The Magazine

The Science of Fiction

Plot, characters, agents, and dust jackets.

Feb 19, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 22 • By DIANE SCHARPER
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Hype adds to the difficulty of choosing a suitable book. Confusing, coercive, and culturally deafening, the signals surrounding a book make an intelligent choice almost impossible. Prospective readers are bombarded with everything from celebrity authorship, high-pressure sales tactics (bestseller lists to price discounts), advertisements, endorsements, and dust jackets. Yet you must navigate the hype in order to start the intelligent-browsing (Sutherland calls it powerful-browsing) stage of book-buying, in which readers face myriad considerations, beginning with their choice of genre. Ranging from Christian novels to pornography, fiction comes in almost as many flavors as ice cream, including chick lit, literary fiction, thrillers, science fiction, fantasy, satire, graphic novels, horror, historical fiction, and detective stories.

The task would be difficult enough if money were no object. But price is important, which leads to the next consideration: hardcovers or paperbacks? Paperbacks are cheaper, but they aren't usually reviewed. Paperback reprints mean that the book sold well, but does that mean anything? How much credence to put in awards like the National Book Award, the Pulitzer Prize, the Nobel Prize, and the Man Booker Prize? Do these show the biases of judges or a writer's quality? A little of both, Sutherland suggests.

What about bestseller lists? Considering the ways booksellers and publishers promote books, can lists serve as a guide to choosing a good novel? Or are they just a form of advertising?

For that matter, are reviews a form of advertising, too? Are they helpful or trustworthy? How good are word-of-mouth recommendations, especially when compared with those of professionals? What about pre-pub reviews in magazines like Publisher's Weekly versus newspaper and magazine reviews? How trustworthy are the blurbs on the covers? Blurbs (from the cartoon character, Miss Belinda Blurb) are written to give away enough of the plot to entice readers to buy the book. Shoutlines, or endorsement tags, which also appear on the book's cover in hardbacks (or on the first pages of a paperback) have either been taken out of reviews or solicited from other writers, often friends of the author.

Fewer than 5 percent of new novels get reviewed, partly because reviewers are swamped (Sutherland thinks reviewers spend too much time finding fault with minutiae). Reviewers also consider it a matter of "professional pride not to agree with each other," which makes Sutherland question their standards. Like the American critic Dale Peck (Hatchet Jobs), Sutherland considers reviewing a kind of pelting with dung lest writers get above themselves.

One of the most informative and funniest sections concerns the dust jacket, which Sutherland warns is not just for dust. Take the example of Michel Houellebecq's The Elementary Particles. Originally published in France in 1998, it is a novel of ideas presented as a philosophical analysis of world civilization in the new millennium, with humanity seen bleakly in "the throes of a third mutation." Since translations and metaphysical books by French intellectuals sell badly, the publishers put a skimpily clad woman on the book's jacket (no relation to the contents of Atomised) as a way to entice readers. "But using women's bodies as cheese on the literary mousetrap has a venerable tradition," Sutherland reminds us. And possibly subscribing to that same tradition, he laces these pages with reproductions of a few of those salacious covers. Not that he's trying to sell his book, mind you. He's only trying to bring home his point.

Diane Scharper is professor of English at Towson University.