We consider the culture of blurbing: In this morning's Washington Post, book critic Ron Charles tells a horrible story about the new novel, American Dirt.
The story ends with the cancellation of a book tour in the face of reported death threats. Some of these reported threats have been directed at the novel's author, some at the author's critics.
That part of the story is very instructive. But the part of the story we want to discuss concerns the culture of blurbing.
In Charles' view, the novel in question is "mediocre." That said, here's his account of the way the book was promoted and blurbed:
CHARLES (1/31/20): [American Dirt is] just a melodramatic thriller tarted up with flowery ornaments and freighted with earnest political relevance. The book might have fallen unremarked into the great vat of sentimental suspense fiction that New York pumps out every year, except for an unprecedented collision of promotion and denunciation.Charles was describing a gong-show corporate culture. According to Charles, it was an instance of blurbs gone wild—not excluding the effort by the blurber still known as Stephen King.
Early on, the publisher, Flatiron, a division of Macmillan, decided to aim for the stars. It reportedly paid more than a million dollars for “American Dirt,” which isn’t so much an estimate of its value as an investment in the future publicity that such an absurd advance inevitably generates in Places That Matter. Flatiron determined that “American Dirt” would not just be another thriller; it would be the defining novel of the immigrant experience—an emotional story powerful enough to galvanize the sympathy of a nation. An Olympian field of blurbers was assembled, including John Grisham, Stephen King, Ann Patchett, Julia Alvarez and Sandra Cisneros. Don Winslow called it “a ‘Grapes of Wrath’ for our time,” which is ludicrous but hardly out of bounds in the make-believe realm of blurbs. Movie rights were sold. Barnes & Noble picked it for the chain’s national book club. And finally, Oprah announced that “American Dirt” was her next book club pick.
Should American Dirt be seen as "a Grapes of Wrath for our time?" According to Charles, the claim is ludicrous; the book itself is "just a melodramatic thriller...freighted with earnest political relevance."
Along the way, Charles also said that the aforementioned blurb, while ludicrous, was almost par for the course, given the current make-believe culture of publisher-supported blurbs.
According to Charles, ludicrous conduct of this type is hardly unknown within the modern world of high-level corporate pimping. According to Charles, "an Olympian field of blurbers" sallied forth to praise a novel which was in fact deeply flawed.
Charles goes on to describe critical pushback against the book—critical pushback he praises as the way "the cultural system is supposed to work." Unfortunately, he also describes those reported death threats against the author of American Dirt, and also against her critics.
Let's set those death threats to the side. Of what were we briefly reminded when we read that passage about corporate blurbing? Ever so briefly, we thought of the way Tinseltown studios have always pimped favored films for Oscar consideration.
Ever so briefly, we also thought of this. For background, see this morning's report:
BREZNICAN (12/17/19): The first public screenings of Little Women were filled to capacity, but the distributors and awards-season strategists behind Greta Gerwig’s new film were worried nonetheless. The audience was overwhelmingly comprised of women—and the voting memberships of various Hollywood awards ceremonies are obviously not.Greta Gerwig's well-reviewed film has been pushed and promoted by an army of virtual blurbers. It's very much the current "it film" Over Here within the tents of our rapidly failing "liberal/progressive" tribe.
That trend may account for why the critically beloved adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s classic novel had an underwhelming showing in last week’s awards nominations. The team behind the film hopes to reverse that by the time Oscar nomination voting opens on January 2.
“It’s a completely unconscious bias. I don’t think it’s anything like a malicious rejection,” said producer Amy Pascal. Still, she doesn’t believe men gave the movie a shot. RSVPs for the first screening in October, as well as many others that Sony Pictures hosted around Los Angeles in recent weeks, were skewed about two to one in favor of women. ”I don’t think that [men] came to the screenings in droves, let me put it that way,” Pascal said. “And I’m not sure when they got their [screener] DVDs that they watched them.”
Next week, we'll be exploring some of the places this virtual blurbing has gone. For today, we'll ask you this:
To what extent was Pascal hoping to win some Oscar nominations by floating the notion that Little Women was being disregarded by sexist/misogynist men?
We don't have the slightest idea how to answer that question. The answer may be very simple. It may be that Pascal had no such motive at all. She may have been completely sincere in every word she said.
That said, the culture war around this film has been fascinating and also depressing. We say that for this reason:
Our failing tribe's only current toy involves fiery claims about discrimination on the basis of race and gender. It's the only play we currently know. Surely, everyone knows this.
The Screen Actors Guild didn't nominate Little Women for an ensemble acting award. Did that happen because "men didn't give the movie a shot?" Or could it be that SAG voters simply thought that five other casts did a better job overall last year?
Freud said it first and best! Sometimes the lack of a SAG nomination is just the lack of a nomination.
That said, you can't go wrong, within our tribe, making claims like the one Pascal lodged. Next week, we'll continue to show you where this cultural impulse has led—and as we do, Donald J. Trump will still be in the Oval Office:
Did our undisciplined tribal culture help put this big crackpot there? Does it continue to aid him?
Blurbers stampeded to heap praise on American Dirt. One of the blurbers was Stephen King. Just yesterday, he was shouting self-serving praise for Little Women too.
"Progressive" pundits have stampeded in the past two months, heaping praise on Gerwig's Little Women. Is there anything we can learn from the way these people have sometimes behaved?
Ron Charles' report about American Dirt concerns a badly broken culture. Again and again, we've almost thought we were seeing something similar as we've read about Gerwig's new film.
Our tribe is dying on the vine. Our spectacular dumbness is hard to miss.
We're so dumb that we virtually squeak—and do they love it over at Fox! Is it possibly time for a bit of reform? Could our failing tribe do better?