Sunday, 4 October 2009

The Audacity of Hype

Open the first page of any award-winning paperback, and you’re guaranteed to find four to five pages of fawning reviews. A seemingly endless clanjamphrie of newspaper critics, published authors and hacks tripping over one another to declare their unconditional love for the text and author. Among them, not one criticism, as though the work is an Eggersian work of staggering genius.

How then, after wading through four pages of one-note praise, are we supposed to go into the book unbiased? Our expectations have been blown so enormously high, surely anything less than a work of brain-melting brilliance will leave us bitterly disappointed?

You say: “You don’t have to read the reviews.” I say: “Don’t be stupid, disembodied voice! How can you avoid them! They’re plastered on the cover, the back cover, the inside, and the inside back pages! Your curiosity is too strong! Get away from me and take a bath!”

Often, of course, the reviews are right. There are simply books everyone is going to love, pretend to love, or whose prosaic powers of seduction are so strong, the only response is to open one’s legs and receive their thrusting magnificence. Example:
Janice Galloway.

Then again, there are dozens of examples of overhyped tosh, and these books are collected in a handy repository known as the Booker Prize. When a book is nominated for this masturbatory vacuum of talent, it is usually a good idea to run from it, far, far into yonder hills.

A recent example, for me, is James Lever’s decent novel
Me Cheeta. Published (in hardback) anonymously, this amusing spoof Hollywood autobiography, narrated by the chimp from the 1940s Tarzan films, is passable train fodder, but hardly a serious literary watermark. I found the text risible, but since I dislike Hollywood trivia – and chimps – my attention waned.

At no point was I conscious I was reading a ‘spoof of genius’ or a literary masterpiece. The prose was clever, satirical – maybe even touching – but for the most part, rambling and obvious. Maybe I was feeling humourless that day (most likely), but I found myself questioning the narrator’s natural apeness. In a novel such as Will Self’s
Great Apes, our simian friends were written about with remarkably detailed charm and wit. I longed for a greater anthropomorphic kinship with my Darwinian antecedents.

So I ploughed through the spurious anecdotes like that one man who sits in the front row of a comedy gig and laughs at nothing all night. I decided that the book had let me down. Where was that spoof of incredible genius, that touching masterpiece of dazzling originality that the critics promised me? And why is everyone united in their praise of this book? Look for one negative review on the net, and you’d be hard-pressed to find it.

The answer? Either Lever is a complete genius, and I’m a chump, or there are greater forces at work. When a novel is Booker-nominated, a form of collective brainwashing takes place. Books are officially declared ‘genius’ and enter an untouchable pantheon of undeniable greatness. Any fool who dares to criticise these texts is carted off and shot quietly behind the offices of the Times Literary Supplement.

I say: run from overhyped books as though rescuing your child from stampeding wildebeest. Leave the worthy novels to fester on bourgeois trestle tables, and scour the small presses for the true genius. It’s out there in many guises.

And publishers: please stop splattering books with good reviews and building our expectations! You know it’s destructive, you showy animals.


  1. Ha. This is interesting. While I agree that hype does not make a book good (infact, the opposite often seems to ring more true), the Man Booker Prize is one of the few remaining ones I actually bother paying attention to, since it does not appear to be entirely lost in the "this-book-is-so-well-written-that-it-is-too-good-for-anyone-to-understand-it" *cough*SwedishNobelCommittee*cough* trend that so many literary prizes seem engulfed in. It is not flawless (I tolerated "White Tiger", for instance, but I did not "Vernon God Little"-love it), but I still think it has some merit.

    What I 100% agree with, though, is the general rubbishness of review excerpts in or on any book. I do tend to skip them (I'm heading to the shower any minute), but they annoy me nevertheless. Rather than judging the book, however, I try to feel bad for the author for having a bad PR strategist.

  2. Hee hee. Yes, the Booker isn't entirely horrible. I simply resent when the praise-machine works overtime, DBC Pierre being a case in point. Where is HE now?

    I would say three or four reviews on the back cover are enough.

  3. I heard Bruce Springsteen on the radio today and remarked how he had sunk like a stone when first released. They called him "the new Bob Dylan", which he wasn't, so the over-hype killed him. Fortunately for him he had a second shot.

    I had a rule of always ignoring anything hyped, particularly films. I saved myself from a lot of crap but also, I later found out, had missed a few true gems.

    We have two worlds here.
    In one, the poor old promoters have no understanding of setting levels of expectation, they think overkill is a good thing.

    In the other world, we have the 'literary' freemasons. Accept their invitation and you will be supported and protected for life, as you will also protect them. Once in, you stay a member unless you break the rules.
    The two pertinent questions are, "Do you want to join?" and "how do you get invited?"
    I think the invitations process is a bit like back in school, be moderately good at the current fad. Wow, he can Yoyo, he's one of the good guys.

    Are the small presses any better, any different? Or do they just have less marketing muscle?

  4. I can deal with maybe one or two (reviews). I prefer when the back cover is devoted to information about the book and/or the author. Not too much information, but a little. Just enough that you remember what you're looking for if you want to buy the book in a different store than the one you originally found it in...

    And the last I heard of DBC Pierre was the Ludmila-book. It wasn't as brilliant as his debut, and it was slightly too gory for my taste (as opposed to VGL), but an interesting read all the same. It must have been a good three or four years since I read it, though. We should petition for more.

    And I don't think less necessarily is more (or that smaller is better, as the question was here...). It's just that in an ideal world you'd get to read any book without any prejudice or expectations. That would be the only way to truly appreciate each one individually. But it's not an ideal world.

  5. Mike: Or, in some cases in the literary world, if you DON'T keep breaking the rules you get the boot. Conventionality is anathema to lit-snobs. Like me.

    I often wonder about smaller presses. From my (limited) experience, fledgling presses take more risks and don't start tailoring their requirements until they're successful. Then again, some are too scaredy-cat to take risks to begin with.

    Cruella: I think I'll do what you do and staunchly ignore the reviews. Better still, I could run through corporate bookshops tearing off any cover page I find too self-congratulatory. See how many copies get sold then. Mwah-ha!

    Yes, I miss DBC too. An odd chap, but a sublime stylist.

  6. Mark:
    I was referring to the rules of membership, not the rules of literature.
    I'm just waiting for the latest fad to be "white guy living and writing in Malaysia, but not about Malaysia".
    Then my boat will come in!
    "Who will get a fishy, in a little dishy, who will get a fishy when the boat comes in".

  7. Yes, I was referring to the rules of membership too. I still think my rule-breaking comment applies, dude. Sheesh.

    Wi-aye, man! The time will come for argumentative white guys living Malaysia. Just you wait.

  8. Tutt-Tutt! My dad always said 'opinions are like assholes, everyone has one.' A frenemy once said 'I never read anything on the New York Times Best Seller list.' The beauty of being human is your entitlement to your own opinion - if ye be in a free society. I am impressed you even read Me Cheeta! I probably would not have picked it up. I rarely read the diatribes on the jackets. My momma taught me to read the first few pages of a book, thumb to the middle and read a few more. If the book didn't capture my attention during that preview than it probably wasn't worth my time. I think too one must consider the impetus for reading. There are times when my brain just doesn't want to be impressed and I will pick up a trashy romance novel just for the sheer entertainment value. But that is me - I know there are others who wouldn't dare stoop to those depths (however - those authors are raking in the dough while I am still kneading)...when I want to be challenged - I read Pynchon (who some may say????) In a capitalist society it just goes with the territory (cliche) that opinions to move product will be punted our way...meh!

  9. Hi Jen! Yes, sometime those jacket diatribes are pesky buggers. It's OK to read trash from time to time. Every book is an education for the writer.

    I'm looking forward to reading Pynchon soon!