Hype, grace, fictive Hemingway

Novels Of August

July 18, 1999|By Michael Shelden | Michael Shelden,Special to the Sun

Some new books arrive trailing long clouds of glory in the form of thick press releases stuffed with amazing blurbs and testimonials. The book's editor swears that it's the best thing she's read in years; ditto, say critic X and distinguished novelist Y. And the ecstatic publisher promises big money for the author tour, the newspaper advertising and various marketing gimmicks.

Of course, most of these over-hyped books are so shallow that only a good promotional budget can lend them a little luster. A typical example is this month's gal-pals tearjerker "The Saving Graces" (HarperCollins, 400 pages, $24) by a writer from rural Pennsylvania named Patricia Gaffney. Despite its predictable plot and ridiculous prose ("Isabel's cancer cells are outlaws dressed in black, with gun belts across their chests -- not that they have chests. . . ."), the publisher is backing it with $200,000 of marketing money, some of which will cover the "pre-publication teaser postcard campaign," and a seven-city author tour that includes Baltimore and, inexplicably, Fort Wayne, Ind.

Perhaps a flood of "teaser" postcards will help the publisher unload the 100,000-copy first printing of Gaffney's potboiler, but you have to wonder why so much money and effort is devoted to making a bad book look good. Wouldn't it be easier to make a reasonably decent book seem better? Certainly, it might spare the innocent reader the ordeal of slogging through Gaffney's swamp of triteness, which includes such monstrosities as, "Sitting in the kitchen with Rudy, smoking and drinking and talking about life -- like the beer commercial said, it doesn't get any better than this."

At the other end of the scale, this month's best novel seems to be something of an orphan in its publishing house. Breena Clarke's genuine masterpiece, "River, Cross My Heart" (Little, Brown, 245 pages, $23) is full of grace and beauty and profound insights. But it has no blurbs, no big advertising dollars, no glossy brochures and no postcards.

It is one of those novels that publishers hope will sell by word of mouth.

If there is any justice in the publishing world, first-novelist Clarke will soon be hailed as a writer worthy of comparison with such major figures as Toni Morrison and Eudora Welty. Her novel's unforgettable portrait of life among blacks in the old Georgetown of the 1920s bears traces of Welty's charm and Morrison's passion. She takes the death of one little girl, who drowns in the unforgiving currents of the Potomac, and explores the meaning of that loss for the girl's 10-year-old sister Johnnie Mae and other members of the family.

And she tells it all in prose of rakish elegance. Of the dangerous stream she writes, "The Potomac River has a face no one should trust. ... It welcomes company but abuses its guests by pitching them silly on small boats. ... [It] is a widowmaker, a childtaker, and a woman-swallower."

The character of Johnnie Mae is developed with lyrical intelligence and an eye for vivid detail that is remarkable. From the first page, the novel casts a spell that makes a forgotten world seem alive again. As the girl struggles to find her place in a family torn by grief, and a world corrupted by racism, she learns to take some measure of control over her life. She becomes a "stalwart" young woman, gaining strength from misfortune and acquiring a quiet dignity that removes some of the sting from death and prejudice.

Sometimes a reasonably deserving book gets just enough hype to impress the author but not enough to attract a large audience. With a glowing blurb from Larry McMurty ("highly original first novel"), Diane Smith might be encouraged to entertain great hopes for her new novel "Letters from Yellowstone" (Viking, 224 pages, $23.95); but its quirky structure and odd subject make it a difficult sell.

The publisher is probably right to give only modest promotion to a book of fictional letters concerning a botanist's adventures in Yellowstone at the end of the 1890s. It is indeed "original," but lacks the energy and compelling drama to touch readers' hearts.

One low-cost way to attract interest in a novel is to put someone famous on the book jacket. Write a story about Tolstoy or Freud and the cover illustration of your celebrated subject may do more to draw readers than any number of blurbs and ads. Clancy Carlile's fictional history of the antics of the Lost Generation, "The Paris Pilgrims" (Carroll & Graf, 496 pages, $25), has a wonderful cover photograph of Hemingway and Sylvia Beach; but the book itself is really no more than a mediocre biographical study with generous helpings of invented dialogue and pointless efforts to read Hemingway's mind.

If all else fails, sex is always the hype of last resort. And it often works. Renee Swindle's "Please, Please, Please" (Dial, 308 pages, $23.95) is being promoted as a lusty tale for hip black women who aren't afraid to do anything for love -- even if that means seducing a "best friend's boyfriend."

It would be easy to dismiss Swindle's book as a shameless imitation of Terry McMillan's "Waiting to Exhale"; but, in fact, it is better than its hype suggests. Swindle is funny, perceptive and much sexier than her blurbs promise. Incredibly, she makes Terry McMillan look tame.

Michael Shelden is the author of three biographies and writes for the Daily Telegraph in London, the Times of London, the Washington Post and others.

Pub Date: 07/18/99

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