I'M BEGINNING TO DETEST superlatives. The blurbs gushing about how "breathtaking!" or "astonishing!" (insert the hyperbolic adjective of your choice here) a book is. The reviewers headily proclaiming "Canada's greatest" novelist or "a major new talent." I know, I know, it's all just hype and I'm a sucker to expect there should be any truth in such extravagant rhetoric. But somehow I'm always disappointed when I get two chapters (or five poems) into a "brilliant!" "spellbinding! " book and find it pretty hohum, and not nearly as b! s! as promised. In fact, given that I've been primed to be astonished or at least mightily impressed, I'm likely to feel even more let down than if I'd picked up the book with the modest expectation of simply enjoying a pleasant, if unspectacular, read.
We live in a culture where everything has to be the BEST -- or else, so the underlying message goes, why should you bother buying it? It's the freshest breath, the brightest shine, the strongest pain reliever.... In such a milieu, of course, not many readers are going to be enticed into picking up a copy of X's latest masterpiece if it's sporting a blurb from one of his literary cronies along the lines of "More of the usual stuff" or "Passes the time if you've nothing else to do on a rainy afternoon." The truth hurts, and it can definitely hurt sales.
Publishers assume, I suppose, that wildly effusive blurbs are an inducement to a book buyer. "Nothing succeeds like excess," as Oscar Wilde pointed out. But when "dazzling" or "unforgettable" twinkles from the cover of virtually every title on display, such high-wattage praise loses its lustre. The excessive doesn't impress after all; it's just banal. It can even be idiotic. Not long ago an ad in Books in Canada quoted a review ranking the featured author (not a bad writer, but certainly not an outstanding one either) with William Faulkner and Virginia Woolf. Puh- lease. I'm sure that such deluded comparisons end up backfiring, anyway: fans of Faulkner and Woolf, expecting to be thrilled by genius, flip through the work in question and reject the comparison, along (of course) with the book. Those who think Faulkner and Woolf are overrated won't even bother to check out their so-called comrade in excellence.
There are plenty of other factors that can influence a book buyer: an attractive cover design, an intriguing title, the reputation of the author, the media attention the book has been receiving. And then there's the true test of a book's appeal: reading a few paragraphs or poems here and there. When it comes to blurbs, it's not the unbridled enthusiasm of the adjectives or the screaming type they're printed in that persuades me to pick up a book. It's the writer being quoted. I'm likely to look carefully at a title adorned with a few laudatory remarks from someone whose work I admire, particularly if that writer is sparing with his or her blurbs. (In the six years I've been at Books in Canada, for instance, I can only recall twice seeing Alice Munro quoted on a dust-jacket.)
In fairness, I have to allow for the fact that tastes vary. As a reviewer, I too have used the word "brilliant" or some other superlative (though sparingly, I hasten to add). So it could very well be that critics who spout exaggerated praise aren't artificially inflating their rhetoric. They're not on Prozac. They just happen to be more readily astonished or spellbound than I am.
But I do wonder if there isn't more to the prevalence of these outsized modifiers than can be accounted for by differences in taste and impressionability. Louis Menand, in a review in a recent issue of the New York Review of Books, comments that Pauline Kael "responded to ... [the] decline in the cultural authority of the movies in a peculiar way. She began to overpraise." This "hyperbolic abandon" (as Menand puts it) is of course the style of the marketplace, which has acquired dominant "cultural authority" and accordingly sets the tone.
But when the language of ad copy is used to discuss books, there's a hint of desperation in it. It's as if the collective unconscious of reviewers -- and of obliging authors who supply their fellow writers with blurbs -- is responding to the fact that books as a cultural form are becoming more and more marginal. (Much more so than films.) What do you do if you're being ignored? Talk louder and more emphatically, of course. The strenuous hype, then, isn't simply a literary version of the pump-up-the-volume style of ad-talk; it's a striving to assert that a book matters, and not just among other books.
The key to hype is that it isn't intended as a description of some thing, be it a book or a pair of jeans or a video game; it's supposed to excite and to attract attention. Hype is essentially a form of entertainment, an advertisement for itself. It has nothing to do with the quality of its apparent subject.
I'm not against admiring blurbs and critical acclaim. I just think there should be a sense of proportion to them -and that's the antithesis of hype. Yes, hype undoubtedly rules. My revenge is to ignore it.
Barbara Carey's most recent book is The Ground of Events (Mercury).