Sunday, March 16, 2014

The Impossibility of Jacket Copy

The human brain, when you start to think about it, is really fucking weird. Or rather, just about all of it would make sense, if not for the fact that, far too much of the time, we have very little control over what it does and thinks. This is not a post about “Yeah, I'll just have one more drink and then call it a night,” and then three hours later you're a pharmacist in Tijuana filing the 501C(3) paperwork for your parrot rescue organization, though I suppose it's connected, but rather about how powerful and permanent certain triggers are in making decisions. It's about how we develop our own systems of sorting the vast amounts of information in the world and how powerful those systems become and how difficult (perhaps miraculous) it is to break out of those systems, even when you know how restrictive those systems are and even when you know that you are personally and powerfully affected by other people's systems. So, of course, this is a story about jacket copy.

Jacket copy is the stuff on the outside of a book publishers put there to get you to buy the book. They usually compose some combination of blurbs, summary, and author biography and one could argue they are one of, if not the most, difficult forms of human expression. I mean, all you need to do is take a vastly complex work of literature, identify both its artistic heart and its most marketable features and smash them together in a hundred word statement that is both honest and effective. And do it on a deadline. While you're writing copy for like, twelve other books. And you're an intern. The reason jacket copy tends to be cliché ridden nonsense, is because it is impossible. And it gets harder when you really think about how readers read jacket copy. But this post isn't about jacket copy, this post is about a particular experience my brain had with some particular jacket copy, and why my brain, in that moment, with its systems totally failed. (Or was still right, but in the wrong way or for the wrong reasons, because, spoiler, I did read it, and I did not like it, but not for the reasons I thought I would not like when I thought I would not like it from this blurb.) (If this were simple it wouldn't be fun.) (Hey, man, this is post-post-modernism. Everything is uncertainty in parentheses.)

Here's how that particular jacket copy opens: “Jake Whyte is living on her own in her old farmhouse on a craggy island, a place of ceaseless rain and battering winds. Her disobedient collie, Dog, and a flock of sheep are her sole companions, which is how she wants it to be.” Here's how my brain with its systems reacted: “Fuck that.” Don't get me wrong, I loves me some meditative fiction (The Death of Virgil if you're looking for a masterpiece of meditative fiction) but there is a particular kind of meditative prose I absolutely can't stand and if there is a chance some of that meditation happens in the context of a sweater and a cup of tea, I go from can't standing to actively fleeing. (Nothing against meditating mid-sweater-and-tea, but for some reason the prose that usually describes those moments just grates on my inner ear.) And when I scanned down to the big sum-up, it actually got worse as the closing key words are “stubborn hopes, unexpected beauty, and hard-won redemption,” which made Josh's brain go: “Oh yeah, totally fuck that.”

Then I saw the book pop up on The Millions most anticipated list and its description of the book hinted at something far darker, far more abstract, and far more interesting than what was implied by the lines quoted above. The galley was still at the store so I filled in the middle: “But every few nights something—or someone—picks off one of the sheep and sounds a new deep pulse of terror. There are foxes in the woods, a strange boy and a strange man, and strange rumors of an obscure, formidable beast.” Now that is the kind of neo-horror existential crisis I can get behind. Sure it's still jacket copy, but I've read enough of it that I can (usually) sift through the jargon to get a sense of things. Add in that another bookseller friend started reading it and so, I read it.

There's an analogous problem, probably more relevant to poetry, but with some general applicablity, that I call “Bukowski's 10% Problem.” I love Bukowski. Not soft-spot-for-my-youth love him, like actually, respect him as an artist, but about 10% of every Bukowski collection is utter garbage. Ten percent of his poems are what his detractors accuse his oeuvre of being. When I find a new collection of poetry that intrigues me at the bookstore, I flip to a random poem and read it. If I like it, I keep going. That's how I discovered Brian Turner, James Tate, Karyna McGlynn and Kevin Young, among others. That's how I've discarded dozens more. But what if some, or all, of those discarded poets have Bukowski's 10% problem? What if pretty much all poets do (Except Mary Oliver. She is just terrible.) and whether you like poetry or not (as most people seem to not) depends on whether or not you happen to have formative encounters with selections from the 10%?

The wrong blurb. A bad cover. A recommendation from your friend with terrible taste in music. The mood you happen to be in when you first encounter the book. How old you are when you try to read it first. Given all the barriers, it is almost a guarantee that you will not read the perfect book for you. The odds of that perfect book making through all the gates are essentially impossible. Or at least it would be, if another statistical factor didn't compensate.

Connecting with great literature isn't impossible because the world is filled with great literature. If you haven't found a great book, it's because you either, actually had no interest in finding a great book or you didn't really look. Which is not to say that every book you pick up, even every book you pick up with an optimistic perspective, will be a good book. Every now and again you're going to try (and perhaps even finish) a total piece of shit. (It reminds me of something Anthony Bourdain once said when asked about his worst meals. To paraphrase he said, “If you eat to avoid a bad meal, you'll never have a great meal.” Not quite the same thing, but I think it's such a great idea I decided to cram it in here anyway.)

The awful thing about traditional publishing is the disconnect between the person who writes the book and the personal who sells it. The great thing about traditional publishing is the disconnect between the person who writes the book and the person who sells it. That disconnect allows for assessment, description, and discovery. It means that whatever gets to potential readers is a discussion not a statement, it is an opinion of some distance, it is an open and direct attempt to connect with readers rather than an open and direct attempt to connect with an artistic vision. Yes, every cynical thing you've heard about blurbing and publicity are true AND every person who blurbs and publicizes loves books and is working their assess off for not much money, generally in very expensive cities, to transfer that love to everyone else. Some times it works, sometimes it doesn't, and some times that other thing happens where phenomena beyond our control conspire to create something we could never imagine.

1 comment:

  1. And this is why I've stopped reading blurbs. I go straight for the first page. If I like it, I skip to the middle. Still like it? I buy it. Of course if the cover art is terrible, odds are I won't pick up the book. Unless it has an amazing title.

    Poor authors. So much whim and chance determine your fates.