Media Circus: Blurbed vision

For the intelligent but busy, nonspecialist but curious reviewer, wading through book-catalog copy is an accessible, important, prize-winning pastime in the tradition of cleaning out the Augean stables.

Published January 30, 1997 8:00PM (EST)

the bi-annual book reviewers' ritual is once again upon us. Every spring and fall a mountain of hype is delivered by the publishing industry -- six months' worth of titles, each trumpeted by a page or two of overblown, yet oddly cryptic, catalog copy.

The phrase that leaps to mind to describe this season's offerings is "attention-span-impaired." Bottom-line driven publishers, desperate to catch the frantic gaze of bookstore buyers, distributors, marketers, reviewers and -- oh yeah -- readers, are taking no chances. Their catalogs are crammed with instantly recognizable, bite-sized products, page after page of slightly repackaged versions of last season's big sellers: Deepak clones, O.J. and the rest.

You can almost guess what many of the titles are going to be before you open the first catalog. John Gray, Ph.D., author of "Men are From Mars, Women are From Venus," "Mars and Venus in Love" and "Mars and Venus in the Bedroom," keeps his foot firmly on the Roman Deity Psychobabble pedal with "Mars and Venus on a Date." (You'd have thought it would have come first.) Trailing in Gray's lucrative wake are offerings like Viking's "Sex on the Brain: The Biological Difference Between Men and Women."

And, of course, there are the flood of self-help and "inspirational" books, soggy soufflis that hit the shelves every spring as predictably as hayfever. The woman HarperCollins describes as "beloved inspirational author Melody Beattie" begs us to "Stop Being Mean to Yourself" in her follow-up to "Codependent No More." Big Simple Idea books dominate the lists -- "How to Live The Rest of Your Life as if You've Only Got a Year" and "Live Better Longer" being prime examples. The Macmillan catalog is filled with a new series of tiny books called "Life's Little Keys," which promise quick fixes for serious problems like depression. Anything can be solved in a few "EZ steps" -- from "Sadness" to "Dog Training in 10 minutes."

It seems like every self-help book has recycled last season's title buzzwords: "steps," "stages" and "soul." As in: "The 9 Steps to Financial Freedom," "200 Ways To Nurture Your Spiritual Life" and Harry Moody's "The Five Stages of the Soul" -- which gets bonus points for using two out of the three buzzwords.

Celebrities, of course, are gold: Who even cares what they're writing about? Joan Lunden teaches us "Healthy Living," Spike Lee indulges us in his thoughts on basketball in "Best Seat in the House," and Martina Navratilova "co-authors" a mystery creatively titled "A Killer Instinct."

Even "serious" publishing is suffering from dumbing down. Take the new HarperCollins imprint Masterminds, whose aim, according to its catalog, "is to give the intelligent but busy, nonspecialist but curious reader an expert briefing on the issues that dominate intellectual and cultural debate." In other words, heavy hitters like Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi ("Flow") and Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner are going to crank out 200 or less pages for us "busy" readers.

Trying to select books based on one-page, hype-filled descriptions is an arduous task, but veteran catalog readers get a certain sick pleasure out of deciphering the euphemistic compound of condensed hot air known as "catalog copy." It is much like the language used in apartment classifieds -- the kind that use code words like "cozy" when they really mean "coffin-like."

One of the book publicist's favorite words is "accessible," as in "his most accessible novel to date," which roughly translates to "his first 10 were indecipherable, but this one is blatantly commercial." "Film-rights sold" is generally code for "this is a puffed-up screenplay." "In the tradition of" means blatant intellectual piracy by ambulance-chasing writers and editors. "Delightful" translates to "utter froth." When the word "important" is used, as in the case of Alice Walker and her nonfiction Random House book "Anything We Love Can Be Saved," what the PR flaks are really saying is, "Please God, let this self-indulgent book by a big name author sell enough to justify her huge advance." "Exquisitely written" is the equivalent of "literary wallpaper," while "internationally acclaimed" is a subtle slight, suggesting to presumably uncivilized American boobs that "everyone else in the literate universe loves this impenetrable genius." Likewise, "prize-winning" means "it's literary, stupid."

Not all blurbs are coded. In fact, most proudly flaunt their shallowness. "As romantic as 'The Bridges of Madison County,'" shouts the Villard catalog, trumpeting the finer qualities of something called "The Ballad of Gussie and Clyde" by one Aaron Latham. "The most riveting, tautly plotted tale of submarine warfare since 'The Hunt for Red October,'" HarperCollins announces about Patrick Robinson's highly original "Nimitz Class."

Some books, of course, are unblurbable. What can you do with "The Desiderata of Hope: A Collection of Poems To Ease Your Way In Life," by Max Ehrmann? Did someone say "Diarrhea medicine?" "Desiderata" is not to be confused with the brilliant upcoming Vintage book "Very Bad Poetry" or ex-conservative blowhard Michael Lind's "The Alamo," described, alas, as "an epic novel in verse."

Once you have sifted through the babble, it's disconcerting to realize that there is, in Gertrude Stein's famous phrase about Oakland, no there there. It's as if you've traveled to the forest and all that's left is a clear-cut wasteland, stubby little trunks everywhere and not a fully grown tree in sight. Vision blurry and close to tears from looking at too many "Think Yourself Thin"s and Disney cash-in tie-ins, you search desperately for an interesting first novel, or a warhorse like Roth, Mailer, Pynchon or Bellow. After the biannual orgy is over, all you want to do is grab a big, fat, old book and read it real, real slow.

EXTRA! Rock for brains

For those who couldn't get enough of the Inauguration last week, the Feb. 10 issue of The New Republic offers a sort of post-game wrap-up package. Skip the long articles on Clintonomics and Health Care and move on to the real meat: Jonathan Chait's account of a coat-check riot at the Omni Shoreham Hotel and Stephen Glass' visit to the Rock The Vote inaugural party. Though the organization hasn't been terribly successful at getting anyone to vote -- including many of its celebrity endorsers -- it does know how to throw a swinging soiree, at least if your idea of a swinging time involves guest appearances by the "almost royal"-looking Michael Bolton and popster Jewel -- who admits to Glass that despite her ringing endorsement of the whole voting thing, she never quite got around to voting in the primaries herself.

By Rob Spillman

Rob Spillman is editor of Tin House magazine.

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