Whirled Musings

Across the Universe with Cosmic Connie, aka Connie L. Schmidt...or maybe just through the dung-filled streets and murky swamps of pop culture -- more specifically, the New-Age/New-Wage crowd, pop spirituality & religion, pop psychology, self(ish)-help, business babble, media silliness, & related (or occasionally unrelated) matters of consequence. Hope you're wearing boots. (By the way, the "Cosmic" bit in my moniker is IRONIC.)

Monday, August 14, 2006

The Celestine profit sea

As you may know, James Redfield’s 1993 "underground" bestseller, The Celestine Prophecy, has finally been turned into a movie. And as the reviews pour in, the consensus – notwithstanding glowing praise from like-minded souls such as Marianne Williamson – seems to be that the movie is every bit as artfully conceived and executed as the book.

True confession: I actually read The Celestine Prophecy from cover to cover about a year after it came out. At that time the book was embraced by many as a pioneering work in what was being marketed as a totally new genre: spiritual fiction. (The genre wasn’t really all that new, but, it could be argued, the new-age spin was.) Problem was, some people didn’t know it was fiction, since that wasn’t stated real clearly on the cover. The original teal-colored dust jacket was minimalist, almost stark. Underneath the book’s title was what passed for a subtitle: "An adventure." Not "A novel." Or "A spiritual adventure novel." But merely, "An adventure."

The blurb above the title read, "In the rain forests of Peru, an ancient manuscript has been discovered. Within its pages are 9 key insights into life itself – insights each human being is predicted to gasp sequentially, one insight then another, as we move toward a spiritual culture on Earth." This blurb, and much of the content within, apparently convinced many that the book was a true story of a newly-discovered ancient manuscript full of profound secrets. I am not saying everyone who liked this book believed it to be nonfiction. But judging from some of the comments in online discussion groups, many did seem confused.

At the bottom of the original front cover, below the author’s name, was a ringing endorsement from the popular death-and-dying author Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, M.D, who pronounced it, "A fabulous book about experiencing life." She added, "I couldn’t put it down." No worries, Liz, a lot of other people could. And did.

Being the sharp cookie I am – you have to get up pretty early in the afternoon to outsmart me – I figured out right away that the book was fiction. Trouble was, it was very poorly written fiction. (Note that I am only stating my opinion; I am not a licensed book critic.) There was just enough of a plot, if you could call it that, to make me care about "what happened next," and that is the only reason I finished it. But I found something to roll my eyes about on nearly every page. I found the book to be rife with one-dimensional characters, stilted dialogue, preachy narrative and new-age clichés.

Not that Redfield’s general lack of flair as a writer has had any negative effect whatsoever on his success. And, I feel compelled to add, even a poorly written book can have merit if it has new, or at least interesting, ideas. The copy on the back cover did promise that the book was unlike any I’d read before. It even promised to change my life forever. Or, more specifically, to "change lives forever." So did I find, when I had finished my Celestine adventure, that my life was one of those that had indeed been changed? No, but maybe that was because over the years I had read all of the ideas – the insights, if you will – time and time again in countless spiritual and new-age books and magazines. Having these concepts showcased in a badly executed adventure novel did not move me any closer to the "aha" state so coveted by contemporary spiritual seekers and seminar junkies.

Part of the reason for this could be that by the time I read the book, I was well into cosmic-smarty-pants mode. But even at that stage of my spiritual regression, I still could have been moved, or at least impressed, by a competently written book. Even now I can still be moved by spiritual things. I'm not that far gone.

Even so, I have my standards, and The Celestine Prophecy did not live up to them.

In many ways Redfield was fortunate, for at the time his book came out, the world was ripe for "spiritual fiction" with a new-age twist. The Age of Aquarius had been struggling to be born ever since the Fifth Dimension sang about it, and maybe even before that, and as we approached the new millennium, many were wondering if perhaps the Aquarian Age had come and gone and we’d somehow missed it. Fiction or not, The Celestine Prophecy filled a need, inspiring hundreds of Celestine study groups in new-thought churches and metaphysical centers all over the US, and, ultimately, all over the world. It also spawned study guides (make that "experiential guides"), tapes, CDs and countless other auxiliary materials, providing instant new-age-star status for Redfield and his wife Salle. People were drawn to the idea of "a new spritual culture on Earth" – a new age, indeed.

In due time came the unavoidable sequel, The Tenth Insight – and why stop at ten when you have a good thing going? Before long Redfield came out with The Secret of Shambhala: In Search Of The Eleventh Insight. (The latter book, or at least its title, has led me to some meaningful inner exploration in which I have mulled for minutes over whether I prefer the Three Dog Night or the B.W. Stevenson version of the song, Shambala (that’s how it’s spelled in the song title). I love B.W., but I’m going with the 3DN version right now. The Rev votes for B.W., who wrote the song.)

James Redfield is a true publishing success, no doubt about it. He has a lot of stuff on the market, and he also seems to be very much in demand as a keynote speaker; I’m sure his speaking fees will go up dramatically with the release of the TCP flick. Redfield also became a legend in the self-publishing world. After receiving numerous rejections from trade publishers, he had self-published the original version of The Celestine Prophecy. A few folks liked it, and they told their friends, who told their friends, who in turn told their friends…and that’s the greatly over-simplified version of how it became an underground bestseller. I’m not saying Redfield didn’t work hard to promote his book, and Goddess knows he worked hard to write it, the labor being apparent in every sentence. Eventually word of the book’s success reached New York, and Redfield ended up with an $800,000 advance from Warner Books. In retrospect, that’s a bargain price, but it was a pretty significant chunk of change for an unknown author in the early 1990s (or even now).

Not everybody was singing Redfield’s praises, of course. While casually surfing the Net one day many years ago, I came across a delightfully acerbic essay, "Why I Hate The Celestine Prophecy," from a talented and funny Canadian academic, Kenneth Moyle of McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario. I can’t say which is more hilarious, the original essay or some of the responses Moyle got from people who hated "Why I Hate The Celestine Prophecy." The type of angry, poorly spelled missives he received should be familiar to many who have ventured into debunking territory.

Moyle remained unfazed by his critics. As he wrote in the conclusion to his original essay: "I'm not bothered by The Celestine Prophecy simply because it presents an easy-to-use approach to complex issues. Any religion or philosophical system should have a shallow end in which people may splash about and get their feet wet before being eased, coaxed or thrown into the deeper, more difficult waters in which enlightenment, growth and strength are truly found. I find The Celestine Prophecy bothersome because it lacks any depth at all; it is a philosophical wading pool, full of children's laughter and sparkling sunshine and bright pictures of pretty fish and piss-warmed water."

Amen, Ken.

A much better book, in my opinion anyway, was the inevitable parody, The Philistine Prophecy by McCoy Hatfield, an author who, judging from his name, was continually at war with himself. Actually his real name is Billy Frolick, or that’s his story, anyway. (As Richard Ronald Roberts, he wrote The Ditches Of Edison County, also, in my opinion, a far superior book to the original.)

Sporting the same type of minimalist cover as Celestine, except in a spiritual violet hue, The Philistine Prophecy bore this blurb: "In the swamplands of Florida, a two-thousand-year-old manuscript has been found, along with a book-on-tape version. The document contains thirteen pieces of wisdom so profound that they allegedly induce ‘ice-cream-cone’-type headaches to anyone who reads them. It has been foretold that each member of this planet will grasp and integrate these confirmations and insignificances, with the exception of those who have cable TV – they just can’t seem to find the time. The rest of us will then continue racing on a path toward Armageddon…but maybe it won’t feel quite as bad."

There was, of course, a glowing endorsement under the author’s name, this time by "Elizabeth Kubla-Khan, R.I.P."

"For decades," Hatfield writes in his Author’s Note at the beginning, "we have been knocking upon the door of eternal enlightenment. Often, spiritually speaking, there has been no answer. At other times, a strange clawing sound could be heard from the other side. In many instances, the door had wet paint on it." Thus the author sets the stage for a thrill ride packed with astounding insights.

So now here we are, well into the new millennium, and people are still hungry for the next new spin on old notions. McCoy Hatfield, alas, has faded into oblivion, but James Redfield keeps churning out the books, and his original vision is now on the big screen – an event that inspired the aforementioned Marianne Williamson to write, "It’s impossible to overestimate the spiritual impact of The Celestine Prophecy. The movie version continues its mysterious influence, creating an actual model of this evolutionary awakening. The world will light up after you see it."

I’ve yet to see it, but my world has lit up nonetheless, because when I pulled The Philistine Prophecy from its place on the shelf, where it was nestled cozily amidst my Dave Barry books and a dog-eared copy of Women Who Run With The Poodles, the book automatically opened up to a page at the very end. It is on this page that McCoy Hatfield reveals the Thirteenth Precept:

"People Will Buy Just About Anything."

And that, Dear Ones, is the real key to success in today’s world. Furthermore, I am quite certain that if I could only break through those annoying energy blockages that people of lesser vision call "literary standards" I could then fully embrace this Precept…and it would not be long at all before I was swimming in my own sea of profits. I'm working on it.

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Blogger Skeebo said...

So, what propelled the Celestine Prophecy? How did he make his book so popular?

Friday, July 03, 2009 7:58:00 PM  
Blogger muzuzuzus said...

in answer to post above:

stupid needy people

Monday, February 22, 2010 8:59:00 AM  

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