Thursday, November 4, 2010

Ghostwriting No. 24: 50% More Legitimate Endorsements!

Gold foil stickers. They're everywhere, and they'll say anything.

It's the time of year when I rifle through the fiction section, checking to make sure I am acquainted with each book (and to see what's missing), and this time around I'm noticing how many books have circular gold stickers announcing everything from the obviously useful information that the author won the Nobel or that the book won the Man Booker or Pulitzer to announcing awards I had to look up for lack of familiarity (I had no idea how many writing associations hand out awards in this country), or sharing last-minute, high-powered blurbs (often one-word superlatives by household-name authors), or promising - no, I wish I were kidding - extra material. Reading group guides, added introductions, author interviews, that sort of thing.

Does that actually work on book buyers? The 25% MORE FREE advertising program? I'm dubious. But anyway.

Awards: They are useful insofar as they bring recognition to authors and works of outstanding quality. Have you noticed how many people have lost faith in them, though? Well, maybe not lost, since I'm not sure when who had what faith, but especially since the Nobel committee laureated J. M. G. Le Clezio, I've heard rather the opposite of "Ooo, a Nobel winner, this must be good!" Pulitzer-winning novels, word around the counter informs me, are all very depressing (though the folks who tell me this usually allow that The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay did not follow the pattern they claim). Man Booker prizes, my sources tell me, seem to go to very weird authors (and I don't disagree that Margaret Atwood is weird - I'm not sure she would either - but Peter Carey and Kiran Desai, weird? Unless being articulate and picking topics that don't appear to be grovelling for feature filmhood is weird).

On another point, though, one can suffer from award saturation. The dozens of widely recognized prizes aside, Writer's Digest (the publisher) awards gold foil stickers to the author of a winning self-published novel. This probably isn't quite the branding the Nobel Laureate sticker-bearers were hoping to tap.

Meanwhile, the blurbs. I don't think there's really a way to win at the game of recommending books, since people naturally disagree on what's good and why, but I do think there are a few clear ways to lose. One is to call a book "a glowing triumph of profoundly moving imagination," which uses five out of the seven most overused words in literary-fiction blurbiage (the other two are "exuberant" and "compelling"); one is to have a single adjective, excerpted from what was hopefully a full and intelligent discussion of the book's merit, slapped on a dust jacket with an exclamation point after it, as if to demonstrate the expedience with which the lonely adjective was cleaved from its context; and one is to compare a book to two other books that bear little, if any, resemblance to each other or the book at hand. For example - and I am not making this up, as much as I wish I were - calling The Raw Shark Texts a convergence of "Moby Dick and The Wizard of Oz" (Kirkus Reviews, what were you thinking?) just makes me wonder how many people are literate enough to know that Moby Dick was, not a shark, but a whale.

I'm all for visual cues to help market books. Don't get me wrong - I know how hard the publishing industry has worked to give customers ways to sort through the incredible numbers of titles for kinds they like - I do see that gold foil circles have their uses. But 1. Wolf. Do not cry it. and 2. "Excellent" - New York Times Book Review... really? Couldn't you at least have thrown in a noun so that I know whether it's "Excellent Noir" or "Excellent Recipes"?

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