A rant … about how books are described

Few things are as annoying as finding a novel described in this way: ‘a Hemingway rewrite of Kafka’. Really? L’Etranger by Albert Camus is a Hemingway rewrite of Kafka? I don’t think so.

It annoys me because this description, from the Spectator, does no favours to Camus, Hemingway or Kafka, and moreover nor does it help the reader understand anything about L’Etranger. In fact, I find it such a confusing amalgam of writers that my brain rejects the whole idea. Why are books described in this way?

Other examples

Sad reader that I am, I have been collecting some recent examples that grated on me.

Rebecca Solnit’s Hope in the Dark is a very affirming short book about the importance and power of seeing alternatives to the present situation, and the importance of books in achieving this. It’s an important book. So what can we make of this description, included in the front pages?

Like Simon Schama, Solnit is a cultural historian in the desert-mystic mode, trailing ideas like butterflies. (Harper’s)

My brain baulks at three things in these two lines. Why did the Harper’s reviewer want to couple Simon Schama to Rebecca Solnit? Is the reviewer saying, Look at me! I read cultural history! And what on earth is the desert–mystic mode, and does it tell the potential reader anything about these writers? I don’t know any desert-mystics and I am fairly sure that it is not helpful to describe either of these writers as in this mode. And finally the image of the butterflies is contrary to my experience of them. Butterflies are more likely to flit away than trail after a writer. So even if you miss out the first three words, the reviewer still provides no idea about the value of Hope in the Dark. Please read more about it here, with no reference to Simon Schama, or deserts or butterflies.

Elizabeth Strout, in writing Amy and Isabelle, is twice likened to other writers.

This beautifully nuanced novel steers a course somewhere between the whimsy of Alice Hoffman, and the compassionate insight of Anne Tyler and Sue Miller, and is sure to delight fans of all three. (Publisher’s weekly)

And as if three (female) writers were not comparison enough we also get this from another review:

Alice Munro fans should lap up this atmospheric and tender novel (Image)

Independent People by Halldor Laxman (1934-5) is a big story about the hard rural life in Iceland. A gnomic comment on the rear cover of my copy merely says:

See also Far From the Madding Crowd.

And Thin Air by Michelle Paver (2016) is described in this way:

… like Touching the Void rewritten by Jack London Thin Air is a heart-freezing masterpiece (The Guardian).

Is Amazon to blame?

We could blame Amazon for this way of describing books, because long ago the website introduced the idea that ‘if you like this book you might also like x, y or z.’ And ‘People who viewed book x also bought book y’. This can be annoying, but I admit that at times it can be helpful.

Marketing by publishers?

These comparisons, extracted from reviews, have a use for publishers,. Quoting them is intended to promote less well-known, less-purchased books on the back of more successful authors. Readers must be hooked in to buy with the hope that by association of the two books the potential purchaser will buy this one. It has a secondary function; the comparison with another known author together with the cover signal the book’s genre – chick lit, noir, classic whodunits and historical romances. It helps the reader place the book.

Not so common now?

I have a feeling that the practice of comparisons, or likenings, is less common than it used to be. But I am not sure. Perhaps I pay less attention to blurbs now my tbr pile is so big, influenced more by reviews and recommendations by friends and fellow-bloggers than reading the blurb.

But it irritates me to bits. I don’t want to know what books or authors are brought to mind for a reviewer. I want to know its quality, something of its plot, about that book, not other books.

What do you think?

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Filed under Books, Reviews

10 Responses to A rant … about how books are described

  1. I find these comparisons quite helpful sometimes. In fact, the blurb you quote inspires me to give Ann Tyler another go – I have always felt Elizabeth Strout to be a far better writer than any of the others she is compared to.

    • Caroline

      Thanks for this comment Barbara. I would definitely recommend giving Anne Tyler another go. And I agree that Elizabeth Strout is an excellent writer. My next post is, as it happens, a review of My Name is Lucy Barton.
      Perhaps I am over-stating my case about the comparisons.It wouldn’t be the first time.


  2. Kathleen Bethell

    My response (a rant): I applaud you for writing about something that has peeved me for as long as such comparative blurbs have been written. I hate the practice so much that I simply do not buy the books so blurbed. If I wanted to read Hemingway, I’d read Hemingway, not a knock-off, which is what these blurbs seem to imply. I suspect, as you allude, that the blurbs are meant to parade their writers’ vast reading experience and wide-ranging cultural acumen (those pesky desert-mystics, whatever they are). The publishers, in pasting such blurbs on the backs of books, do a great disservice to their writers. Then again, perhaps blurbers just don’t know how to blurb.

    • Caroline

      Peeved, as well. Thanks Kathleen. I obviously haven’t gone as far as you in rejecting copies with these comparisons in the blurb because I quoted books I own. But I always enjoy a good rant.


  3. Claire

    Good for you, I love an intelligent rant and I do agree.
    I’ve just read my first Elizabeth Strout, Olive Kitteridge and loved it so looking forward to your next post.

    • Caroline

      I knew I wasn’t alone in wanting to rant about these descriptions, even if other readers have disagreed.
      I have also reviewed Olive Kitteridge on this blog, btw, in the Older Women in Fiction series. I thought it was wonderful!
      Thanks for joining in Claire.

  4. I think such descriptions can be helpful, though I’m not sure about the one describing L’Etranger. It’s a short way of trying to convey the writing style or general tone of a book and I know I’m guilty of it in writing book reviews, especially when talking about an unknown author. I checked through the blog (OurBookReviewsOnline) and found, amongst others, that I’d described Ken Edwards’ Country Life as a mash-up of Woolf’s The Waves and Withnail and I, and Sara Baume’s Spill, Simmer, Falter, Wither as “not some sentimental mix of Marley and Me, and the Shawshank Redemption”. I’m going to stand by both comments.

    • Caroline

      Hi Mary. Thanks for adding your comment. I guess the descriptions are a short way of communicating something, but it rather depends on the reader’s prior knowledge. And what they make of what they have read (or seen) of the person being likened to.
      I admire your creativity in your reviews, and I notice you seem to call upon film titles. I admit my knowledge of films is limited, but Withal and I, Shawshank Redemption I have seen and I have heard of Marley and me – it had a dog in it didn’t it?
      I don’t suppose my rant will stop blurbers including such descriptions.

  5. Katherine

    Oh dear, I often recommend similar writers when reviewing a book….. or if the book has reminded me of another author’s style…. I agree it can go against the book as much as help it….
    I dislike the subheadings being used ‘a gripping thriller with a twist ‘ etc so maybe I shall be more mindful in the future!!
    Interesting post though, thank you!!

    • Caroline

      Hi Katherine, I didn’t want anyone to feel bad about doing this. That it helps some readers and reviewers is clear from the responses to the post, so I should put up with it, and not read the comparisons if they irritate me so much.
      Thanks for the comment.

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