Tuesday, May 03, 2005

Language: What's hot in the hype of publishing

By William Safire
The New York Times
MONDAY, MAY 2, 2005

WASHINGTON 'In the blurbosphere," says Charles McGrath, recent editor of The New York Times Book Review, "has there ever been a book that wasn't acclaimed?" He considers that indispensable adjective of praise - rooted in the Latin clamare, "to shout," also the root of "clamor" - to be the key word in publishing's "language of hagiography."

Let's parse that. I define McGrath's blurbosphere as "the throbbing universe of book promotion," coined on the analogy of blogosphere, "the galaxy of Weblog commentators." Hagiography (not, as I first thought, the bio of Al Haig) is "writings about the lives of saints." Thus, in the straining-to-sell world of book marketing, we have a language that treats lesser-known authors like stars shooting toward the firmament of literary fame.

Acclaimed, in this fulsome lingo of book ads and catalogs, now means merely "the author received at least one good review." Widely acclaimed means "two or more, plus a cable TV plug." Critically acclaimed means "it was decently reviewed in a specialized publication but didn't sell."

Long- is a beloved half-word adverb in the blurbosphere. The letters of Lytton Strachey, advertises Farrar, Straus & Giroux, regarded as one of the classiest publishers, is "a long-overdue collection." Whenever a writer has taken forever to deliver a book, it is hawked as long-awaited. On the other hand, if the author has a hot hand and sold well last time out, the adverb is switched and his work becomes eagerly awaited.

Sales problem: How do you blurb a dull book? Meticulously researched, or if you're really in trouble, definitive, exhaustive, spiced with profoundly insightful. Whatever covers a lot of ground and spans the millennia is a sweeping epic, which could soon be a major motion picture about three generations of janitors.

Brilliant, through overuse, has lost its sparkle. Fascinating has lost its charm, powerful is impotent and even towering achievement is getting shaky. Liberals go for heart-shattering and deeply empathetic while conservatives are attracted to gripping and compelling.

For adventure novels, riveting is getting a rosy run, along with the hypnotic mesmerizing and the noun page turner.

Desperate copywriters use the "in the tradition of" device, piggybacking on another writer's fame. This says "if you liked that best seller, you'll automatically love this," a marketing idea Amazon seized upon. In fact, it signals "we're using this best-selling name without permission to attract your attention because that author would never stoop to blurb this."

Literary editors have learned to be suspicious of all endorsements. How can a kindly person praise a friend's fairly good work without leaping overboard into the prepublication pool of prevarication?

Saul Bellow, Nobel laureate and surely one of the 20th century's greatest writers, who died last month at 89, showed me the way. A decade ago, a cloak-and-dagger novel of mine was roundly panned in the daily New York Times. Bellow, master of the art of fiction, sent me a note calling the review "offensive" and cheered me up with: "I thought your book was ingenious, diverting and even instructive. Nietzsche wrote somewhere that when you show people something true they sometimes behave as if it were old hat - vieux jeu - and accuse you of peddling platitudes."

That was a morale picker-upper, all right, not least because the adjectives he chose with his usual care to describe my book were neither excessive nor condescending. Ingenious dealt only with its complicated plot; diverting evoked a spirit of amusement about a work not to be taken seriously; and instructive described the informational use of spooky tradecraft. Each adjective showed restraint in friendly comment, and in a private note not to be exploited. But taken together - and with that Nietzsche allusion as well as a French vernacular version of "old hat" tossed in - it was the most generous "acclaim" a journeyman novelist could hope for.

Language: What's hot in the hype of publishing


DEAR ABBY: I have been thinking about writing this letter for a long time. I'm the director of a small public library. I love my job and serving our patrons. But you would not believe some of the outrageous behavior that occurs in libraries -- so I have written:


Please keep your children with you at all times. A librarian is there to help you select materials -- not baby-sit or clean up after your children. An unattended child can create hours of cleanup work in only a few minutes. Teach your children not to run or shout in the library.

If your child throws a tantrum, screams or continually whines, please take the child home. He or she probably needs a nap, a snack, or simply your undivided attention. While you can probably tune him out, other patrons cannot.

Do not use your cell phone in the library. No one wants to listen to you scream at your spouse or discuss personal finances. You never know who's listening, but you can be sure somebody is.

Do not bring food or drink to the library. A spilled drink can ruin books in an instant. Even if the book dries out, it will develop mold, which spreads to other books.

Return materials on time. Most libraries have limited budgets and limited staff to serve a large population. Don't waste our resources by failing to return materials when due. Don't claim you have returned a book when it's actually in your bedroom, child's room, gym locker, office or the back seat of your car. Librarians get no pleasure from collecting fines for overdue materials. Calling to remind you that things are overdue wastes limited staff time. It also wastes time and money to replace lost books, order the replacement (if there's money in the budget), and process it to be put back in circulation.

We are happy to help with your reference questions. But please remember we're not magicians. If you have a deadline, plan ahead. While we can perform miracles, they take a little time to accomplish, and there are other patrons to be served.

If you want to view pornography, buy a home computer. While we support free speech, our facility needs to be child-friendly. No one -- not children, other patrons or staff -- wants to see your "private life."

Talk to us in complete sentences. We are not mind readers. When you silently thrust a library card at us, we don't know what you want unless you tell us.

Please remember this is a library, not an office service. We are happy to help you find resources, but don't ask us to do your homework, write your paper, edit your letter or do your taxes.
And by the way, a simple "Thank you" makes our day.

I know this letter is too long to print, Abby, but thank you for letting me get this off my chest. I feel better. -- MARIAN THE LIBRARIAN IN KANSAS

DEAR MARIAN: You're welcome. I'm printing your letter in full because it has merit, and also because I suspect most of the offenders do not know any better.

Dear Abby is written by Abigail Van Buren, also known as Jeanne Phillips, and was founded by her mother, Pauline Phillips. Write Dear Abby at www.DearAbby.com or P.O. Box 69440, Los Angeles, CA 90069.

Dear Abby on uExpress

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