I used to hate, hate, hate writing the sorts of paragraphs required by publicity: the back cover copy, the email press release, the “sell sheet” that we fold in half and wrap around the front cover of a galley, per the convention of book review editors and booksellers. I hated writing them the same way I hated writing abstracts for papers and panels back in my academic days: it always seemed insurmountably difficult to sum things up and make them interesting.
This fall, I’ve been doing a lot of publicity—writing those dreaded paragraphs—and I I now better understand why I’ve always dreaded this genre: the conventions of this prose are deadening.
Here’s an example of how I used to think about these tasks:
Me, talking to a friend: “I love this book! It’s so well-written and talks about a specific concrete thing so many people don’t, and the author is the nicest person, and I think this book really fills a gap, and has a wide if niche readership. All we have to do is find its readers! I really want them to find this book!”
Me, drafting the press release: “Doris Niceperson’s argument about the importance of phone chargers for understanding the changing nature of technology is a vital addition to the discourse. With subtlely and concision, Niceperson walks readers through the creation and dissemination of phones, chargers, American culture, and the diversity of sockets. Anyone interested in talking, electricity, or even the character of American personhood needs this book”
So, basically: the press release/back cover copy genre does what I spent decades telling undergraduates not to do: it turns the concrete vague, it generalizes at the expense of the specific, it irons out emotions and renders them placid nominalizations.
But once I realized I was writing wildly unlike how I would talk, and stripping all the interest from my prose, I decided to take another tack. I wrote emails to editors that sounded like….emails I would write! I told them what I really think, and I didn’t worry about trying to sound a certain way, or cover everything, or abide by the unspoken conventions of such emails. And you know what? I started enjoying these emails, instead of avoiding the task entirely or sucking it up and then being slightly abashed after hitting send.
Here’s an example of how things changed:
The initial copy (aka description of a book) for Phil Christman’s forthcoming “How To Be Normal”
Building on themes explored in his first book—specifically the notion of normality, or banality, or just plain "averageness" as it relates to Midwesternness and other modes of identity—Phil Christman here writes from the intersection of his own various identities: Democratic Socialist, antiracist, prison abolitionist, former fundamentalist, striving feminist. Essays include "How To Be a Man," "How To Be White," "How to Be Religious," "How To Be Married," "How To Be Midwestern," and more, including brilliant analyses of middlebrow culture, bad movies, Marc Fisher, and Christian fundamentalism. With exquisite attention to syntax and prose, Christman unites these essays by his radical openness to inquiry. In the hands of this probing, witty writer, even the most seemingly "normal" subjects blossom into explorations laced with curiosity and delight.
A book that speaks to lovers of cultural criticism and gorgeous prose that engages with big ideas and small.
Here’s my revision:
Phil Christman is one of the best cultural critics working today. Or, as a reviewer of his previous book, Midwest Futures, put it, "one of the most underappreciated writers of [his] generation". You may also know Phil from his columns in Commonweal and Plough, or his viral essay "What Is It Like To Be A Man?", the latter adapted in his new book, How To Be Normal.
Phil's second book includes essays on "How To Be White," "How to Be Religious," "How To Be Married," and more, in addition to new versions of the above. Find in it also brilliant analyses of middlebrow culture, bad movies, Marc Fisher, Christian fundamentalism, and more.
With exquisite attention to syntax and prose, the astoundingly well-read Christman pairs a deceptively breezy style with radical openness. In his witty, original hands, seemingly "normal" subjects are rendered exceptional, and exceptionally.
I don’t know—maybe they aren’t so different? You tell me. I just know I am much more comfortable emailing the second one to editors and booksellers than I am the first. I will also admit that the final paragraph of the new version retains too many vestiges of the bad conventions of this genre. I’m still learning.
Now one could extend this rhetorical analysis to other genres, namely the book review and the blurb. Both can suffer from bloated, vague prose as well. But a good book reviewer knows how to avoid this, and thus becomes a more in-demand reviewer. Blurb writing is an even trickier genre, as its assumptions are so overdetermined: say only nice things, and say certain nice things. But an experienced blurb-reader can tell when a blurb-writer is trying their best to do right by the book, and author, despite the constraints. My small private (except for you readers) goal is to work to raise the level of prose in press releases and publicity copy of all sorts.
At the same time—parallel but separate from these thoughts about—there are large, structural forces at work! Big Copy is coming down hard! A year or so ago, I attended a webinar (my first ever!) on improving copy for books to increase “searchability” based on data from Amazon. They suggested new rules for the descriptive copy we write—not unlike the press release/back cover copy above. They suggested we follow certain guidelines. It seems that now these suggestions have been hardened and codified into “how you must do things.” Dizzying speed from a suggestion based on Amazon data to a “this is how it is done”! Now, we are told, our copy must be thusly: 1.) It should be three paragraphs. 2.) The first paragraph must be in bold, one sentence, and flashy. 3.) The second paragraph gives details. There can be additional paragraphs that do the same, but be sparing. 4.) The final paragraph sums things up and tells readers why they need the book. It’s basically the five-paragraph essay but for book copy.
Now it’s everywhere! Go ahead! Look up some recent releases on Amazon! Spot the 3 paragraph copy! I just did that for the last book I read, Real Life by Brandon Taylor, and look:
A novel of startling intimacy, violence, and mercy among friends in a Midwestern university town, from an electric new voice.
Almost everything about Wallace is at odds with the Midwestern university town where he is working uneasily toward a biochem degree. An introverted young man from Alabama, black and queer, he has left behind his family without escaping the long shadows of his childhood. For reasons of self-preservation, Wallace has enforced a wary distance even within his own circle of friends—some dating each other, some dating women, some feigning straightness. But over the course of a late-summer weekend, a series of confrontations with colleagues, and an unexpected encounter with an ostensibly straight, white classmate, conspire to fracture his defenses while exposing long-hidden currents of hostility and desire within their community.
Real Life is a novel of profound and lacerating power, a story that asks if it’s ever really possible to overcome our private wounds, and at what cost.
(My copy/press release for Real Life, which I really liked, would definitely spend more time on Taylor’s sentences, which are unusually strong for contemporary fiction—he’s a writerly writer—and also echo Woolf and Tolstoy, who are referenced in the book, and that the novel captures the intense insecurity of graduate students really perceptively. If I were talking to friends or other readers, I would go on about how important were some of the places described in the book to my personal life, as I lived in the same town as the novel is set, and how, all these factors combined, the novel offered me a readerly pleasure only a novel that combines emotional, personal, and intellectual can.)
Ok ok ok this is a baggy monster of a newsletter (it’ll be interesting to see how the genre of the newsletter evolves over the next year or so)— but I’ve missed you guys, and I’m missed telling you know what I’ve been thinking about, and I wanted to talk through these not-yet-clear-to-me thoughts with you all. Also I screwed up my shoulder the other day so I’m on a lot of over-the-counter painkillers!
Happy 2nd half of the fourth quarter, everyone. We’re almost there.