Jun 5, 2011

A lesson in the art of spin; or, I didn't say that, did I?

Yesterday, I was schooled in the art of spin. Owned. Pwned, as the kids say, bless their unable to spell hearts. And while I am fairly angry about it, a part of me can't help but admire the cojones of all involved.

A little background:

In my wanderings through the literary landscape, I have had the opportunity to, once in awhile, espouse my views on certain written works for sums of money i.e. I write book reviews for publications. I have always tried to give such reviews my best attention to detail, trying to do more than simply summarize a plot and giving a thumbs up/down. I make no claims to greatness, but I take the work seriously, and try to give every author I read the benefit of a doubt. I have praised books I've admired, and when confronted with the occasional shall we say less-than-stellar offering, I usually do try to put the best face on a bad situation. The authors have presumably worked hard to bring their vision to print, and although I may not enjoy the result, I appreciate the effort.

Ah, but I am human, and flawed. Sometimes a book hits me below the belt, and I cannot help but to respond in kind. In the pages of The Winnipeg Free Press, I laid waste in five hundred words to such destroyers of trees/hope as Michael Slade's Bed of Nails and Paulo Coelho's Eleven Minutes, barely containing my rage at how such authors managed to scuttle away with vital hours from my life with their horrible prose, insipid characters, and limp narratives. We all have read such books, and cannot help but rail even when public opinion is against you, or if your own common sense tells you to back off, that you are making a fool of yourself.

Such it was with Chuck Palahniuk's Tell-All. My review was not so much an incisive dissection of a novel as it was a rant against an author I deeply admired for foisting upon his abundant fanbase a novel so lazy, so flaccid, and so dreary. In the past, I had forgiven Palahniuk for lesser efforts such as Snuff, knowing that even the greatest authors had off days. A man who gave me the gruesome, obscene satirical pleasures of Fight Club and Rant and Choke had earned some leeway. But Tell-All is atrocious, a novel that would likely never have been published save for his name on the cover. I place it in the same terrain as the gut-wrenchingly awful books of James Patterson, the flavourless spewings of Stephanie Meyer, the utter stupidity of Tim LaHaye. In the annals of disappointing releases from authors I deeply admire and respect, it belongs in the same category as Ira Levin's dismal Son of Rosemary, Richard Matheson's inane Seven Steps to Midnight, and Robert A. Heinlein's lamentable The Number of the Beast. I condemn it to the basest reaches of my filth-laden soul, and continue to do so, even as I begrudgingly admit that I'm looking forward to Palahniuk's next novel, it sounds like all sorts of awesome.

So, I trashed Tell-All in the Arts section of the Winnipeg Free Press, and I stand by my words. So it was with no small amount of surprise that I picked up the recent Canadian paperback release (to see who, if anyone, had actually praised it), and read the following on the back cover, just underneath the plot summary:
"A devastating dissection of celebrity . . . classic Palahniuk fare." — Winnipeg Free Press
Huh.

I checked my original review, and found the sentence in question:
Written in a style akin to gossip tabloids of the time (complete with boldface font for every name mentioned), the novel promises on its surface to be a devastating dissection of celebrity, classic Palahniuk fare.
Of course, this sentence handily ignores the rest of the review, including the following nuggets:
But with Tell-All, his fourth novel in as many years, Palahniuk simply gives up, delivering a novel as negligible in size as it is in ambition.
and
Tell-All is the effort of an author who has utterly given up. It is a soggy, misshapen mess of half-baked parody and puddle-shallow inspiration.
and
Tell-All is an insulting shrug of indifference from an author who once actually mattered on the literary scene.
Wow, that was harsh. I may have forgotten to take my happy pills that day.

Now, in addition to working as a reviewer and author, I earn a living as a publicist for a highly-regarded independent Canadian publisher. So I am intimately familiar with the concept of 'spin.' I have had opportunity to scour reviews for phrases I can employ to highlight my books in press releases and advertising. And occasionally, I have lifted chunks of wordage and used them slightly out of context, so that a review that rates a book as average can be used to highlight a novel's marvelous atmosphere or rich characters. It's part of the job. Not lying, exactly, but tweaking the truth in a certain way to achieve an intended result.

But this . . . this is complete falsity. They are using a review specifically designed to keep people as far away as possible from their book as a tool to lure people in. They've taken a spray can to a sign labelled DO NOT SWIM, SHARKS IN THE AREA, leaving it blaring to the public, SWIM AREA.

I do admire the ability to make chicken salad out of chicken shit, no question. But when faced with Tell-All, the proof is in the quotes; they did not have many to choose from. Check out the screenshot of the praise page above: most of them are fairly quiet on the novel itself, concerning themselves with Palahniuk and his reputation rather than the merits of the book. I've looked around; critical praise for Tell-All was fairly lacking. The page looks good, but when you come down to it, it doesn't tell you anything more than the praise pages for most of James Patterson's recent books, pages made up of glorious plaudits from bloggers and bloggers only. Yes, I'm being a little snobbish here, but my point is, there is no critical praise from reputable sources to be had. Some show it obviously (Patterson) and some hide it expertly (Palahniuk).

Who to blame? It's all the publishing company, and the publicists. They're trying to sell a product here, the art is left to the artists. I don't blame Palahniuk for the manner in which his company markets him, I only blame him for the product itself.

My point? Could it be, don't believe everything you read? That'll do, I guess. But the real point here is:

I did not praise Tell-All. The Winnipeg Free Press did not praise Tell-All. The quotation is a bald-faced distortion, a lie through and through. If you must read Tell-All, don't blame me if you feel used afterwards.

2 comments:

James said...

Ah, the fine art of quote mining. It looks like Palahniuk's publicists have been taking lessons from the the Discovery Institute and Answers in Genesis...

Mark said...

Great post Corey! They should have retitled it to Spin-All.

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