One of the mystery mailing lists that I’m subscribed to runs three discussions a month on crime fiction releases, and the answers submitted by list subscribers often yield a lot of food for thought. The current book up for discussion is Laura Lippman’s EVERY SECRET THING, which has been praised much on this blog (and elsewhere.) But that, for some folks, is also a problem, because when they began reading the book, it didn’t “measure up” to what reviews and other fans had said. As a consequence, they were let down by prior expectations. Lippman, who’s joined the list for the duration of the discussion, ably summed up the inherent issue:
We live in an age of hype and it's a real problem. I read Tom Perrotta's LITTLE CHILDREN before it was compared to Chekhov and liked it very much, but those I know who read it after that review felt let down. I enjoyed THE JANE AUSTEN BOOK CLUB, but not quite as much as I expected to, and now there's a contrary thread on Slate.com. Ditto another much praised novel this year, but I'm blanking on the title.It’s interesting to bring this topic up on the heels of BEA, where it was all too apparent just how many books are competing for a limited number of space and readers. In such a crowded field, no wonder publishers must resort to a variety of means to publicize certain books, else they be ignored forever. But there are a couple of separate, but linked, questions to ask: how much is too much, and what kind of hype is actually in play?
I wish I had a solution to this. I'm certainly not going to call for an end to positive reviews, but I wish publications would do more pieces of-interest on new books -- author profiles, just FYI the new so-and-so is here.
I’m not sure when this “age of hype,” as Lippman says, began. It’s not recent, but it’s not old either. But whatever it is, the saturation point for such measures is occurring sooner and sooner. It’s why I’ve jokingly dubbed certain new (or upcoming releases) as “HypeMonsters,” because their publishers have expended so much time and effort to bombard potential fans with the news of the book’s arrival, how it will be an “instant bestseller,” and so on and so forth. And sometimes, it actually works. I need not bring up THE DA VINCI CODE, but other, more recent, examples of the HypeMonster trend include James Siegel’s thriller DERAILED (which benefited from a $500,000 marketing campaign and did make both the hardcover and paperback bestseller lists), Joseph Finder’s PARANOIA (another high-priced campaign leading to bestsellerdom) and the “surprise” bestseller THE RULE OF FOUR. Such books are beneficiaries of a long, cleverly-strategized plan that begins months before publication. News trickles out about an obscene number of galleys, and the forces are mobilized to sell, sell, sell to warehouses, distributors and booksellers. If folks like B&N main buyer Sesalee Hensley give the stamp of approval, then the big box stores will display a particular book more prominently and in greater quantity than many, many others. And so, by the time the book’s actually released, the mechanism is in place to put it in customer’s hands.
So that’s what I call pre-release hype. Then there’s the hype that occurs as a result of the book review supplements designating a particular book as “important” and reviewing said book in tandem. Even though Tom Perrotta was reasonably well known before this year—he did pen ELECTION, which became the cult movie, as well as other wonderful novels and short stories—but all of a sudden, LITTLE CHILDREN was everywhere. New York Times, Washington Post, SF Chronicle, the Boston Globe, seemingly all at the same time, all praising the book. No wonder some people were disappointed if they read it after taking in all those glowing reviews, and one never knows if any of those reviews were influenced by earlier ones.
Then there’s the grassroots-level hype, the simple instance of word of mouth taking over. It’s a fickle beast, championing deserving works as well as undeserving ones, midlist and bestsellers. One person likes it and if he or she has some kind of influence—over friends colleagues, message board posters, mailing list members, book club readers, any kind of close-knit group—suddenly the book takes on greater importance. It must be read, and as soon as possible. After all, everyone else likes it, so shouldn’t it be read? At this level, the disappointment one can feel is perhaps the greatest of all possible hype levels, because here, one is let down by people he or she trusts.
Obviously, it all harkens back to taste issues. What works for some doesn’t work for others, or even what works to a large group may not be an individual’s cup of tea. But the perpetuation of high expectations means that it’s hard to divorce the hype from the content, to truly evaluate and respond to what’s actually being read. And that can result in the opposite effect, “anti-hype,” so to speak, where it almost becomes fashionable to bash a popular book.
Look at Alice Sebold’s THE LOVELY BONES. There was some pre-release hype—but not a whole hell of a lot—and of course, it took off, staying on the bestseller lists so long it had to be pried out with the Jaws of Life. Reviews were rhapsodic. Readers claimed it was the best book they’ve read in years. Personally, I thought it a fine piece of writing and look forward to Sebold’s next book (although I did prefer her memoir, LUCKY.) But then came the naysayers, most notably Daniel Mendelsohn at the New York Review of Books, meticulously analyzing what worked and mostly, what did not. Suddenly it was fashionable to be negative about it, and some former fans switched sides. It’ll likely take years, if ever, before some critic picks up the book again and analyzes it as objectively as it can be, if it can be.
Will there ever come a time when a book can be published without hyperbole, without heaps of praise or criticism, and just be evaluated on its merits? Somehow, I doubt it. If anything, the hype culture will only grow, the resultant cacophony drowning out objective evaluation. Sometimes I wish I could read books in a vacuum, but if I want to stay reasonably current, that’s not about to happen.
Hype’s not going to go away. But perhaps there can be less of it. And doled out to a variety of books in equal amounts.