The devil wears Dolce & Gabbana

Amy Wallace is the deputy entertainment editor for the Times' Business section.

It’s tempting to turn “The Twins of Tribeca,” the new novel about a junior publicist at an independent movie studio run by a pair of brash, badly behaved brothers, into an impromptu game of “Guess Who?”

Even without being told that the book’s author, Rachel Pine, once spent three years as a publicist at Miramax Pictures, anyone with a passing knowledge of Hollywood will sniff out the roman a clef.

Easiest to identify are the fictional brothers, Phil and Tony Waxman, who are so obviously modeled on Harvey and Bob Weinstein, the co-founders of Miramax (dubbed Glorious Pictures in the book) that some of the details seem almost gratuitous. Phil is “huge,” with “a tremendous head” and “fleshy face.” Tony is “shorter,” with hair that gives “the distinct impression that something might be living in it.”

Movie buffs will enjoy decoding the titles of Glorious Pictures’ hit movies. “The Foreign Pilot” is, of course, “The English Patient,” which won Miramax its first Academy Award for best picture in 1996. “Pulp Fiction” masquerades as “Perp Friction,” “Cinema Paradiso” is dubbed “Teatro Incantato” and “Sling Blade” goes by “Hacksaw.”

People who work in the movie industry, meanwhile, will spot even more inside jokes. An actor named “Sean Raines” who insists his name be pronounced “Sheen”? That can’t be anyone but Ralph “Call me Rafe” Fiennes. A prolific movie producer named “Stan Coburn” who has his assistants call huge numbers of people every morning “really early, before anyone is in, so that when that person gets to their office, they know Stan’s already working -- even though of course he’s not in yet, either”? The real-life producer Scott Rudin is notorious for doing exactly that.


But as vaguely amusing as it may be to wonder whether “Bob Metuchen,” a “boy-wonder director” discovered at the Sundance Film Festival, is a reference to Quentin Tarantino or Steven Soderbergh, there is a far more nagging question raised by this chatty little book. If fiction for women is “chick lit” and guy novels are “lad lit,” then what do we call this new crop of books about the tedious lives of low-level assistants who yearn to succeed in the entertainment industry?

Tinsel lit? Mailroom lit? Striver lit? Glick lit?

In 1941, Budd Schulberg’s acclaimed novel “What Makes Sammy Run?” skewered Hollywood with its portrait of Sammy Glick, a plagiarist and huckster who climbed the studio system ladder “without a single principle to slow him down.” Today’s movie biz novels are far softer, with female protagonists who are as preoccupied with dating as with getting ahead. But what they lack in bite they make up for in numbers.

Lately, it seems, these books are everywhere. There’s “The Second Assistant: A Tale From the Bottom of the Hollywood Ladder,” and “The Loves of a D-Girl: A Novel of Sex, Lies, and Script Development.” There’s “How to Be Famous,” a novel by a former assistant to an agent about (don’t tell me!) an assistant to an agent and her fabulous friends. Meanwhile, “The Assistants,” written by “a former assistant to the stars,” is about “five miserable souls working in the city of the soulless -- Hollywood.”

Of course, all the above owe their very bindings to “The Devil Wears Prada,” the thinly veiled 2003 account of what sheer hell it is to answer the phone of Anna Wintour, the iceberg-like editor of Vogue. Clearly, publishers are hoping that the same readers who plunked down $21.95 to learn that Wintour eats the same thing for lunch every day will also want to read about what it’s like, say, to work the door at a movie premiere after-party.

“My designated task for the next part of the evening was to stand near the curb with a headset and announce the arrivals to my colleagues,” Karen, the narrator of “The Twins of Tribeca,” tells us at one point. But even when the potential dangers of this work are explained (Karen helpfully recounts the “terrifying legend” of the publicity assistant at 20th Century Fox who once denied Rupert Murdoch -- the chairman of Fox’s parent company, News Corp. -- entrance to a party), reading such anecdotes can be like watching paint dry.

Years ago, I flirted briefly with the idea of writing a pulp novel. Powered by the rumor that a college classmate had made a cool $75,000 dashing off a Harlequin romance, I sent away to the company for information and received a kit in the mail that established certain rules. The most important of these, other than that the love interest had to be American, was that the heroine should have a job but not a career. Make her too successful, the chirpy instructions implied, and two deal-killing things would occur: No man would plausibly fall for her and no reader would relate to her.

Considering the current Glick lit offerings, I began to think the authors had been issued a similar set of rules.

Rule 1: Mention expensive brand names, the more the better. As in, “She desperately needs to rethink the Dolce & Gabbana minidress she’s squeezed into” (“The Assistants”) or “The clock on the dashboard of his Hummer read 8:05 p.m.” (“Mr. Famous”).

Rule 2: Overpunctuate for emphasis, as in “I. Love. This. Script.” (“How to Be Famous”) or “On the day before a premiere, people call us. Because. They. Want. Things.” (“The Twins of Tribeca”)

Rule 3: Speak with authority about restaurants that Hollywood people actually frequent, as in, “If the Ivy’s specials are always the same every night, why do they call them specials?” (“Mr. Famous”) or “I went to dinner at Bastide. And I actually ate an entree and didn’t throw it up.” (“The Assistants”)

Rule 4: Use up extra space by formatting at least part of your book as if it were a screenplay, an e-mail exchange or a call sheet (the meticulous documents, compiled by low-level employees all over town, that keep track of who telephoned one’s boss but wasn’t important enough to be put through).

The author of “The Twins of Tribeca” is particularly creative with this last directive. After explaining that “Tony” (read: Bob Weinstein) likes to consider potential film titles while imagining the way they’d look on a theater marquee, Pine has her heroine type out contenders in 26-point Helvetica font (which is also how readers of the novel will see them).

But the flaws of “Twins” and its ilk cannot be blamed solely on gimmicks. By focusing on the ranks of too-powerless-to-matter Hollywood, these books quite simply put their money on the wrong horses.

There’s a reason why feature films and TV shows about the movie business tend to tank. “An Alan Smithee Film: Burn Hollywood Burn,” screenwriter Joe Eszterhas’ bizarre 1997 sendup of the industry that made him rich, practically closed before it opened. “The Player,” Robert Altman’s 1992 film about a studio executive being blackmailed by a writer whose script he rejected, won raves from critics but failed to appeal to most of America. “Action!,” Fox TV’s 1999 satire about Hollywood’s reprehensible mores, was hilarious. It was also canceled before its first season was over. To most people, the show wasn’t must-see. It was “so-what?”

Last year, in an effort to explain why chick lit was selling and lad lit was not, writer Laura Miller boldly hypothesized in the New York Times that women -- who make up as much as 80% of readers of adult trade fiction -- weren’t interested in curling up with books that depict men as boors. The fact that some men actually are boors was not a selling point, she argued.

“The recipe for great escapist reading does not include ample servings of stuff people would rather not know,” Miller wrote. “The promoters of lad lit confuse the way women exhaustively analyze a boyfriend’s smallest words and gestures with genuine curiosity about men’s inner lives.”

Similarly, those stoking the fires of Glick lit seem to confuse the way Americans obsess over celebrities with a real and abiding interest in the noncelebrities who toil within the fame-making machinery. It’s not just that these fictional wannabes’ jobs sound boring. It’s that “Will she get promoted?” is not a question meaningful enough to build a novel around.

Which is why it’s worth noting that the authors of these books are almost all refugees from the very business they are attempting to chronicle. Among them are not only ex-publicists and personal assistants but a former agent-in-training at International Creative Management and two recovering development executives.

Is it too snarky to ask why, if these women (the authors are all female) were so eager to leave the business, they still think it’s interesting enough to read about? One starts to suspect, uncharitably, that the only reason some of these people became novelists was that in their cases, at least, the answer to “Will she get promoted?” was no.

In at least one case, that suspicion isn’t right. Tracy McArdle, whose debut novel, “Confessions of a Nervous Shiksa,” comes out in August, was on the fast track at Sony Pictures when she quit her publicity job to write full time. The woman is funny -- while she was still at Sony, a nonindustry-focused essay she wrote called “Fixing the Hole in My Cat” was forwarded via e-mail around town, interrupting many a workday (including mine) while those who read it fell panting out of their chairs.

I was dispirited to discover, therefore, that after gracefully exiting the world of film and TV publicity, McArdle chose to construct her first novel around ... film and TV publicity. According to the press materials, “Confessions” (which is subtitled: “Movies Are the Only Religion She Knows”) is about “the post-breakup highs and lows of Alexis Manning, a studio publicity V.P. with a sick cat, a broken heart, professional frustrations and a sneaking suspicion she should have been a veterinarian.”

To which I say: At least the cat survived.

Apparently McArdle is being guided by the same kinds of people that Chris Dyer, author of “The Loves of a D-Girl,” thanks on her acknowledgments page. Dyer singles out for special praise an editor “who suggested that I delve into my own unhappy back-story in feature-film development and led me to the happy ending I’d been missing all along.” This, in a book whose first line reads, “Fade in on a famous actress as she glides across a grandiose Hollywood stage.”

Happy ending? You. Be. The. Judge. *


From The Assistants

Before I get under the covers, I say my prayers, like I do every night.... And on this particular night I can’t help asking for one more favor: to let me be a personal assistant to one of the most famous people in the world! ... I love Hollywood. Please, God, make Hollywood love me back!


From The Twins of Tribeca

Glorious was famous for being a difficult place to work. I’d heard rumors that there was even a twelve-step program for former employees.... Tales abounded of bright young things who went to work at Glorious and left barely capable of asking, “Will that be to stay or to go?”