Don’t believe the hype

The use of author testimonials to sell books is a performative exercise in gilding the lily


This article is taken from the May 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Kick the Latch, Kathryn Scanlan (Daunt Books, £12.99)

Not long back, inspired by a piece he read by Francesca Peacock in the Literary Review, the Secret Author hastened off to his local independent bookshop to order a copy of Kathryn Scanlan’s novel Kick the Latch (Daunt Books, £12.99). 

The ebullient Ms Peacock had commended this series of despatches from the life of an American racehorse trainer as being tautly-written, unromantic and seething with what university creative writing tutors would call “lived experience. She was bang right. In fact, Kick the Latch is one of the sharpest novels the Secret Author has read this year, and it will doubtless be featuring in his “best of” selections six months hence.

However ground-down and end-of-tether its subject matter and matter-of-fact the telling, Ms Scanlan’s novel is also an unexpected comic treat. The comedy lies in the selection of puffs that adorn the cover, the rear inside flap and the back jacket. 

There are a dozen of them, supplied by various grand literary eminences on both sides of the Atlantic, and their general tone is probably best conveyed by Lydia Davis’s suggestion that “Kathryn Scanlan has performed a magical act of empathetic ventriloquy … This immediate, engrossing immersion in another life and world, so personally and passionately told, is compulsively readable.”

Inevitably there are distinctions to be made, which is to say that one or two of Scanlan’s encomiasts seem to have made some kind of effort to rein themselves in. Jon McGregor, for example, remarks merely that “Kick the Latch comes at you fast, and is a hell of a ride. I loved it.” Several of them, though, fall into the category of over-excitable guff. What does Kerri ní Dochartaigh mean when she describes it as “ridiculously good”? 

Then there is Amy Hempel, with her pronouncement that “every word is essential”. Every word? Even the prepositions and the pronouns? On the other hand, pride of place in this galère probably belongs to the novelist Tash Aw, who confesses that he was “absolutely blown away” and that Scanlan has produced “a finely-wrought work of art that takes one person’s life and expands it to create something wondrous and universal. The pages I read seemed to capture all that is vital to human existence”.

Author Kathryn Scanlan

The author puff, of which these are particularly shocking examples, has been disfiguring book jackets for two centuries. It is still worth examining the psychology involved. Did Tash Aw, a fine novelist and a reliable critic, think that he was doing Scanlan a favour by declaring that her book captures all that is vital to human existence? How did Scanlan react when she read these no doubt well-intentioned words? 

More important, how does the specimen reader react? It might be offered that this particular purchaser, had he not had Ms Peacock to guide him, would never have gone anywhere near the novel, such was his distrust of the hyperbole printed on the back.

Most academic books, for example, come crammed with salutations from fellow workers in the field that are slightly less valuable than an insurance salesman’s insistence that this is the best deal on the market. 

The publicity mechanisms by which books are brought to the paying public have become — to use another jargon word from the creative writing seminars — “performative”, a kind of ceremonious ritual in which all of those involved delightedly play up to the parts created for them.

Books have to have their sponsors. Authors are flattered to have their manuscripts sent out for peer review. Peer reviewers are gratified to be asked, and no one would ever dare to turn captious (how many professional writers sent a book by another professional writer to commend ever feel like saying that, alas, they didn’t think it was any good?). 

The result is an orchestrated exercise not so much in mass deception as in enthusiastic lily-gilding, epitomised by the appearance of Zadie Smith on the cover of a Karl Ove Knausgaard novel comparing the experience of reading his darling work to being addicted to crack cocaine.

As with Amy Hempel and her “every word is essential” or Tash Aw with his “all that is vital to human existence”, this is meaningless. Has Zadie Smith ever taken crack cocaine (you hope not)? Or, to invert the compliment, would anyone addicted to crack cocaine feel like comparing it to reading a book by Karl Ove Knausgaard? 

No, the whole exercise is nonsense, made worse by the fact that Ms Smith knows it is nonsense and is simply playing along. One would have been far more beguiled by a modest statement to the effect that “I liked this book a lot, and you might, too.” Sadly, magical acts of empathetic ventriloquy and engrossing immersions have the book world in their thrall.

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