I will admit right up front that I don’t read a lot of novels. I prefer nonfiction, especially memoirs, letters, or history. So perhaps the following paragraphs, which are highly critical of the state of the modern novel and the publishing industry, are a little unfair as they are based on cover impressions, not in-depth reading. But, somehow I doubt it.
I needed a book to read on the plane during the latest hop across the pond. On the surface, it was a fairly simple request. It was the details that did it in. I wanted craftsman-like prose, not that smug preciousness that passes for literary style. And I wanted a story with a worldview I could relate to.
In Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, Miss Prism states: “The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily. That is what Fiction means.” We appear to have similar views. The trouble is that many authors of new releases and I have differing opinions on what constitutes the good and the bad. It is not that I have to like every character or approve of every action, but I do at least have to have some sympathy with the underpinning moral order. My head explodes just reading the news. I thought it needed a rest and some amusement.
After spending two hours in A Very Large Bookstore (which was the only bookstore within striking distance that day), I was sure there had been a huge mix-up at the printers with the same fatuous copy ending up on all the book jackets. Every single story was evocative, haunting, honest, eloquent, frank, powerful, poignant, revealing, liberating or courageous. To emphasize that point, the copywriters didn’t stick to just one adjective at a time. We were promised storylines and characters that were poignantly haunting, eloquently honest, powerfully liberating, or courageously revealing.
I have to assume the blurb writers tapping out this over-the-top language-masquerading-as-insight think they are being clever and original. That they are tugging at your heart. Taking your breath away with their freshness. However, when you browse through several tables of new releases at a time, it is clear that the language is anything but fresh. “Choose one from column A and one from column B and hit insert” about sums up the book jacket formula.
Does this tired hype really sell books? Because my reaction was to glaze over, drop the book back on the pile and shamble over to the next table. Perhaps like with everything else I encounter these days, I Am Not The Target Market.
These formulaic blurbs make it really hard to tell one story from the next. Rather ironic don’t you think, as publishers want, or at least claim to want, fresh and different stories, unique voices, and polished language. From my recent sampling they are apparently having trouble finding this and, to tide themselves over while they continue to look – at least I hope they are still looking – they just publish the same story, over and over. Possibly they change the covers.
Repackaging the same few stories fills up their lists and saves a lot of editing time. They must manage to sell a few books or they wouldn’t be doing this. Or maybe they would. It wouldn’t be the first time I’ve been staggered by a business model.
Current storylines appear to fall into several broad categories: stories about stupid people doing stupid things and then whining about the unfairness of it all when everything gets oh so difficult and complicated – which is generally what happens when you do stupid things in the first place, so why is anyone surprised? Or stories of selfishness packaged as courage, and adultery packaged as romance; or predictable tales of women finding themselves through sex, or sex and travel, or sex and shopping; or the done-to-death tale of a couple/family (choose one) tackling a ramshackle house/farm/vineyard (choose one) in France, Italy, Spain, Portugal or Greece (choose one), running into difficulty, but emerging triumphant in the last chapter with not only a showplace, but also having been embraced by the locals, and surprise – finding themselves. Of course this last, when done by an author anxious to maximize box office appeal, might also take in the sex and travel and adultery themes.
In the end, I bought a volume of collected Sherlock Holmes stories. I find them soothing as the good ends happily and the bad unhappily. And when I finish that volume, I will have the pleasure of reading Mrs. S’s first novel, of which she has sent me the manuscript. Whether the good and bad are properly distributed, I can’t say yet; but as I know her worldview is sound, I am hopeful.
And for future trips, I think I will have to revisit many of the classic novels on my shelves. With my memory, it will almost be like reading them for the first time. And the second bonus is that this won’t cost me a penny because I already own the books. This business model certainly works for me; bookstores and publishers might want to rethink their part in it.