I buy and read a lot of books, and I hunger for many more. While doing this, I’ve come to hate two specific external things about them. Hate, as in “imagines emptying several clips of hollow point bullets into their quivering bodies” hate.
(1) Backcover descriptions.
Most books have a descriptive paragraph or two on their back covers. Half of the time it seems that the text has been written by a random blind hobo picked from the street, since it has almost no connection to the plot of the book itself.
It’s as if the cover-writer overheard the plot and setting in a party, drunk too much, and the next morning groaned what he could remember to an associate, who translated it into Turkmenistani, delivered it to Pyongyang, and had it there translated back into English with a dictionary, and then copyedited into decent text by someone whose powers of expression usually manifest themselves in smearing blood and feces on bathroom walls, and occasionally on the ceiling.
Why, when publishers are on the receiving and hiring end of a great deal of varying levels of literary talent, why do they always pick their backcover writers from the “hobos on a sugar high” pool?
Just asking. It’s probably one of those inviolate laws of the universe.
If only the people writing backcover blurbs for fiction were even more incompetent — then one could treat the cover texts as meaningless babble that tells something of the mood of the book, but spoils nothing of the plot. But no, there’s just enough verisimilitude to ruin even this angle.
Really, if the first half of backcover texts are nothing like the book, the second half — all on the backs of novels — invariably tell the point which the first 300 pages of the novel strives to keep mysterious or hidden.
Seriously. I once bought a novel, from an author I then liked and whose backcover I thus didn’t need to read, but I read it anyway. And what jumps up at me? “And while the mystery deepens, he begins to wonder if she’s the murderer!”
Guess what: She was, and that asinine insinuation ruined a big part of the mystery for me, since those inane heavy-handed hints are always how the matter turns out to be. Apparently there are significant amounts of book-reading baboons that might blow their heart valves if surprised by a novel’s resolution.
A really crafty novelist might write an insinuating backcover text himself/herself, and thus make the reader blunder into hasty conclusions about the plot. Finally, there would be an afterword where the author apologized for the ploy. That would be a pleasing surprise — well, except that whenever I find an author I like, I lend and buy and read his/her books without ever looking at the backcovers. It’s less painful that way.
(Then again, the backcover ploy could backfire if done badly. A book described as a nurse romance that, after 20 pages, turned into a hospital siege by zombies could end up with rather dissatisfied readers. “What, ‘a puddle of entrails’? Where’re the hunky doctors?”)
“Solves the most puzzling mystery of all time”. “Greatest ever”. “A phenomenally unique tour-de-force of uniquely singular originality”. Breathtaking, enthralling, heart-freezing, controversial parrot-droppings!
Every single book seems to have its front cover smeared with semirandom superlatives and words of praise. Every first-time author is cried as the bestest, brightest promise-talent ever, every work is a masterpiece, a tour-de-force, a book that will be remembered and enshrined in plastic forever!
As a result, none of the words mean anything anymore.
It’s the same with all advertising. Once you get on the superlative treadmill, all sense flies out the window. “Entertaining” is bested by “exceptional”, which must be couped with a work that is “extraordinary”, which loses to “godlike in its execution” — as a result, none of the superlatives and words of praise mean anything, and I’ve come to hate them as the meaningless blemishes on pretty covers that they are.
Sooner or later we’ll have a Bible whose cover cries: “The greatest unique original best-selling thrilling masterpiece hexadecahexalogy anthology superpunch of all time! (now also available as a multi-trillion-dollar movie with Angelina Jolie as Jesus!)”, and which has a snippet of praise from the Pope, and from Stephen King.
(One single exception: A quote from someone I know to be sensible might have a real meaning. Then again, it might just be a way of marketing the endorser as an “influential bestselling author”, or propping up a fellow with similar goals. “I’ll kiss your book if you lick mine.”)
Also, almost every nonfiction books is a “the”. Not “A History of Blah” anymore, but “The History of Blah”. I hate that arrogant assumption of definitiveness. And too many books have stupid, useless subtitles. How about Murder : The Bestseller of the Century — that’d be some title.
And these two things, badly done backcovers and hyperventilating blurbs, I hate (maybe I should write hatehatehate instead) because they can, especially if combined, ruin a good book or, even worse, make me pass it, thinking it’s something I wouldn’t like. I don’t even want to think how many of the mystery-thrillers published after the Da Vinci Code were really just rushed clones of it, and how many are nice original books whose plot-descriptions were raped by unscrupulous backcover-describers and quotation-vendors to steal a little bit of the Code’s thunder. (“Huh? It’s got a protagonist and a bit of history? Get me my Code template! And let’s name this thing the Dante Code!“)
And now that I’ve let off a bit of steam, I’ll go to read something nice by either Dan Simmons or Bart Ehrman — without looking at the frickin’ covers. Have a nice day.