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One Monster Replaces Another: On John Domini’s ‘Movieola!’

Nathanael West’s classic novel The Day of the Locust, unsurpassed in the writers-writing-about-Hollywood genre, ends with West’s would-be painter protagonist Tod Hackett in the back of an L.A. police cruiser, attempting to determine whether the noise he hears is the squad car’s siren or his own voice bellowing out a plaintive, animal howl.  For eighty years now, Hackett’s death-rattle screech (“tod” is German for “death”; he’s literally a dead hack) has stood as an emblem of the silent but no less maniacal inner wail of every true artist that has wound up as collateral damage in the Hollywood carpet-bombing of the ancient territories of drama and storytelling. When I recently picked up John Domini’s Movieola!, which pitches itself as a story collection but really isn’t for reasons I will explain in a moment, I figured it would add a new wrinkle to a well-established sub-genre.  Anticipatorily, I thought back on several recent additions to the HollyLit tradition.  First I recalled Stuart O’Nan’s West of Sunset, which chronicles F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Zelda-less time in Tinseltown, his loneliness a triangulation on the city’s institutional mandate to suck souls.  Next I thought of Woody Allen’s latest anti-film film, Café Society, which resurrects the Studio Era in all its glorious finery only to crucify it, and makes its most pointed statement when a man at a glittery soiree is introduced as a two-time Academy Award winner, but warns, “You haven’t heard of me -- I’m a writer.”  And last, digging back a bit this time, I recalled Charles Johnson’s “Moving Pictures,” a wonderful little meditation on books-turned-into-films that is eclipsed by several even better stories in Johnson’s much-undervalued collection, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. Of these, Movieola! is closest to “Moving Pictures,” but Domini’s offering is no mere twist or turn on a trajectory you already know.  Rather, it’s an amplification of Tod Hackett’s mournful scream – a new shriek for a new century. * There are two kinds of short story collections, both of which have merits.  The first is simply an assemblage, a sampler plate of an author’s various experiments or momentary preoccupations (e.g., The Sorcerer’s Apprentice), and it is perhaps this sort of anthology that John Cheever was thinking of when he described his own collected stories as “a naked history of one’s struggle to receive an education in economics and love.” The second kind of story collection -- the so-called “connected” stories -- may come in two versions of its own: first, stories connected by plot and characters; second, stories connected by theme.  It may be a mistake to call either version a “collection,” as the word suggests an absence of an overriding book-length idea.  Stories that are connected by character, however, certainly have some of the same goals as novels (e.g., Alice Munro’s The Beggar Maid), and stories connected by theme can sometimes seem quite treatise- or manifesto-like (e.g., Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried -- sure, there’s lots of character in there, but the book’s true purpose is its philosophical thread on truth and storytelling). Movieola! is a volume of the latter sort, a compilation of pieces first published here and there, but which adds up to a whole lot more than the sum of its parts.  Of course that was the goal all along.  The book borrows its structure from its subject, launching with a meditation on movie trailers, and ending with another on closing credits.  In between, Domini offers a range of visions and voices that reflect anew, each in their own way, on what Hollywood has done to storytelling and culture. For example, there’s “Wrap Rap Two-Step,” the monologue of a weary script guru at the end of a weekend-long concept seminar (tailor-made for NPR’s “Selected Shorts,” if anyone is listening…), and this piece, along with several others, emphasizes that to write for the screen, these days, is to set up shop at the unholy intersection of Hollywood and self-help (i.e., the secret of The Secret is that you don’t have to “read” it).  As well, there’s “Home’n’Homer, Portmanteau,” in which a latter day Norma Desmond, preparing for her scream rather than her close-up, wanders home to find all her anxiety and regret channeled into the vision of a creepy little bugbear sprung not from a nightmare but from something more like DreamWorks SKG.  Hence, à la West, Hollywood generates madness. These are two of the more traditional pieces in Movieola!  Others include disembodied dialogues; pieces sunk so deep into the free indirect thing you sort of forget they’re in the third person; and meditations in a royal “we” that reads likes the dark twin of the critical “we” that pollutes scholarship.  This last comes off almost like an intrusive narrator, the sort that long ago forsook the novel, and the suggestion of this voice -- which we hear bantering about story ideas as stories unfold -- is that we really, finally have become Roland Barthes’s “scriptors,” compiling readymade snippets into tales that please with familiarity rather than novelty.  The deep-down message of Movieola!, then, is that stories no longer emerge from communion with a nubile muse curling her finger from the other side of a lacy partition of consciousness, but rather from a much lewder encounter with our own corrupt souls. * Introducing a mid-eighties edition of The Day of the Locust, critic Alfred Kazin noted that the truly horrific days of Hollywood were over.  It was now possible to make films outside the studio system; the monopoly was ended, the trust busted.  Today, they say, we’re in a golden age of television, the vast free market of cable opening up new avenues for how moving picture stories come to be.  So is the crisis averted, then?  No.  Part of the thrust of Domini’s argument is that big screen filmmaking now finds itself threatened by its own creation, all those little screens like an army of ants taking down an elephant.  One monster replaces another. And that such a thing can even be claimed about a book pitched as a collection of stories reveals that Movieola! is much more than just that.  This is made most clear in the conclusive “Closing Credits Fun & Counterforce,” an address to a movie viewer still plopped down in his seat: You risked a doddering and fusty entertainment based on how long a person can go without having to pee.  The flicks themselves have long since run out of surprises: if the assassin doesn’t fall in love, the bookish girl in black whoops it up in a candy-colored romper room.  There never was much opportunity for surprise, in ninety minutes or a hundred, and there’s even less these days, when you need a multimillion-dollar urban-renewal package just to save the downtown moviehouse.  The star-studded American shebang, winding up through the coming attractions and down through the credits in their grave-rows, that’s long since been squeezed dry and shoehorned into smaller screens. There is no character here, no story at all.  Thus, Movieola! is not aptly described as a gathering together of fun tales.  Rather, it’s a concise and intelligent assessment of the state of modern storytelling, and its joy -- it’s edge-of-your-seat, cliff-hanger thrill -- stems from what it offers by way of philosophical critique.

Goodbye to Oprah’s Golden Ticket

That sound you hear is a thousand book publicists wailing. Oprah Winfrey will announce today that her eponymous talk show will end in September 2011. That means that in less than two years, the ultimate book publicity coup will be off the table. Oprah's Book Club isn't quite the powerhouse it once was. The club was started in 1996, a savvy move when neighborhood book clubs were in vogue with the Oprah demographic. The Book Club also was a way of distancing the show from its increasingly shock-oriented daytime peers (a format, we may forget, that Oprah once partook of.) In those early years of the Book Club, Oprah would often, though not always, chose a little-known, "mid-list" book that would become an overnight bestseller. In a literary world where writers are playing the lottery against the longest of odds, Oprah was the winning ticket. The Club earned a reputation, perhaps unfair to the Club and perhaps unfair to the books that were a part of it, as a redoubt of "women's fiction," but the selections were more varied than that, ranging from melodrama like Anita Shreve's The Pilot's Wife and Wally Lamb's She's Come Undone to more nuanced fare like Ernest J. Gaines' A Lesson Before Dying and Breath, Eyes, Memory by Edwidge Danticat. The Club went on like this for about five years, selecting 10 or 12 books a year, and, with a flick of this magic wand, turning each one into a bestseller. And then Jonathan Franzen came along. You can argue whether Franzen should have accepted Oprah's selection as just another of many honors bestowed upon The Corrections or whether he had every right to exert some well-earned control over how his book was marketed, but one thing seems clear. Oprah had never contemplated the idea of someone turning her down. After Franzen, the Book Club, as if trying to find its purpose again, meandered, initially with some fanfare, but increasing as an afterthought, through classics by Garcia Marquez, Tolstoy and others. The books still sold but she was only making a couple of selections a year, and some of the dazzle had leaked out of the enterprise. Then, to juice things up, Oprah announced that she would return to selecting living authors. In all the furor that followed the uncovering of James Frey's confabulations in his memoir A Million Little Pieces, it's easy to forget that prior to selecting Frey's book, Oprah had actually announced that she was going to go back to picking books by living authors, and there was a good deal of discussion around this, as though "living author" was a genre you might find in the bookstore. But implicit in this announcement was a recognition that Oprah's Book Club just wasn't as exciting without the sub-plot of making an author an overnight millionaire and household name. Or, to put it another way, What Oprah told the New York Times was, "I wanted to open the door and broaden the field... That allows me the opportunity to do what I like to do most, which is sit and talk to authors about their work. It's kind of hard to do that when they're dead." But that was before Frey turned the whole thing into a circus, culminating with Oprah's finger-wagging excoriation of Frey on her show. Since the Franzen-Frey double-whammy, the Book Club hasn't been quite the touchstone it once was. There some moments of cultural relevance, like the cognitive dissonance of Oprah selecting Cormac McCarthy's The Road days before it won the Pulitzer, seeing an Oprah logo next to McCarthy's name on the book cover, and later, her visit to his ranch for her show. But the Book Club remains an afterthought, with new selections happening only rarely (Uwem Akpan's Say You're One of Them in September was the first of 2009) and, while the books she picks still sell and publicists still get excited, the Club isn't as much on the media radar, and no one wrings their hands about Oprah's impact on literary culture any more. This isn't to say, however, that the Book Club was the only reason that Oprah was important to the publishing industry. Oprah had guests flogging books in categories outside of fiction and confessional memoir (and, yes, fictionalized confessional memoir) on the show all the time, and the big sales that followed for these celebrity memoirs, diet books, and self-help guides showed that, in publishing (and in every other business), landing Oprah was still the ultimate publicity coup. While gallons of ink were spilled on the Book Club's literary taste, Oprah's role was probably far more insidious with these other titles, most notably with her incessant flogging of the "power of positive thinking" pabulum found in The Secret. (Salon.com's 2007 takedown of The Secret, and Oprah for hyping it, is essential reading.) So, with the Book Club wasting away and the end of Oprah now in sight, what's a publicist or mid-lister hoping for a miracle to do? The reality is that it's hard to imagine our culture supporting an enterprise like Oprah's Book Club again. In 1996, audiences were far less fragmented, and even a daytime show could command enough of the public's attention to achieve the desired critical mass. Oprah is set to extend her media empire in new ways, as she's launching her Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN) early 2011, and while word is she'll do a daily show there, don't be surprised if she takes the shift as an opportunity to retire the Book Club concept. And even if she doesn't, OWN will be just another, and maybe smaller, piece of this already fragmented media landscape, and a new Book Club likely wouldn't be the winning lottery ticket it once was. Who knows, maybe she'll get into publishing, instead. (I can almost hear the manuscripts flying her way.) Bonus Link: The complete list of Oprah's Book Club titles

Quarterly Report: The Merger Question

As we have every quarter for the last several, we're looking at Barnes & Noble's recent quarterly report to gauge the trends that are impacting the book industry - which books were big over the last few months and what's expected for the months ahead.This quarter has been rather dramatic for the big chains. In March, Borders took an emergency cash infusion (with many strings attached) from a large hedge fund shareholder just to stay afloat. This came on the heels of a new strategy initiative from the chain, which we dubbed "The Froot Loop Gambit," leading to some great discussion and a follow-up post about "knowledge products." Two months on, Borders is out of the woods for the short term, but appears unlikely to survive as a standalone company in the long term. Right now, most are speculating that Borders will be swallowed up by Barnes and Noble.As such, our regular look at Barnes and Noble quarterly updates may offer an even broader view of the book industry as soon as next quarter. Interesting times. In the meantime, what follows are insights gleaned from Barnes and Noble CEO Steve Riggio's comments on the quarterly conference call for the quarter ended May 5th. (Transcript provided by Seeking Alpha.) Interestingly, this quarter was much lighter on the discussion of individual books that have done well recently or that are expected to do well in current and future quarters. It's hard to know what to make of this change in tone other than the fact that there appears to be paucity of blockbusters this year compared to the Potter-mania, political memoirs, and self-help tomes that fueled sales in 2007.First quarter numbers compared unfavorably to a year ago when Oprah-backed positive thinking pablum The Secret was a massive seller.Looking ahead, the second quarter will face very tough comparisons to Q2 2007 thanks to the huge sales of Harry Potter a year ago. "the quarter should end with some excitement with the publication of Breaking Dawn by Stephanie Meyer and we think that's the most anticipated book of this year, if not actually in a couple of years. Even though it's a teen book, it has wide appeal."April was difficult but May started out better: "We had a number of big books in the first couple weeks, including Barbara Walters' Audition, the Stephanie Meyer adult fiction book The Host and the continued strength of the Last Lecture."As for Riggio's answer to the Borders question: "We've put together a team of senior management people and financial advisors to study the feasibility of a transaction with Borders. We'll provide no further comments about any discussions we may or may not have."

Quarterly Report: Tough Year Ahead

As we have every quarter for the last several, we're looking at Barnes & Noble's recent quarterly report to gauge the trends that are impacting the book industry - which books were big over the last few months and what's expected for the months ahead. With a recession threatening, Borders faltering, and some even suggesting a merger between the two big book chains, 2008 is shaping up to be a rocky year for the book retailers.Barnes & Noble's fourth quarter (which ended on February 2nd) was slightly worse than what analysts had expected, but the stock hasn't been punished on Wall Street. Here are the highlights from CFO Joseph J. Lombardi from the March 20th, Q4 conference call (courtesy Seeking Alpha):"Fiction and the genres had a strong quarter, especially graphic novels and romance. Hardcover sales were driven by a host of familiar names, including Sue Grafton, Dean Koontz, Ken Follett, Stephen King, and a holdover from the spring, Khaled Hosseini's A Thousand Splendid Suns.""Both John Grisham and James Patterson had two bestsellers; Grisham with Playing with Pizza and The Appeal, and Patterson with Quickie and Double Cross. Trade paper fiction was driven primarily by movie tie-ins and selections from Oprah Winfrey. Movie tie-ins included The Kite Runner, Atonement, and I Am Legend, and the Oprah recommendations for Pillars of the Earth and Love in the Time of Cholera drove the sales of those titles." Pretty amazing that Grisham's The Appeal was a bestseller when it came out only five days before the quarter ended. Meanwhile, Oprah continues to move books."In non-fiction, areas of strength included biography, humor, health and diet books, as well as the continuing success of Rhonda Byrne's The Secret. Other key hardcover titles included Stephen Colbert's I Am America, Tom Brokaw's Boom!, The Dangerous Book for Boys and its sequel, The Daring Book for Girls, and Michael Pollan's In Defense of Food. Non-fiction movie tie-ins also included in non-fiction were Into The Wild and Charlie Wilson's War." The continued success of The Secret is somewhat disheartening.Aggressive discounts associated with Barnes & Noble's membership programs continue to eat into the chain's gross margins, but interestingly, so did "bestseller markdowns associated with the seventh and final Harry Potter book," though to a lesser extent.In 2008, Barnes & Noble expects to face a double whammy of "recessionary pressures in this uncertain economic environment" and very challenging comparisons against the final Harry Potter book and improved hardcover sales last year.

Quarterly Report: Book Industry Trends

Every three months I've been looking at Barnes & Noble's quarterly conference call to get some insight into recent book industry trends and to see which books were the big sellers over the past few months and which are expected to be big in the coming months. Barnes & Noble's first quarter ended May 5th. Here are the highlights from CEO Steve Riggio on the Q1 conference call (courtesy Seeking Alpha):In keeping with an ongoing trend, Barnes & Noble's margins were pressured as the chain continues to discount heavily to stave off competition from the likes of Wal-Mart and from Amazon's popular Amazon Prime program. Nonetheless, Wall Street seemed to like the overall numbers and pushed the stock higher.Sales in both the stores and online were better than expected. "Both benefited from a better new release schedule than we've seen in some time.""Rhonda Byrne's The Secret has the unique distinction of being our bestselling title in hardcover, audio book and DVD."Riggio said that Mohsin Hamid's The Reluctant Fundamentalist was the third straight "Barnes & Noble Recommends" selection to "become an instant fiction bestseller upon publication."Meanwhile, Oprah drove sales of Sydney Poitier's Measure of a Man and Cormac McCarthy's The Road.The quarter's non-fiction bestsellers were Einstein by Walter Isaacson and In an Instant by Bob Woodruff.Looking ahead, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows will hit the shelves at the end of Barnes & Noble's Q2. Khaled Hosseini's A Thousand Splendid Suns just debuted "with very strong sales." There's also new fiction on the way from James Patterson, Nora Roberts, Robert Parker, and Ian McEwen (On Chesil Beach).On the non-fiction side of the ledger, new release The Reagan Diaries is already selling well. A pair of books on Hillary Clinton are coming shortly: A Woman in Charge by Carl Bernstein and Her Way by Jeff Garth. "We expect, of course, many more titles by and about the candidates for the presidential election season to be coming over the next year to 15 months," Riggio said.

Quarterly Report: Book Industry Trends

Every three months I've been looking at Barnes & Noble's quarterly conference call to get some insight into recent book industry trends and to see which books the retailer expects to be "big" in the coming months. Here are the highlights from CEO Steve Riggio on the Q4 conference call (courtesy Seeking Alpha):One of the big stories for book retailers this year was a lack of blockbuster titles to get shoppers into stores. "It was a year that produced two titles that garnered significant media attention. But while the lack of traffic producing new releases didn't help our top line, what's important is that our core booklist was solid." I'm not sure which titles he's referring to there - which says something about last year's lack of blockbusters - but I'm guessing one of them was Barack Obama's The Audacity of Hope.Riggio also noted how customer loyalty programs have made for "a vastly different environment than just three years ago," and he alluded specifically to Amazon Prime, the online retailer's popular shipping offer.Riggio said the chain has high expectations for new books by Lisa Scottoline (Daddy's Girl), Jonathan Kellerman (Obsession), Mary Higgins-Clark (I Heard That Song Before), David Baldacci (Simple Genius), Michael Chabon (The Yiddish Policemen's Union), and Khaled Hosseini's follow-up to Kite Runner, A Thousand Splendid Suns."The Oprah effect on books continues." Oprah helped make YOU: On A Diet, Bob Greene's Best Life Diet, and The Measure of a Man by Sidney Poitier. But the really big seller - much to the chagrin of many - was The Secret by Ronda Burn, which Riggio called "probably one of the fastest non-fiction selling books we've had in recent memory."B&N is also looking forward to some new non-fiction titles: Einstein by Walter Isaacson, Where Have All the Leaders Gone? by Lee Iococca, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life by Barbara Kingsolver, and Paula Dean's memoir, It Ain't All About the Cooking.Finally, "we are just beginning to see a wave of books about politics and those related to the 2008 Presidential election at this time and by far, Barak Obama's The Audacity of Hope leads the pack."Previously: Barnes & Noble's third quarter.

Oprah Going To The Dogs?

The latest in the burgeoning genre of book review-cum-anti-Oprah- screed, to which I made a humble contribution some weeks ago here, came courtesy of Peter Birkenhead writing for Salon.com. His excellent piece was featured on Monday, and has thus far garnered upwards of 300 reader responses, by far the most feedback I have seen to any single piece on Salon, which now posts all such commentary.The thrust of Birkenhead's piece is that Oprah has completely sold out her once (halfway) respected Book Club to the forces of capitalism, in the form of her latest endorsement, ironically titled The Secret, an insipidly condescending visualize-it-and-it-shall-be-yours self-help contrivance, by Rhonda Byrne. Byrne is backed by an elite lineup of self-help heavy hitters, and Birkenhead trenchantly observes that "the enlisting of that dream team, in what is essentially a massive, cross-promotional pyramid scheme -- is brilliant." Brilliant when it comes to selling books, that is, not actually helping people. And, as Birkenhead points out, Oprah is, of course, at the top of the pyramid.It got me thinking about the various self-help flowers out there and cross-pollination, and so I thought I would do a little research. I sought to enlist the help of a large pack of rehabilitated canines, a dream team, if you will, of (formerly) problem pooches. Cesar Millan, as anyone who has seen his TV show The Dog Whisperer or picked up his new book Cesar's Way: The Natural, Everyday Guide to Correcting Common Dog Problems, is the leader of the pack. He is, in my opinion (and as someone who is considering becoming a dog owner), a pretty likable personality, and he certainly knows his dogs. But don't let the dog thing fool you: Cesar Millan is a self-help guru like the rest, believing that it is the owner, not so much the dog, who must change his or her habits in order for a dog to overcome its own behavioral problems. So, could it be that even the beatific Cesar Millan is part of the aforementioned pyramid scheme?Acting on a hunch, and with some time to kill at Barnes and Noble, I picked Up Cesar's Way, and looked no further than the acknowledgments for my answer. Cesar makes a special effort to thank some of the personalities who have aided him on his spiritual journey. First and foremost, you guessed it, Oprah. After effusive praise of the den mother comes thanks to another dream team of self-help gurus: Anthony Robbins, Dr. Wayne Dyer, Dr. Deepak Chopra, and Dr. Phil, all of whom have upwards of 25 different books authored and for sale on Amazon. Cesar also thanks John Gray, of Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus fame, for helping save his marriage. It seems that Cesar's guiding spiritual values are anything but pure-bred. Rather they are engendered by a whole host of self-helpers.Using Cesar's Way as a litmus test, it would appear that Birkenhead is certainly on to something when it comes to the trend of self-help cross-marketing. Help yourself, sure, but it also helps to have some new-agey friends, all of whom have sold millions of books, on your side. Couldn't do it without 'em. If you scratch behind my ears, I'll scratch behind yours. Let's just hope, for Cesar's sake, that Dr. Phil is free of ticks and fleas.
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