‘It is hard to recall another novel in which the lives of its people have been more fully imagined than they are here …’ The Daily Telegraph
This sentence – clumsy, slightly pompous, and on close inspection more or less entirely without meaning – is typical of the quotes that publishers plaster all over the back of their literary paperbacks. Indeed, the example provided above (taken from the back of Douglas Bauer’s novel Dexterity) is woolly enough to serve as a parody of the species. If I find it slightly depressing, it is because I wrote it, and this extract from one of my first reviews marks my paperback debut.
Yes, the line was taken out of context (‘although this can occasionally be bizarrely intrusive’, the review continued; I went on to wonder whether the author’s intimacy with his characters was ‘deeply impressive or slightly dotty’) but I liked Dexterity, and I certainly have no objection to my piece being carved up in this way. After all, I was a bookshop punter until pretty recently, and have always been aware that these quotes are crucial; certainly I would never have bought a paperback that could not boast half-a-dozen chunks of enraptured gush from the quality newspapers and magazines, and the vast majority of browsers work in this way.
It is surprising, then, that publishers still haven’t sharpened up their act. It’s easy, of course, for their big ‘uns: look at the backs of recent novels by Barnes or Marquez or Kelman. But when it comes to the lesser-known writers a strange sort of lassitude seems to creep in. Take Tobias Wolff, for example. Now Wolff may not be the best-known of the Dirty Realists, but he has an enviable critical reputation, and when they decided to release his collected stories two years ago, Picador had at their disposal reviews to die for:
‘This is not “new fiction”, but it is unquestionably great writing,’ this magazine said of Wolff’s novella The Barracks Thief (included in the Picador collection). ‘He rivals Raymond Carver as the finest male short-story writer now working in America,’ opined Geoff Dyer in the New Statesman. ‘Mr Wolff shows that he has the two essential qualities of a good short story writer: subtlety and penetration,’ purred the Telegraph. I have not read the American reviews, but presumably they are much the same.
Picador, mysteriously, didn’t bother with any of this. There are just two quotes on the back cover. One is from Time Out:
‘Wolff takes characters and scenarios much loved by American short story writers – but in each case sheds a new and unexpected light on familiar territory. This puts him in the mainstream of American short story writing.’
Not only is this more or less incomprehensible – how can he be in the mainstream by not being in the mainstream? – but it is also pretty mealy-mouthed: why should we stump up £5.95 for a book whose (apparently) warmest fan tells us that it is much like all the others?
The other quote, from Time, is a little more enthusiastic, but contains what is either a cataclysmic error or one of the most surreal comparisons I have ever read: ‘The author commands a range of styles that recall the captivating doldrums of Chekhov and the eerie menace of Peter Bowles.’ Peter Bowles? Peter Bowles? I prefer to belief that there is no mistake here. I prefer to believe that the Time reviewer was not, after all, referring to the author of The Sheltering Sky but actually intended to shed new light on the star of To The Manor Born. Think about it: that moustache! The way he looks at Penelope Keith! If that’s not eerie menace then I don’t know what is.
If Wolff’s book is a story of missed opportunities and bizarre mistakes, the dust jacket of Peter Cameron’s recent, highly enjoyable but lightweight novel Leap Year shows what can happen when publishers get desperate. Cameron probably winced a little when he read the following line in the Kirkus Review: ‘Sharp, urban satire that quickly softens into reassuring, charming fluff: a bonbon for the thirtysomething set’. He probably winced a little more when Hamish Hamilton decided that this gently patronising putdown was just what we needed to induce us to part with fourteen quid. One can’t help but wonder what the bad reviews were like.
Leap Year merely underlines just what a vital role the inverted comma has to play; and if publishers can’t pinch a quote from a review, then they will obtain it from another source – a friend of the author, say, or some generally obliging soul who is happy to provide an approving soundbite for any occasion. Stephen King may seem just such a man. If one looks around the horror section of any bookstore, one begins to fear for the Master of the Macabre’s health: ‘I didn’t sleep a wink after finishing X’; ‘I stayed up all night reading X’, and so on. It quickly becomes apparent that King must sleep about one night in three. (A friend who is currently writing a thriller interviewed the great man for a Sunday colour supplement, and claims King genially offered, completely unbidden, to read the finished work.) And if all else fails, there’s always Publishers’ Weekly, which for obvious reasons is not the most savage of critical journals, and which coincidentally came to poor Peter Cameron’s rescue: ‘an awesomely talented young writer’.
In the publishing world there must be dreams of the perfect quote, the ten, the home run, the words that no book buyer could possibly resist. How about this: ‘Beautiful, incandescent, heartbreaking, exhilarating … Indisputably her best book … There’s magic in it … comic scenes that explode with joy … It leaves one aching with pleasure and pain. Words fail me: one cannot reasonably expect fiction to be much better than this.’ (Jonathan Yardley, Washington Post Book World).
If I hadn’t already read Anne Tyler’s The Accidental Tourist half-a-dozen times, that may well have swung it for me; it is difficult to imagine that elsewhere in his review Mr Yardley expressed grave reservations. The other paean that may well grab your attention runs something like this: ‘The best book ever written on this or any other subject.’ You won’t have to look so hard for that one, though, because it appears on the back of several different covers, and seems to come from the same source each time: step forward, the editor of a well-known London literary magazine.