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the Complete Review
the complete review - literary

The Secret of Fame

Gabriel Zaid

general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase The Secret of Fame

Title: The Secret of Fame
Author: Gabriel Zaid
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: (Eng. 2008)
Length: 182 pages
Original in: Spanish
Availability: The Secret of Fame - US
The Secret of Fame - UK
The Secret of Fame - Canada
  • Translated by Natasha Wimmer

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Our Assessment:

B+ : enjoyable and clever essays, but a fairly loose collection

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
San Francisco Chronicle . 14/5/2008 Ethan Gilsdorf
Wall St. Journal . 24/4/2008 Andrew Stark

  From the Reviews:
  • "The Secret of Fame is at its best when Zaid turns his clever and critical eye to lampooning the foibles and superficialities of publishing and academia. (...) The chinks appear as the book, in its second half, wanders into more esoteric territory, taking on a lit-crit, philosophy-lite tone that seems more intended to impress us with how many works Zaid can cite" - Ethan Gilsdorf, San Francisco Chronicle

  • "Mr. Zaid's goal is to capture the variety of anxieties that beset literary fame-seekers, and he does so with a mocking cleverness. A serious theme, though, runs through his book -- that with the possible exception of a few agonized painters and musicians, no one can quite touch the exquisite torment of the literary artist as he faces the hazards of fate." - Andrew Stark, Wall Street Journal

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Secret of Fame doesn't exactly fulfil any promise its title holds. Fame is a recurring subject in these short essays, but the collection both circles around it, and ranges considerably beyond it. Zaid is a bookish author, intersted primarily in literary matters, and The Secret of Fame is very much a collection of literary essays: almost all have something to do with writers, readers, and books.
       Though less focussed than his enjoyable look at So Many Books, Zaid does harp on a few specific points. The nature of fame in the contemporary world is one of them, and specifically the shift from a focus on the work -- so complete that in the earliest times there wasn't even any author to ascribe them to -- to the author. One reason for this, and part of the problem as he sees it is the sheer and overwhelming quantity available now (of books, specifically, but really of almost any sort of distraction and information).
       Zaid echoes much of what Pierre Bayard wrote in How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read, acknowledging the impossibility of reading anywhere near all the books that are out there, as well as suggesting that it isn't really necessary to read that much anyway. He notes that ours is a world where:

     There are always shy people who are embarrassed to attend a dinner in celebration of an author's latest book without having read the book. But more worldly people realize that the important thing is the toasting, the excitement, the sense of being part of a cultured circle, the witty remarks, the gossip: what the party says, not what the books says.
       He cites the amusing example of Carlos Lohlé: the publishing house he worked at:
got into trouble by publishing a book that was full of unforgivable nonsense. A thorough investigation was launched in every department, and it turned out no one had read it.
     "How can we publish books no one has read ? Because we aren't oriented towards reading, but toward achieving goals of growth, production, sales, profitability. If I personally read all the books I published, how many could I publish ? Extremely few, because in order to publish one I have to read ten; and if I don't have time to read more than two or three a week, I can't publish more than one a month."
       Publishers who aren't oriented towards reading, and a public for whom the value doesn't lie in the text but in abstractions surrounding the book -- being seen with it, knowing the latest gossip about the author, hobnobbing with 'literary' crowds who can feign familiarity with the book (but can't be bothered -- or don't have the time -- to read it) --: this is what it's come to, Zaid shows.
       The Secret of Fame is also filled with other variations on the theme, such as his riffs on quoting and being quoted, where citation matters more than substance because it means recognition by others (for the quoted author) as well as being part of a tradition -- standing on the shoulders of the giants who came before, as it were -- (for the person doing the quoting). Zaid considers the phenomenon of the 'collected works', and looks at the evolution of the footnote (he's not a fan) and the 'microtext'.
       Almost each essay is a quick but pleasant ramble around a specific subject, some ranging farther than others (and with some overlap from essay to essay). Zaid uses many literary references and examples, and he generally chooses wisely and uses them well, making for the rich sort of text that tempts the reader to continue exploring on their own. His main points come through very clearly: an over-emphasis in the present day on celebrity, at the expense of the (literary) work; far too much to choose from ("Preserving everything is a form of negligence that causes a new kind of damage: the loss of what matters in a glut of insignificance"); far too much emphasis on the overwhelmingly comprehensive when the value is often found in just a small part of those wholes.
       The Secret of Fame is an entertaining collection, and very enjoyable to dip into, but it is a sort of grab-bag collection, rather than any really coherent whole -- frustratingly so, since Zaid's range is narrow enough that one could well imagine a more cohesive and tightly focussed book. But Zaid resists that -- and it seems appropriate that he does, given much of what he says here. In any case: worthwhile.

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The Secret of Fame:
  • Paul Dry Books publicity page
  • Essays by Gabriel Zaid at Letras Libres (including many included in this volume)
Reviews: Other books by Gabriel Zaid under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Mexican author Gabriel Zaid was born in 1934.

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© 2008 the complete review

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