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June 10, 2004


Kevin Wignall

Hmm, how much hype is too much? Zadie Smith's "White Teeth" was massively hyped - I've met many people who bought, and have never yet met one who finished it. Most were angry that they'd fallen for the hype. This doesn't mean the book is bad, just that the hype drew in readers who should really have stayed clear. But from the viewpoint of Zadie Smith, she sold a huge number of books and undoubtedly reached a higher percentage of her natural market than she would otherwise have done.
That's the beauty of hype. The people who feel disappointed were probably never going to be your fans anyway - but you got some of their money! Meanwhile, hype ensures that you reach as many of your potential fans as possible.
On the other hand, as a pretty unhyped author I have to give the "glass is half full" scenario. I have lots of fans out there who've yet to find me, and I'm not disappointing anyone (well, outside of my personal life!).


I thought "White Teeth" the rare example of a book that deserved the hype (and have similar feelings about "The Corrections," which I really wanted to hate but had to admit was very good indeed, though not entirely my cup of tea). My biggest hype example--the thing I was outraged to see and find fairly ordinary--was the movie "Election." Fine, but no big deal. I think the hype problem is most severe when the book/movie being represented actually expressed a fairly mainstream taste: Laura Lippman is a good example, her writing is great but not at all perverse. When something more extreme like "Trainspotting" (the book, not the movie) is recommended, you can love it or hate it. But when there's something that's pretty good but just-ever-so-slightly-bland-or-middlebrow (I don't mean this to refer to Lippman's writing in particular, by the way!), something that really pretty much everybody should like, it is likely disappointing. I prefer things that have cult followings: subset of fanatical followers usually show more interesting taste than general consensus. (Derek Raymond. Jonathan Ames. Georges Perec. You get the picture.)

Dan Green

I think both positive hype and negative hype come from the same source. The consideration of books is done entirely in evaluative terms: thumbs up or thumbs down, the further up or down the more publicity generated. There's no space given to simply describing what a given book/author seems to be up to and allowing readers to decide on that basis. Such informed description would be the most helpful kind of criticism.

Bill Peschel

We're plugged into the culture in different ways. News reaches us from different directions. It takes a lot of hype to push through and make an impression. I remember "Bones" from an NPR book review. "The DaVinci Code" only after it had hit the top of the bestseller list. "Little Children" -- isn't that the one with the goldfish on the cover that had to be replaced with cookies? -- when news of that appeared in one of the news mags.

And there are so, so many books, and so little time to read the ones we want to read. It's a bounty of riches for those of us whose TBR piles are high enough to crush small animals, but this is what the hype machine has to counter.

Gwenda B.

You know, I stay pretty current about books, music and movies (my three weak knees artistic passions), especially books and movies. But somehow, and I don't really know how, I've managed to perfect the technique of not bringing baggage from things I've previously heard or read about something into my own reading/viewing experience. Now, that's not to say if a friend recommends a book or movie to me and I have a different opinion of it ultimately I won't talk to them about it. Or seek out other opinions afterward. But, while I'm actually experiencing the art, I am only experiencing the art. If that makes any sense.

Since JABC was mentioned and I loved it (and the first time I read it was way pre-hype though I doubt it would have mattered), as I've loved all Karen's work for years and years, I'm actually going to quote something I think is relevant from it. In the book, the character Grigg learns three things from reading science fiction and the first is: "From Arthur C. Clarke, that 'art cannot be enjoyed unless it is approached with love.'"

There's something to that. I haven't been too concerned about the flap over at Slate about JABC, because of exactly what you're talking about here. If something is successful, or popular more accurately, then there is always going to be a backlash at some point, sometimes bigger, sometimes smaller, whether the thing in question is bad or good.

Something else I've noticed is that this effect seems to be more pronounced when the work in question has a "happy" or at least "return to status quo" ending, at least in the mainstream lit world. I think there is an inherent distrust of such endings outside certain genres, and I'm still thinking this one over. I'm not sure we're not right to distrust them, sometimes, but this seems to be more than that.

Anyway excellent thoughts on something I've been thinking a lot about myself this week, Sarah. Thank you for posting them.

Kevin Wignall

Gwenda, I think you hit on a really interesting point there at the end. We tend, especially here in Britain, to be very wary of books that we consider mawkish. The Lovely Bones has been a big success over here but many have criticized it along just those grounds. Stay away from happiness, avoid sentiment. This goes right back - Blake's Songs of Experience are rightly considered a work of genius, whereas Songs of Innocence... well, no thanks. A couple of people even accused me of tacking on a Spielberg-type ending to People Die (which of course, I reject). I'm guilty of it myself, but I wonder why we have such a low opinion of happy endings.


I have absolutely nothing against happy endings, as long as they're natural. Personally, I don't think People Die had a particularly mawkish ending, and nor was it really happy. And a unhappy ending can be just as unsatisfying.

Gerard Jones

Literature isn't just brief entertainment but the best has usually been both. Shakespeare was a total hack grinding out the equivalent of pulp fiction, looking almost exclusively to make a buck...and it was pure happenstance that he tossed off lines like "'twixt two extremes, joy and grief, burst smilingly." If he hadn't been in such a hurry to start selling tickets he never would have said half the naive, inspired stuff he said. Same with Dostoyevski. He wouldn't have written nearly as much or nearly as spontaneously as he did if he hadn't always been trying to pay off gambling debts.

But those guys had audiences with some modicum of good taste. The bonebrane reading public who gets led around by the nose by hype and hoopla these days I don't even want to appeal to. They're morons. The blind leading the blind. The bland leading the bland.

Go check out the last three books Michiko Kakutani reviewed. Ah, to be as "amusing" as David Sedaris, or to be able to "think up" such an imaginative premise as Bridget Jones and Osama bin Laden falling in love, oh my gosh, how novel, how important, how satisfying. Oh, and "clearly Mr. Wallace is a prose magician," yes. Ha! They all suck. She wouldn't know a good book if it bit her on the ass.

It's not Michiko's fault. Publishers are in it for the money, period. And there's nothing wrong with that, so was Shakespeare, so was Dostoyevski, what's wrong is with the moron modern-day consumer of "amusing, imaginative" schlock with a little "magical prose" thrown in for good measure. If the only way you can make money is by selling stuff to morons, you better come up with some pretty moronic stuff to sell...and the publishing industry, like the rest of the entertainment industry, keeps coming through, keeps filling the seats. If what it takes to fill the seats is schlock, hey, buy and sell schlock.

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