Blurbese: Direct Quotations

If you happened to read more than one review of J.K. Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy last month, you’ll never look at a condom the same way again. That’s because of a single line from the book, which the New York Times, The New Yorker, Time, the Daily Beast, and Library Journal all quoted as evidence of, well—something. The now notorious words were describing a used condom,

glistening in the grass beside her feet, like the gossamer cocoon of some huge grub.

I’m not sure whence stemmed the gleeful concupiscence—or was it prudery?—that prompted so many critics to latch onto this one line; by most accounts, there were many more equally lascivious ones to choose from. I suspect for many of them, focusing on Rowling’s newfound raunchiness was a way to sidestep the more germane topic: that they really didn’t like The Casual Vacancy much.

But I bring up the grub line less to speculate about Michiko Kakutani’s motives than because it’s a great example of something I’ve always found baffling from the ten commandments of book reviews: thou shalt always quote directly.

The exhortation has good pedigree; publishing’s very own Moses, John Updike, brought us the tablets in his 1975 book Picked-Up Pieces. Reviewers, he said, should always give “enough direct quotation—at least one extended passage—of the book’s prose, so the review’s reader can form his own impression.”

This strikes me as kind of a pointless exercise. How is one sentence quoted from the thousands in any novel supposed to give anyone an accurate impression of it? How can reviewers even be sure that one sentence will form the impression they intend in the mind of everyone who reads it? A review’s reader may well form an impression of something from an out-of-context quote, but it’s more likely to be of the reviewer’s opinions than an accurate idea of whether they’d like whatever book the quote’s taken from. Why not ask Sean Hannity or Rachel Maddow to pick out the most representative qualities of the average American?

I can, at least, appreciate the good intention behind this kind of quotation—and readers’ expectations that they’ll be there—which is why I usually leave them in when I’m editing. But I’ll never understand Updike’s second quotation rule: “confirm your description of the book with quotation from the book, if only phrase-long, rather than proceeding by fuzzy précis.”

Call me a naïve idealist, but I’d like to believe there’s a middle ground between phrase-long quotation and fuzzy précis. Why not, uh, describe the book accurately to begin with? If I’m trusting a reviewer to somehow find some Da Vinci Code-style phrase hidden in the text, one that can be used to perfectly summarize the book’s content—do authors consciously write these things in?—I’d just as soon trust them to put that time and effort towards writing an original and engaging and accurate summary of their own.

Because at the end of the day, I always skim over the gossamer cocoons and their kin in book reviews, and I’m sure I’m not the only one. And if not everyone reads these little, orphaned sentences, why on earth should everyone be forced to keep writing them?

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