Publishers are like medieval alchemists. They can take the base metal of a stinking book review and turn it into the gold of praise. James Marriott, for instance, reviewed the oddball guru Jordan Peterson’s last book, Beyond Order. He wrote that “ideas that flit and glimmer in Peterson’s videos look bloated and dead when strapped to the page” and his prose is “repetitious, unvariegated, rhythmless, opaque and possessed of a suffocating sense of its own importance”. Ouch.
But this week the former book-desk imp came across his stern words transmuted by the magicians at Penguin into praise on the paperback version. From his radioactive review glowed words of approbation — “A philosophy of the meaning of life … the most lucid and touching prose Peterson has ever written.” Well, Marriott actually wrote “his philosophy, which is bonkers”, and it’s true, Marriott said that one chapter, about interior design, had “one of the most sensitive and lucid passages of prose he has written”. Faint praise.
Marriott tweeted (or, to be more precise, posted on X) about it. My colleague, the Sunday Times literary editor, Johanna Thomas-Corr, saw her scathing review likewise magicked into an endorsement: “genuinely enlightening and often poignant”. Her words, but wrenched from the context of “a lumpy soup of bromides about marriage, Old Testament commentaries, Jungian archetypes, Mesopotamian myths and endless deconstructions of Disney movies”.
Publishers have long been sneaky, playing fast and loose with critical reviews. My favorite is this — and I reckon it’s the most outrageous example — which appeared on the paperback of Alain de Botton’s novel The Course of Love: “‘moving’, The Sunday Times”.
Hmmm, that didn’t quite capture the spirit of the review. Peter Kemp, a duffer-upper of mediocre novels, wrote this: “Cropping up as frequently as every few paragraphs, these blackboard-rapping intrusions loom large among factors making the novel unengaging. Turning its pages, you come to dread the sight of yet another chunk of de Botton’s italicized opinions moving towards you.” Genius. You have to admire the chutzpah. You feel the publishers were trolling the reviewer.
Or take this — the mighty AN Wilson wrote a book a few years back called The Book of the People: How to Read the Bible. The Times reviewer, in the course of an admittedly mainly favorable review, wrote “accreted over the years, the work of many hands, translated and altered, the Bible is an almost accidental work of genius”. I then gave the review the headline, referring to the Bible itself, “Believe it or not, this is a work of genius”, and a standfirst that read: “The Bible is full of profound beauty, even for the godless.”
Well, Marriott actually wrote “his philosophy, which is bonkers.”
Of course, the publishers in their blurb now claim: “Believe it or not, this is a work of genius.” Wilson is a superb, puckish writer, but I’m not sure even he believes that the divine being is guiding his hand.
Edward St Aubyn’s novel Double Blind was widely panned. Yet the words “‘heroic and astonishing’: Sunday Times” appeared in the later publicity material. But that came from an interview in which Bryan Appleyard, marveling at the author’s terrible personal story of overcoming childhood abuse, said “St Aubyn’s reinvention as a writer is heroic and astonishing”; the review itself said it was “self-pleasing, mannered — and sometimes even dull”. Naughty, naughty.
My colleague Oliver Moody, our man in Berlin, wrote a brutal review of a biography of Angela Merkel. The paperback ran a line quoting the one kind thing he had written: “[Kati Marton] has recruited a formidable cast of talking heads … and obtained a remarkable degree of access to the chancellor’s inner circle.”
But it omitted these lines, which I suspect were more useful as advice to a bookshop browser: “She drops clanger after cast-iron clanger … Presumably these errors will be corrected in future editions, unless the publisher does the decent thing and pulps every copy of this balderdash.” Moody then mentioned “on the back of the [hardback] book a puff quote from a Pulitzer prizewinning writer hails Marton’s ‘signature superpower of rigorous research’. It seems this superpower does not extend to footnotes, basic fact-checking, kicking the tyres on apocryphal anecdotes or indeed reading German newspapers.”
So here’s the moral. Be suspicious of the quotes on the back of paperbacks. Know that the clever people in publishing have used all their skills to take someone’s words and bend them into new, more pleasing shapes. You can admire the ingenuity. But never ever believe the puffs on a hardback. That’s where the real deception takes place: fellow authors praising their mates, often without even reading the damn thing.
Robbie Millen is the literary editor at The Times of London