Book hype is basically my job. I work to create a buzz around the books we publish so people want to buy them – always tap, tap, tapping into their internal FOMO (fear of missing out). Book hype, though, baffles me sometimes, and more often than I’d like to admit, makes me feel insecure about my reading choices.
Every year there are a few books that go big, quick. A successfully planned publicity and marketing campaign and a couple of influential journalists on board, and you’ve got the foundations for a bestseller. If, too, that book receives a plethora of awards and the high acclaim of readers and critics alike, well then it might just go down in the history books (or at least a few Guardian listicles entitled “books to read before you die”).
Zadie Smith’s White Teeth, Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, Jonathan Franzen’s The Correctioners: they’re modern day classics that I cannot avoid hearing were “one of the best books [you’ve] ever read”. I’m not suggesting they’re not good books – they are without question well-written and finely tuned – but I didn’t like any of them, and reading them made me feel stupid and excluded from the elite book-lovers club.
My question is this: did you actually like those books? Or a book in a similar pile. And if so, why? What did you like about it? Did you actually enjoy the act of sitting down and reading page after page? I am without doubt that a lot of people will answer yes to those questions, and I am genuinely interested to hear their answers – especially to the second one. Why? For me, I find books like the ones mentioned above confusing, unrelatable and elitist.
I’ve just attempted to read White Teeth, after being told time after time that I simply had to by many people that generally have a similar taste in books to me. And, while I can appreciate that it is incredibly well-written, well-researched and will probably make me a more intelligent and well-rounded human, I didn’t enjoy reading it. I found the characters entirely unattainable – they were strange in a way I didn’t recognise – and the jumping to and from time-frames grating. If I have to re-read sentences, I’m not going to want to finish the book.
The Secret History I found incredibly patronising. It didn’t have the redeeming qualities of White Teeth being an indisputably well-written book, it was just irritating in its unnecessarily dark plot line and elitist characters. The author seemed to be trying to make a point – a point I’m not entirely sure of – by exaggerating every element of the storytelling process, and it did nothing but make me feel removed. Yet still, it is regarded as one of the best works of fiction of the modern day. So I guess I must be missing something.
When I’m reading for pleasure, which I always am when I’m not working, I want to get something from a book without having to try too hard. Without having to push through because it’ll be good for me to say I’ve read this. I’m being gratuitously cynical, I know, and I’m not suggesting that authors like Tartt, Smith and Franzen aren’t genuinely adored by many readers, but I wonder how many readers are buying into the hype and, thus, wasting their money on a book that is more chore than anything else.
Am I missing something? Or is this just a case of Each To Their Own? We’re all free to enjoy whatever we want to enjoy, obviously, but I think it’s interesting to unpack why some books become so highly acclaimed. Why they’re seen as more important than others, and why those readers who got them there enjoyed them so much.