Call it quiche kitsch.
In the book biz, nothing succeeds like excess. And "Real Men Don't Eat Quiche," with 1.2 million copies in print and six months on The New York Times best-seller list, is the most excessive success in recent memory. So the knock-off czars of Publishers' Row are sending in the clones:
Pocket Books, publisher of Bruce Feirstein's prototype, is hawking two of them: Scott Redman's "Real Men Don't Cook Quiche" and Joyce Jillson's "Real Women Don't Pump Gas"--both sharing the list with Feirstein this week. (All three Pocket titles are illustrated by New Yorker cartoonist Lee Lorenz.) Morrow's Quill paperback line offers "Real Women Send Flowers: A Celebration of Life, Love and Lust" (oy) by Susan Connaughton Curtin and Patricia O'Connell. And a new house, Tribeca Communications, has not only "Real Women Never Pump Iron," but "Real Extraterrestrials Don't Phone Home."
One might expect the Real Everything glut to saturate the market quickly and obligingly expire, brontosaurus-like, of its own stupefying bulk. Yet the cash registers keep ringing. Ronald Busch, president of Pocket Books, believes that many copies are bought to be given rather than read. In our tight-wallet economy, he says, the trade paperback has replaced the ever-more-rococo greeting card as a casual gift--not to mention flowers and candy, which "are so expensive right now. We think they'll be very strong items for Valentine's Day."
Very strong: There are well over 2 million copies of the six titles in circulation (about $4 each for fewer than 100 sparsely printed pages)--with each spinoff following almost exactly the format of Feirstein's funny if lightweight original, each punctuated with quizzes, lists and illustrations, and each stretching more desperately to wring a new gag out of a rather slender idea. Before it's over, this testament to the bankrupt imagination and mercenary inanity of American publishing may end up clearing the nation's forests faster than James Watt and the gypsy moth combined.
Were this not enough, People magazine last month joined the clone-a-thon with an essay titled "How to Tell a Real Woman." (RWs "understand Richard Simmons," but "don't get emotional about fabric softener" and "don't weep except in the ladies' room.") According to the pop sibyls of Time-Life, the real-persons mania mirrors a Serious Dilemma: "If the revolution in sex roles has left men mumbling into their beer, women these days are equally befuddled. Should they be feminine or feminist? . . . tough or tender or what?"
But screen-writer/journalist Feirstein, 29, says from New York that deep-think was the last thing on his mind. "I'd be lying if I told you I knew what I was doing" beyond reacting in simple outrage to the epicene vacuity of contemporary culture. He got the idea one morning while watching the Donahue show. "He had twin transsexuals on, and I just said, 'Enough is enough!' " He turned his gripes first into "a whole lot of dialogue and a screenplay," then converted it to a magazine article, which he sent to Rolling Stone, Atlantic, Harper's and The New Yorker. "It was rejected by all of them," he says, "and The New Yorker's letter said, 'Perhaps you should consider another vocation.' " The piece was finally accepted at Playboy, where Pocket's editor-in-chief Martin Asher saw it in galleys. He discerned the mass appeal in Feirstein's humor, which coalesces all that is "phony, affected, limp or without merit" into the image of quiche. Bye, bye, unAmerican pie.
And hello blockbuster: "Real Men" exploded beyond the dreams of avarice--or of Pocket, which had issued a modest first printing of 80,000. And the quichestakes scramble was on. First out of the gate: Tribeca's "Real Women Never Pump Iron," written under the pseudonym "Lisa Chambers" by four New York women who met at a health spa and started kvetching about Feirstein. "We did it very quickly," says vice president James Mann, who got 45,000 copies out by Nov. 15 despite initial legal hassles from Pocket officials worried that Tribeca's knock-off would injure sales to their original. "It was an out-and-out attempt to intimidate us," Mann says. "We weren't trying to prevent them from publishing," says Busch. "We just didn't want it to seem like a sequel or appear based in any way on the Feirstein book." Mann was eventually obliged to submit the table of contents, a sample page and a facsimile of the cover to Pocket's lawyers, but still beat the number two entry, Quill's "Real Women Send Flowers."
"I thought we'd be first," says Quill publisher James Landis, who had his clone on sale by early December. Less breezy and more earnest in tone than the others ("Today's real woman is gutsy. She has enough confidence to wear running shoes with a gabardine designer suit when she walks to work"), it was immediately eclipsed by third-place starter "Pump Gas." No wonder. As a trade house, Quill couldn't match Pocket's mass-market clout, and "they had the advantage of making it look like the 'Quiche' book," Landis says. Still, "I don't think one book's going to eliminate the others." Mann, who just published a hilarious parody sleeper, "The Newark Times Book Review," is less sanguine: "Publishing is a crapshoot anyway."
No one knows this better than Pocket, which had begun looking for a sequel as soon as "Quiche" started heating up. Feirstein, who owed Pocket a second book, was offered the job, but turned it down, fulfilling his obligation by editing the cookbook. Then Pocket found Joyce Jillson ("real women don't talk about age"), the official astrologer for the Los Angeles Dodgers whose syndicated star-peeping is carried in 100 papers. Last spring she was complaining to a friend about gasoline prices. He suggested the discount self-service island. Without thinking, she uttered the magic line: "Real women don't pump gas." She turned that revelation into a witty rebuttal to Feirstein published in the Los Angeles Herald Examiner last May. "Within one week, Marty Asher contacted me and we had a handshake deal in 20 minutes," says Jillson, and "the book is not substantially changed from that article."
Not every writer would be proud of doing a virtual page-by-page imitation of someone else's book, but "I don't feel at all diminished by it," she says. "In fact, it adds to the prestige. There are a lot of people who could have written that book," and when she was chosen, "it was almost like winning a contest." In spades: The first printing is a hefty 360,000 copies.
And admittedly, she can sometimes trade blow for blow with "Quiche." Here's Feirstein: "Q. How many Real Men does it take to change a light bulb? A. None. Real Men aren't afraid of the dark." Here's Jillson: "Q. How many Real Women does it take to change a light bulb? A. None. Real Women don't try to change light bulbs. They accept them for what they are." Not exactly Jonathan Swift or Mark Twain, but a cut above Erma Bombeck on a good day, and a great deal sharper than any of the other clones--which are selling just fine anyway.
After all, a rising fad lifts all the dolts. And the publishing industry, which recently embarrassed itself with a monstrous litter of kitty-cat picture books for putative adults, will doubtless find a way to prolong the quiche-off--there are always houses that can find 101 uses for a dead idea. But Pocket's Busch thinks this one is going to stay lively: "If you look at what's happened with Garfield, every time there's a new book, it revives interest in all of them. I think that if we come out with yet a fourth book, we can keep this going for a year." Nothing is planned yet, Busch says, although "we'd love to do real-men and real-women calendars."
But Landis has had enough. "We're not going to do 'Real Gays Don't Something-or-Other' or anything else. I think we're finished." And as for Feirstein, he's just completed a screenplay for Gene Wilder and besides, you only go around once: "The next book I write will be a novel. It's time to move on. I don't want to go to my grave with a tombstone that reads, 'He Didn't Eat Quiche.'" graphics/ "Real" books