Judging Books by Their (Back) Covers

On the Guardian’s theblogbooks, book reviewer Chris Power admits that even he sometimes chooses books by their covers. Not the front covers, but the back covers, which often consist of synopses or blurbs or both:

The problem with your common or garden synopsis is that it boils off all the stuff that attracts me about fiction – style, wit, inventiveness, rhythm – and leaves the bare bones of plot and/or setting, which I couldn’t care less about. It makes no odds to me if a book’s set in Carthage, Highgate or on the moon, nor whether it revolves around a moneylender’s murder, a British ex-consul glugging mescal on the Day of the Dead, or the Holy Grail turning out to be Mary Magdalene; I just want to be stimulated by the writing. It’s not the “what”, as they say, but the “how”.

There are ways around this, of course, even when the book is yet to be reviewed. One is the puff: get a famous stablemate or similar author to enthuse, e.g. Irvine Welsh praising Niall Griffiths; Ian Rankin bigging up Henning Mankell; or Tom Clancy claiming to find more doorstopping thrillers than he could ever have time to pick up unputdownable. Another is for the publisher to supply a critique of their own, although these tend to be both untrustworthy and, frequently, meaningless. Thus the novel I quoted from above possesses, according to its publisher, “graphic-novel sharpness”. Weeks after first reading this I still have no idea what it means.

The method I endorse to best avoid this sort of thing is judicious quotation from the book itself. Not the first paragraph, because everyone can flick to that easily enough themselves. Just a really good, representative section – say, the beginning of a passage the author would read at an event – or a single brilliant line. Penguin Classics do this rather well, but their publishing remit starts them off at something of an advantage.

Great idea. Read the comments.

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About the Author:

Keir Graff is the editor of Booklist Online and the author of five books. His most recent is the middle-grade novel, The Other Felix.

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