The dust-jacket was a late 19th-century invention; the notion that ‘you can’t judge a book by its cover’ must be a good deal older than that. It’s an expression that in an ideal world no one would ever say. But people do say it – often, oddly, when they’re talking about books. I say ‘oddly’ because once upon a time a book’s cover would have given little indication of its contents and done less to distinguish it from the other volumes beside it on the shelf. So the thrust of the cliché – if clichés can be said to have thrust; perhaps the definition of a cliché is a phrase that has lost its thrust – would have been that, just as you can’t judge a book by its cover, which is a self-evident fact, so you shouldn’t base your opinion of anything else on surfaces or first impressions: you can’t judge an accused man by his physiognomy. Fine. But as the number of books jostling for readers’ attention has grown, publishers have toiled to make it not only possible but ever easier to judge books by their covers. So to say that ‘you can’t judge a book by its cover’ and mean it literally is to use an assertion that is neither self-evident nor entirely true as an analogy for itself: I think this is what’s known as begging the question.
Judging a book by its cover is essentially a comparative process. New novel X looks as if it belongs to the same set as old novels Y and Z; I did/didn’t like Y and Z; I therefore will/won’t bother to buy/flick through/ borrow/steal X. This kind of decision-making is easiest when X, Y and Z have been written by the same person. You see The Night Watch by Sarah Waters, remember how much you enjoyed Sarah Waters’s other books – it’s a no-brainer. And just in case you’re the kind of person who remembers the titles of novels more easily than the names of writers, the cover of The Night Watch reminds you that Waters is the ‘bestselling author of Fingersmith’. But sometimes a writer’s own work just isn’t enough: the proof copy of Jonathan Raban’s Surveillance, due from Picador in September, carries an assurance that the novel will appeal to readers of Jonathan Franzen and Ian McEwan. Wow. McEwan’s name has become something of a hallmark: even John Updike can’t have a novel published in London without its being stamped on the cover (‘“The finest novelist writing in English today” Ian McEwan’ it says at the top of the British edition of Terrorist, due in August from Hamish Hamilton).
Obviously you can’t put a first novel in the context of the writer’s own backlist, because there isn’t one. So publishers of ‘debut fiction’, as it’s clunkingly known in the trade, are compelled to abandon the safety of facts – by the bestselling author of Fingersmith – and launch themselves into the void of assertion and hyperbole. Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl, for example, due in September from Viking, is ‘an erudite and darkly hilarious coming-of-age novel, combining the storytelling gifts of Donna Tartt and the suspense of Hitchcock’. If you don’t trust the publicity department, and there’s no reason you should, since they’re bound to claim all their books are just terrific,[*] you can be reassured by a soothing metaphor from Jonathan Franzen, ‘author of The Corrections’: ‘Beneath the foam of this exuberant debut is a dark, strong drink.’ And as everyone knows, Guinness is good for you. (So is coffee, if that’s what he’s alluding to.) But why should the stout praise of another novelist be in any way reliable? They’re all in it together, aren’t they, scratching each other’s backs and keeping in with their agents and publishers? There’s only one thing for it: open the book up and start reading (Cyril Connolly thought that scanning the first page of a novel was enough to decide whether or not it was going to be any good).
Franzen’s willingness to give a junior colleague a leg-up is surpassed only by that of Salman Rushdie, J.M. Coetzee and Thomas Pynchon. There’s clearly a connection between reclusiveness and readiness to puff, even if Rushdie’s withdrawal from the public eye was neither voluntary nor permanent. Maybe it’s simply a question of having plenty of time on one’s hands. Or perhaps it’s a way of cutting a deal, mollifying the importunate publicists who are forever badgering the writers to turn up in person to collect their prizes or perform at literary festivals or at least give interviews: ten blurbs in exchange for every no-show at Hay-on-Wye. Because being a writer involves far more than merely writing books: you have to venture out from behind your typewriter every now and again to go on tour, give readings, meet and greet your public, interact with your readers, show your face, join the circus of publicity and sales.
I Loved You for Your Voice by Sélim Nassib (Europa, £8.99) is a novel based on the life of the Egyptian singer Om Kalthoum. It carries a plug from Bob Dylan: ‘Om Kalthoum is great. She really is.’ This is unenlightening for three reasons: first, Om Kalthoum’s greatness isn’t in dispute; second, Dylan will plug anything these days (remember those ads for Victoria’s Secret undergarments, in which Dylan and a model in her flimsies stalked each other around Venice?); third, Om Kalthoum’s greatness has no bearing on whether or not Nassib’s novel is any good. And I’m sorry to say I can’t enlighten you as to that, because it only arrived on my desk this morning. The reviewer in Nigrizia, however, called the Italian edition ‘a dazzling masterpiece’, while Omar Sharif says that ‘in the East a day without Om Kalthoum would have no colour.’ Oh, hang on – that’s got nothing to do with the novel either. I suppose I’d better go away and read it.
[*] Robert McCrum recently gave readers of the Observer help in interpreting blurbs (basic rule of thumb: they tend to be exaggerations – who’d have thought it). The usefulness of the exercise was marred only by the fact that the blurbs he translated were all invented by him, describing non-existent novels by non-existent novelists. Next week: ‘The Vocabulary of Estate Agents, a User’s Guide’.