I lose my cool: Self-praise on book covers

If you ask me, self-praise is one of the most repulsive things a person can do outside actual crime. (And several intensely physical things, but let’s not get into that.)

If I read the backcover blurb of a book, I don’t want to hear it contains “poignant passages that describe [the author’s] views of life and death”. The “poignant” is a judgment I don’t trust the writer or the publisher to report accurately as they are involved; report back when book backs make a mention now and then of “so-and-so musings” and “trite remarks” within. And beyond that, self-praise just is bad form. Words of opinion have their place; but that place is not pointed at oneself or one’s offerings when the words are of indiscriminate and unquantifiable praise. I myself may think I’m the most precious flowering of all culture and civilization and a sadly neglected sex symbol of limitless erotic potency, but I’m not obnoxious enough to say it. (Disregard the previous sentence.)

If I had my will, every single book that trumpeted the author as “the new Stephen King” (not even “a”, but “the”!) would have plain brown paper over its covers.

Glued on.

Possibly stapled, too.

Welding wouldn’t work, I think.

I understand (or I hope I do) that advertisement is not the author’s choice or doing, and is necessary to sell things; but it is all too often still obnoxious self-praise, if not as done by the author, then by the author-and-publisher-combination whose work results in the actual release. The omnipresence of such self-praise has troublesome results, since praise has a treadmill just like euphemisms do, and right now bookshops seem to show that every single feckin’ book published is the best one ever of all. As I don’t believe we’re living such a carefully paced upsurge of literary quality, I can only deduce I’m being lied to; and how the hell is that supposed to entice me?

(I count unevaluated praise as lies, by the way. There can, by definition, only be one “number one debut of the year”, and unless the cover has a reference for the independent body which by some act of magic has decreed it so when it’s only July, I reason I’m being taken for a magpie or a child. My decision of purchase is influenced accordingly.)

A good question for someone with actual data would be whether a publisher that didn’t take part in this manic cover-uglification would suffer or prosper because of it. Would a sufficient amount of readers delight in such modesty, or would they all think that the absence of praise meant an abject lack of merit? Does the overexcitement tarnishing many a good cover derive from its efficacy, or from an unwillingness to let such an obvious marketing ploy be used only by one’s competitors?

Then again, I have this uncomfortable thought that there are many examples like this: a modest writer that has turned in an original and in her opinion quite good a thriller, and with great delight receives her author copies, cracks open the box, and…

And is greeted with “the next Stephen King” in letters bigger than her name or the title on the cover, and on the back enough improbable self-praise to make Marie Antoinette drop in a diabetic swoon. And what does she find on the first few pages of the book: why, many-ellipsis excerpts from such stalwarts of literary judgment as the West Redneck Post-Dispatch-Journal-News and the Chickenburgertown Advertisement Gazette. Oh wow.

Statistically speaking, I suppose if you push a book to many enough reviewers you can count on getting at least some good things said about it, as reviews are supposed to dig up both merits and demerits, and (rank conjecture) less expert reviewers may be a lot more scattershot in their judgments; and then you use the ellipses to make the good better. “Do […] buy this book!”

With enough free review copies and a dainty enough pair of tweezers, anyone can have a coverful of superlatives — proven by the fact that even the most humdrum derivative snot does!

Opinions are a dangerous thing; but even facts aren’t always safe. The first degree of facts I can live with; “Hugo winner”, “Nebula winner”, and so on. This book, won that award, clear and true. Then again, if it is the Raymond W. Thispublisher-Impartial Internal Award of Hypeful Merit, I will be pretty skeptical.

I’m not sure about the second degree of facts, or generic accolades like “from the Hugo-winning author”, as writing one good book, say twenty years ago, is no certain recommendation for the quality of the present one. (Then there’s the art of the semi-related accolade — del Toro and Hogan’s the Strain is cover-splashed as “from the creator of the Oscar-winning Pan’s Labyrinth”, as if genius was a matter of mere degree, and not direction!)

I’m positively enraged by the third kind of facts: that is, the tangential smears like “From the author of (the previous book)”, mostly because often the book referenced is not even the greatest previous hit of the author, but just the previous book published, and usually an irrelevant and inferior thing to mention, unless “Hey! I saw that other thing on the stand a year ago!” is a recommendation for ya. (“War and Peace — from the author of ‘The Cossacks'”; “Dune — from the best-selling author of ‘Hellstrom’s Hive'”; “The Lord of the Rings — from the acclaimed author of ‘Goblin Feet’ and ‘Tinfang Warble'”!)

And now I have vented enough to not have the red glow of my eyes reflect distractingly back from the screen; thank you for reading.

Oh, and the book with “poignant passages that describe his views of life and death” that touched off this rant? Isaac Asimov’s It’s Been A Good Life. Great author, by all signs a great book; but why is it the habit of today (yesterday? tomorrow?) to wrap nuggets of gold in a generous helping of shaite?

* * *

Scenario one: The overwrought self-praise works. People suck. Depressing.

Scenario two: The praise does not work, not very much anyway, but no-one dares to try anything else. Maybe nothing else works, either. Depressing.

Scenario three: The praise works with a twist, as most adult readers do not believe it, but have learned to sift it for meaningful bits — “starred review in Publishers Weekly” — and for subtle indications of merit in the volume and quality of the praiseful pap. Depressing, and likely.

Scenario four: The Illuminati. Nuff said. (Saying derives from Nuff-Hassan i-Sabbah al-Said, author of “The Trustworthy Book of Abominable Lies”.)

Scenario five: The praising is a symbiotic relationship between book reviewers and the publishers: one set gets validation for their jobs, the other gets traditional respectability for their products. The involvement of the readers, or the authors, or the actual books, is negligible. Horrifying; also depressing.

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