July 17, 2014
What not to do (and what I have done) when writing jacket copy
by Mark Krotov
Editors, like non-editors, fail frequently, but no aspect of the editor’s professional life is as perilous, or ultimately doomed, as copywriting. The entire act is quixotic at best: even the most successful piece of jacket copy will have reduced an ineffable, sophisticated work of art to 150 to 250 words of pure shilling. Try writing copy that expresses why you really love a book, that conveys the book’s depth and the author’s true ambitions, and—actually, don’t try it, because it will never work.
Transparency, we are told, is “the new objectivity.” It “means trust.” It “is essential.” With this in mind, I thought I’d dedicate my first contribution to MobyLives to the task of ruthless self-examination. My faults will be revealed; my personal failures made collective.
The following Crimes Against Eloquence were all committed by your humble correspondent—most of them during the last twelve months. I write this post in the hope that calling attention to my past infelicities will keep you, the readers of MobyLives, vigilant against my future offenses. Also, as my overlord Alex Shephard showed three years ago with
Eric Jett, it’s fun to mock publishing-speak.
This is one that Alex called out back in 2011 when he wrote his definitive guide to book review verbiage. But ambitious in a book review is different from ambitious in jacket copy. In the latter case, it often stands for a kind of free-floating breadth of vision. An ambitious book might be truly ambitious, of course, but more often than not, it might be the kind of book that takes place entirely inside an ant farm, narrated, polyphonically, by the 300 ants that inhabit said ant farm. (A book I would totally read, by the way.)
Actually, I don’t think I’ve ever used this one, because I wouldn’t be able to forgive myself if I did. The problem with these words, as widely used as they are, is that no human being has ever uttered them. Can you imagine the following dialogue actually taking place?
Human being 1: How did you like the new Carl Hiaasen novel?
Human being 2: Oh, it was great. I found it compulsively readable.
No, nor can I.
Why can’t something just be funny? Hilarious sounds like the book is trying hard to be funny, and those who try hard to be funny don’t usually succeed at said, er, ambition.
On this one (which, like compulsively readable, I haven’t actually used), I’ll again defer to Alex, who wrote the following, about beautifully wrought, back in 2011: “people are compared to clouds; clouds are compared to birds.”
This one isn’t so bad, but it’s awfully non-specific. A cat who can play the piano is remarkable. Surely we can try harder. See also ambitious.
The perfect word to use when writing the press release for a hot new collection of Gregorian chants, but otherwise best avoided.
A little hard to throw this one under the bus, because I quite like it, but I have to admit that it’s far more successful at describing the LA skyline on a smoggy day than a memoir, even a truly ambitious one.
Writing is very difficult, but even the most ambitious writer isn’t exactly building rocket ships or ball-shaped cameras. This word should be reserved for novels that can only be read inside a self-driving car.
Mark Krotov was a senior editor at Melville House.