With book coverage in newspapers steadily declining, publishers face some difficult questions. Will papers continue to cut their book pages? Couldn't they just cut the bridge column instead? How about the Jumble? But the big one is: what will become of informed, intelligent discourse about books?
Hey, in today's fast-paced world, who has time for informed, intelligent discourse? Have you checked out the blogosphere lately? The publishing industry is just trying to hang on to outmoded, old media traditions instead of adapting to the new reality. The solution is simple. As space for book reviews inevitably shrinks, the reviews must shrink accordingly. Book review editors should just print blurbs.
The blurb has always been the meat of the review. It's the only part anyone cares about. Readers simply want to know if a book is worth their time. Authors just want to bask in a little praise. Publishers want to extract the juicy quote to splash across print ads and the paperback. The rest is extraneous froufrou.
Let's look at the structure of the typical 1,200-word book review:
The first paragraph relates an anecdote drawn from the reviewer's own experience that meanders here and there and takes the long way round the barn before finally making some tangential connection to the subject of the book being reviewed.
Paragraphs 2, 3, 4 and 5: The reviewer exhibits expertise in that subject by spewing out everything he or she knows or has overheard about it.
Paragraph 6: The book's author is mentioned by name for the first time, often in reference to a previous book. These comments are usually generous if the book is obscure, dismissive if it attained even a modest level of success and openly hostile if it was made into a movie.
Paragraph 7: The “Eureka!” paragraph, in which the title of the book actually being reviewed finally makes its first appearance.
A few more paragraphs follow that are generally gracious in tone, but which note in passing some minor factual errors on the part of the author, which the reviewer, with a superior knowledge of the subject, couldn't help noticing.
The penultimate paragraph is critical. If the review has been relatively benign until now, the fun stops here. This is where the reviewer eviscerates the book with every imaginable slur against the author's research, prose, motives, personal appearance and lineage.
The final paragraph represents a reversal of the one preceding and usually opens with a qualifier like, “Such criticisms aside...” or “That being said....” Here the reviewer, having just dumped on the book, is ready to make nice in a big, positive finish. For the blurb hunter, this is where the action is.
But why should I have to plow through all that verbiage just to get to the quotable nugget buried within? Cut to the chase! More matter with less art! Just chip away everything that doesn't look like a blurb and reduce the review to its pithy essence.
Imagine 1,000-word critical essays distilled to just a key line or two. Some hypothetical examples:
On a new Stephen King novel:
“Guaranteed to induce chills, shivers and shakes, followed by fever, vomiting and possible coma.” —Los Angeles Times
Or John Grisham's latest:
“Grisham continues to electrify readers and somehow gets away with it.” —Chicago Tribune
Or the next Dan Brown:
“Harder to put down than my rottweiler.” —San Francisco Chronicle
This approach is admirably democratic. A recent issue of the New York Times Book Review contained, by my count, 24 reviews. The same space could accommodate literally thousands of blurbs. Every book published could be featured in its pages, with plenty of room left over for the “Sex for Life” ads. It would also provide publishers with a ready-to-use marketing tool for every book. All they need do is add exclamation points.
The ultimate beneficiaries, of course, would be book buyers. At last, readers could read about what books they should be reading without having to, you know, read too much.
|Laurence Hughes works for a big publishing company. His writing is featured in The McSweeney's Joke Book of Book Jokes.|