feature an “olde” and largely uncomplicated American ideology of success-for-all. MVH’s website explains that MVH is “America’s Ambassador of Possibility”:

In the area of human potential, no one is better known and more respected than Mark Victor Hansen. For more than 25 years, Mark Victor Hansen has focused solely on helping people and organizations, from all walks of life, reshape their personal vision of what’s possible. His powerful messages of possibility, opportunity, and action have helped create startling and powerful change in thousands of organizations, and millions of individuals worldwide.… When Mark is not speaking, writing or marketing his next bestselling book, he and his wife Patty live in Newport Beach, California with their daughters Elisabeth and Melanie. Together, the family nurtures dozens of chickens, 8 pigeons, 5 cats, 5 dogs, 3 rabbits, a multitude of fish, 4 horses, 1 peacock, 1 hamster and an organic garden complete with fruit, vegetables, herbs and is full of hummingbirds, butterflies and wonderfully fragrant flowers. Mark Victor Hansen is an enthusiastic crusader of what’s possible and is driven to make the world a better place.

MVH doesn’t have flowers; he has wonderfully fragrant flowers. For anyone too dim to get by now that MVH is successful, his website has a “photo album,” where anyone interested can see MVH doing things that only the cash-laden do: sailing, hugging animals, hugging celebrities. You will find pictures of MVH with notables like Wayne Gretzky, Leeza Gibbons, the guy who dates Oprah, Clarence Thomas, and a picture of MVH with artist Leroy Neiman, taken in a Las Vegas hotel, where Leroy Neiman sports a Dali-type mustache three times the diameter of his head and wears a white bathrobe (did MVH surprise him in the pool? the shower?); where MVH’s familiar smile is near-decayed, his eyes mimicking the half-surprise of a felon in a police raid, a look that suggests MVH is not so happy about taking a picture with a bathrobed, mustachioed man as he might like you to think.

ULTIMATELY,
THE PRODUCT
WE SELL IS LOVE

Many of today’s self-help books aren’t that different from their more respected predecessors. Compare Marcus Aurelius:

All things fade into the storied past, and in a little while are shrouded in oblivion. Even to men whose lives were a blaze of glory this comes to pass; as to the rest, the breath is hardly out of them before, in Homer’s words, they are “lost to sight alike and hearsay.”

to Richard Carlson:

Don’t sweat the small stuff.

So why is it that self-help books, which hold potential for inspiration and change, are so commonly denigrated and dismissed, quite often by yours truly? MVH insists that these books—and the larger enterprise that surrounds them—are vehicles to “bring good” to the people of the world. During the conference, he urges us to donate our toiletries to homeless shelters, to give blood, says “when Solomon talked to God, he asked for influence, to feed the hungry. My mission is to feed the hungry.” MVH is rebuilding a corroded wailing wall; MVH wants to “elevate the Information Product (IP) of the world”; MVH’s personal motto is “I’m here to serve.” He tells us that we need to write for the Less Developed Countries (LDCs), that they “depend on us.” Every time a guest speaker enters or leaves the stage, Sister Sledge’s “We are Family” plays, and hugging so serious and intimate ensues that it brings to mind the uncomfortable feeling when you catch your parents having sex. MVH also likes to relate how good he is in his everyday life; near-martinistic, he shares things like, “I took my Pueblo housekeeper to the gynecologist; she said, he wants to look at WHAT?” (This little joke seems significant given the proliferation of birthing metaphors MVH uses for the writing process: he tells us we are “like OB GYNs,” that we should “keep track of our babies,” and at one point shows us a slide of Michelangelo’s David holding a Chicken Soup book over his genitals—symbolism as complicated and disturbing as any I ever encountered in a college literature class.)

Central to the potential Goodness of these publications is the notion that a book could make anyone feel or do something positive. MVH thinks they can: “We wrote Chicken Soup for the Prisoner’s Soul… These people used to want to kill; not anymore!” Chicken Soup for the Bible Lover’s Soul? “It’s going to get more people to read the Bible!” MVH genuinely believes that his books matter to any and every social group: “Teenagers, they said, Mark, we want a book on abuse, ’cause we’re abused! So I gave it to them. And it sold millions of copies in the first few weeks.” Janet Switzer, a lecturer, echoes this sentiment: “You’re not selling books; you’re selling a vision for what their life could be like once they buy your information, your program, your system.”

Undeniably, self-empowerment is the most promising of all “visions” because it involves changing the one person we actually have control over. Indeed, the self-help genre begs the didactic potential of books themselves; the very idea that a book might help another human being makes any book more than an exercise in vanity or an entertaining respite from everyday drudgery, and this is the hope that Mark Victor Hansen and his brethren proffer to an audience of people in need, who want to love and be loved, who want to be successful and happy, and who want to believe. As Robert Allen, another self-help guru frequently quoted by MVH, says, “ultimately the product we sell is love, manifested and materialized.”

*

In Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book, Walker Percy elucidates what is both desirable and repellant about the “knowledge” that self-help books bestow:

“They” not only know about the Cosmos, they know about me, my aches and pains, my brain functions, even my neuroses. A remarkable feature of the secondhand knowledge of scientific transcendence is the attribution of omniscience to “them.”

Another reason for the failures of self-help books to soul-penetrate all audiences is probably over-simplification—though we may all agree that understanding brings transformation, hearing “don’t sweat the small stuff” may be too pat and uncomplicated to bring much comfort. Most discontentments are too complicated to articulate, the proposed solutions (e.g. The Martini Diet) too facile to provide solace.

Further, these modern versions are less artfully imagined and articulated than their predecessors. In most self-help series authorship is shared, and so the quality of writing is, at best, variable. Virginia Satir writes in the first Chicken Soup book:

Because I own all of me, I can become intimately acquainted with me. By so doing, I can love me and be friendly with all my parts. I can then make it possible for all of me to work in my best interests.

I can own me and therefore can engineer me.

I am me and I am okay.

Although I have no doubt that I probably agree with most of what Satir is saying, the syntax and repetition here produces a confusion I associate with a lifetime commitment to sixties poetry and drug abuse.

Perhaps the largest shortcoming of contemporary self-help books and the inspirational true story is that, like the people they depict, the stories are rooted in a specific time and place, and shifts in context can irrevocably damage or obscure their meaning. Interpretation becomes problematic, even in a “true” story (MVH insists that all Chicken Soup submissions be true although there’s no way to verify their veracity; since the “meaning” of a story is never obvious, and never “fixed,” the moral, and subsequent course of action, can’t be either. This is perhaps most obvious in the following inspirational story, Don Clark’s “Make it Come True,” published just a year before a radical shift in context, which violently reconnoted an otherwise rock-solid formula (rickets → success) and a placid moral:

In 1957 a ten-year old boy in California set a goal. At the time Jim Brown was the greatest running back ever to play pro football and this tall, skinny boy wanted his autograph. In order to accomplish his goal the young boy had to overcome some obstacles.

He grew up in the ghetto, where he never got enough to eat. Malnutrition took its toll, and a disease called rickets forced him to wear steel splints to support his skinny, bowed-out legs. He had no money to buy a ticket to get into the game, so he waited patiently near the locker room until the game ended and Jim Brown left the field. He politely asked Brown for his autograph. As Brown signed, the boy explained, “Mr. Brown,

I have your picture on my wall.

I know you hold all the records. You’re my idol.”

Brown smiled and began to leave, but the young boy wasn’t finished. He proclaimed, “Mr. Brown, one day I’m going to break every record you hold!” Brown was impressed and asked, “What is your name, son?”

The boy replied, “Orenthal James. My friends call me O. J.”

O.J. Simpson went on to break all but three of the rushing records held by Jim Brown before injuries shortened his football career. Goal setting is the strongest motivation. Set a goal and make it come true.

This story, published a year before Nicole Simpson’s and Ron Brown’s murders, now has a subverted resonance, a more ambiguous moral. It is exactly the generality of self-help precepts—“set a goal and make it come true”—that make them at once potentially universal and potentially fraught.

MVH’s University is a gathering of earnest, likable people, yet there is something suspicious and, frankly, sinister about the idea that we are all going to be successful and help people. I heard almost every speaker, at least once in their talk, lower their voice and say, without irony, “but can I be honest with you?” And although we are all supposed to be equally successful, we compete for information (read: buy more products) over the next three days; when MVH offers spots in a “protégé” program, audience members nearly trample each other to rush to the first fifty seats. We are also encouraged not to be critical of anything sold to us: “Don’t be a tire kicker. If you’re a tire kicker, you’re not going to get anything out of this.” This is very different from a real University, where most students are encouraged to turn their critical faculties on both themselves and what they are learning.

My father and I estimate that by the end of the weekend MVH made more than two hundred thousand dollars. MVH himself at one point brags, “When I sleep, I know I’m making money in China.” Janet Switzer, a “University” lecturer, asks us to find not just a problem that people want solved, but “how much people will pay to solve a problem. Sell to their ambition; sell to their pain. How much is their pain worth?”

Indeed, MVH’s success is based on the proliferation of one successful product. He says the best lesson he leaned about success in writing was from George Lucas:

MVH: Everyone say, “series.”

EVERYONE: Series.

MVH: Everyone say, “sequel.”

E: Sequel.

MVH: Everyone say, “prequel!”

E: Prequel!

MVH: It’s all about the series, [screaming] chicken, chicken, chicken!

This is, in fact, the reason why self-help writers today are millionaires. While self-help books have always been popular, it is only recently that publishers have capitalized on the idea of a series, which has a huge profit margin because the audience is preselected and the writers (distinct from authors) are often unpaid.

Yet people like Marilyn insist it’s all for the greater good. She’s an attractive older woman with a first-rate dye job, seems quite bright and funny, and has been to four of these conferences. Marilyn insists that these programs “underpromise and overdeliver. They make you think outrageous. You feel empowered, like you can make a difference. Education is empowerment.” And all of the money changing hands for this education and empowerment? “I believe that the best way to help the poor is not to be one of them.”

HEAVEN HELPS THOSE
WHO HELP THEMSELVES

Three months after the conference my father has procured a full refund of his money (as is promised if you are not “completely satisfied”), and I am getting odd trinkets in the mail, like a silver-plated platter that reads “Who says nothing is ever handed to you on a silver platter?” I am curious about some of the people I spoke with—Brenda Star, whose galactic-themed website plays Phil Collins’s “Something in the Air Tonight”; Dr. Darcy, on whose website I take a quiz to find out if I am “ready for sex” (important questions include: “Can my partner and I ‘legally’ have sex?” and “Would I have sex if I weren’t drunk or high?”); and Melissa, who had no book or website or idea when last we spoke. Melissa is the only one who calls me back. (Are the rest all busy enjoying their newfound success?) Melissa has spent an additional $3,500 on a “market assessment” with one of MVH’s lecturers. She admits being slightly disappointed but blames herself: “I think if I had already had a more defined presence, a specific website designed or something, it would have been more helpful.” While she thinks that the conference was too big—“you can’t teach anything to 600 people”—she is not regretful, saying “had I never gotten on a plane and gone to Atlanta, I never would have gotten an idea on the way back. So something happened there; it stirred some intellectual creativity.”

ME: So what’s your book about?

MELISSA: I’m still trying to find a platform idea.

ME: How so?

M: Well, I didn’t want to write a book unless [the market assessor] thought it was a good idea.

ME: Did she?

M: She thought I needed a more specific platform.

ME [having no idea what “platform” means]: What is your platform?

M: I’m trying to find a niche market, and then come up with a series.

ME: About…

M: I’m still refining the components I need.

ME: About…

M: What do you mean?

ME: I mean, generally, what’s your subject matter? Like, what is it that you do?

M: Sending kids to college and paying for it.

ME: Jackpot!

M: Well… I had some universities who seemed interested, but then I found out schools don’t have any money; they have no budget. That was annoying.

ME: That is annoying.

M: So now I’m going through a process of elimination, where

I can get the highest dollar per effort hour.

ME: Huh. That’s a stumper.

M: Yeah.

ME: Well, best of luck to you.

M: Best of luck to you. [Pause] Uh, what is it that you do?

Jessica Lamb-Shapiro has published fiction in Open City, McSweeney’s, and Index, and is working on a novel.

Illustration by Tony Millionaire

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