The Booker Prize and Puffs

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(Courtesy of themanbookerprize.com)

In an informative article ‘Do rave reviews on book covers count as literary criticism?‘ published in the NewStatesmen, Dr Wilson discusses the literary puff, i.e. the promotional blurbs that appear on book jackets and press releases.  I like that he discusses the puff with relation to the Booker Prize because that is one of the main problems I have with the prize, the ridiculously inflated praise attributed to the titles that make the long and short list each year.  In fact, ever since I can remember, I have developed an allergy to book covers with puffs on them.

If a book has literary merit to it, and is fortunate to also sell well like a ‘best-seller’, then future editions of the book will have puffs added by publishers.  There is something disturbing about this, it is almost like saying that even though the general public was able to come around and see the qualities of the text for what it is, subsequent publishers do not feel reassured unless they have reviewers dump positive adjectives on the cover for potential new buyers.  Are readers supposed to be so ignorant and clueless?  And if these puffs do work at some psychological level, like many marketing gimmicks do, should readers give up all sense of judgement?  Do we abandon our critical skills?  Shall we be spoon fed books deemed: ‘Amazing!’ ‘Five Stars’ ‘Absolutely Riveting’?

No thank you.  Not for this reader.  I have a brain and I have eyes, and fortunately I can still use them.  There is nothing wrong with reading a few sample pages to decode the style and level of writing the author uses.  Is the text full of adjectives rather than elaborate descriptions?  Is the dialogue flat and pointless, or is there subtext?  Does the writer use adverbs with tags?  These are some of the simplest and quickest detectors in the quality of a text.  Reading a page or two is usually enough to decipher the level of development of a character – flat or rounded.  And no, you do not need a degree in Literature or an MFA to know these things.  If you read books, enough of them, then you will begin to decipher these things when they become important to you.  (For those who are not bothered by such qualities or technicalities, be happy that there are millions of books available for you to enjoy.)

Perhaps what is most important is that not everyone reads literary fiction, or even mainstream fiction.  And that’s perfectly fine.  Once upon a time, I also read loads of high fantasy and science fiction, and the occasional mystery novel.  Even then, puffs had no meaning.  You see, if I was reading a series or an author I liked, I was going to read everything in that series or by that author.  It didn’t matter that the publisher had reviewers say ‘It’s better than anything before’ or ‘The best work yet’.  And it didn’t matter that critics shunned such books because of poor writing, or because they were escapist literature.  None of it made a difference.  I was going to read it anyway.  So once again, what is the point of the puff?  What am I missing?

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Dr Ross Wilson (Courtesy of english.cam.ac.uk)
Dr Ross Wilson (Courtesy of english.cam.ac.uk)

If we look at a couple of the puffs for this year’s Booker shortlist, we might be able to bring this question into focus.  The claim of the unnamed reviewer in the Independent that Anne Tyler’s A Spool of Blue Thread is simply “Glorious” doesn’t seem to get us very far into the realms of literary criticism.  Eleanor Catton’s gnomic description of Chigozie Obioma’s The Fishermen as “awesome in the true sense of the word” is perhaps more critically promising: what is the true sense of “awesome”?  Why does this book in particular evoke that sense?

[But] can puffing – the practice of lauding a book’s merits in a few words, usually on its jacket blurb – be considered a kind of literary criticism, however cynically regarded it might be?

Dr Ross Wilson

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Extravagant praise is symptomatic of an emotional state, so if someone has read a book and feels a certain way, and then wishes to communicate such feelings of praise (or scorn), it is understandable they may resort to puffs.  Contextually, this is what one friend may say to another when recommending a book “It’s awesome! You should totally read it.”  In the professional world, however, these puffs are paid for by publishers so that reviewers have an over-the-top positive comment on the book.  In other words, just like the Booker Prize, it is nothing more than a marketing tool – a branding label that is intended to reassure the buyer of the ‘Fantastic!’ book they are about to buy.  Puffs have no literary merit.

Samir Rawas Sarayji

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2 thoughts on “The Booker Prize and Puffs

  1. Here’s the problem: tens of thousands of books are published every year, in English alone. Even if you apply Sturgeon’s Law (90% of them are crap), there are still a shitload of mediocre to great novels being published every year. Most die, regardless of quality, with less than 500 copies sold. (Note that “bestseller” is a misleading term: it’s estimated that you can get on the bestseller list with a total of 10,000 copies sold, which won’t keep a roof over your head.) In fact, you never even have a chance to discover most of these books — you wouldn’t stumble on them except by blind luck. Without word-of-mouth and marketing, that’s the fate of most books: to disappear …

  2. “Puff”–new concept, but quite exacting. It creates both curiosity and disdain (for the reasons you mention). As an AP Lit teacher, I do need to be aware of books considered to have literary merit. Agreeing with the puffs on congratulatory praise is a different matter.

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