A lesson in the art of spin; or, I didn’t say that, did I?

Yes­ter­day, I was schooled in the art of spin. Owned. Pwned, as the kids say, bless their unable to spell hearts. And while I am fair­ly angry about it, a part of me can’t help but admire the cojones of all involved.

A lit­tle back­ground:

In my wan­der­ings through the lit­er­ary land­scape, I have had the oppor­tu­ni­ty to, once in awhile, espouse my views on cer­tain writ­ten works for sums of mon­ey i.e. I write book reviews for pub­li­ca­tions. I have always tried to give such reviews my best atten­tion to detail, try­ing to do more than sim­ply sum­ma­rize a plot and giv­ing a thumbs up/down. I make no claims to great­ness, but I take the work seri­ous­ly, and try to give every author I read the ben­e­fit of a doubt. I have praised books I’ve admired, and when con­front­ed with the occa­sion­al shall we say less-than-stel­lar offer­ing, I usu­al­ly do try to put the best face on a bad sit­u­a­tion. The authors have pre­sum­ably worked hard to bring their vision to print, and although I may not enjoy the result, I appre­ci­ate the effort.

Ah, but I am human, and flawed. Some­times a book hits me below the belt, and I can­not help but to respond in kind. In the pages of The Win­nipeg Free Press, I laid waste in five hun­dred words to such destroy­ers of trees/hope as Michael Slade’s Bed of Nails and Paulo Coelho’s Eleven Min­utes, bare­ly con­tain­ing my rage at how such authors man­aged to scut­tle away with vital hours from my life with their hor­ri­ble prose, insipid char­ac­ters, and limp nar­ra­tives. We all have read such books, and can­not help but rail even when pub­lic opin­ion is against you, or if your own com­mon sense tells you to back off, that you are mak­ing a fool of your­self.

Such it was with Chuck Palahniuk’s Tell-All. My review was not so much an inci­sive dis­sec­tion of a nov­el as it was a rant against an author I deeply admired for foist­ing upon his abun­dant fan­base a nov­el so lazy, so flac­cid, and so drea­ry. In the past, I had for­giv­en Palah­niuk for less­er efforts such as Snuff, know­ing that even the great­est authors had off days. A man who gave me the grue­some, obscene satir­i­cal plea­sures of Fight Club and Rant and Choke had earned some lee­way. But Tell-All is atro­cious, a nov­el that would like­ly nev­er have been pub­lished save for his name on the cov­er. I place it in the same ter­rain as the gut-wrench­ing­ly awful books of James Pat­ter­son, the flavour­less spew­ings of Stephanie Mey­er, the utter stu­pid­i­ty of Tim LaHaye. In the annals of dis­ap­point­ing releas­es from authors I deeply admire and respect, it belongs in the same cat­e­go­ry as Ira Levin’s dis­mal Son of Rose­mary, Richard Matheson’s inane Sev­en Steps to Mid­night, and Robert A. Heinlein’s lam­en­ta­ble The Num­ber of the Beast. I con­demn it to the basest reach­es of my filth-laden soul, and con­tin­ue to do so, even as I begrudg­ing­ly admit that I’m look­ing for­ward to Palahniuk’s next nov­el, it sounds like all sorts of awe­some.

So, I trashed Tell-All in the Arts sec­tion of the Win­nipeg Free Press, and I stand by my words. So it was with no small amount of sur­prise that I picked up the recent Cana­di­an paper­back release (to see who, if any­one, had actu­al­ly praised it), and read the fol­low­ing on the back cov­er, just under­neath the plot sum­ma­ry:

A dev­as­tat­ing dis­sec­tion of celebri­ty … clas­sic Palah­niuk fare.” — Win­nipeg Free Press

Huh.

I checked my orig­i­nal review, and found the sen­tence in ques­tion:

Writ­ten in a style akin to gos­sip tabloids of the time (com­plete with bold­face font for every name men­tioned), the nov­el promis­es on its sur­face to be a dev­as­tat­ing dis­sec­tion of celebri­ty, clas­sic Palah­niuk fare.

Of course, this sen­tence hand­i­ly ignores the rest of the review, includ­ing the fol­low­ing nuggets:

But with Tell-All, his fourth nov­el in as many years, Palah­niuk sim­ply gives up, deliv­er­ing a nov­el as neg­li­gi­ble in size as it is in ambi­tion.

and

Tell-All is the effort of an author who has utter­ly giv­en up. It is a sog­gy, mis­shapen mess of half-baked par­o­dy and pud­dle-shal­low inspi­ra­tion.

and

Tell-All is an insult­ing shrug of indif­fer­ence from an author who once actu­al­ly mat­tered on the lit­er­ary scene.

Wow, that was harsh. I may have for­got­ten to take my hap­py pills that day.

Now, in addi­tion to work­ing as a review­er and author, I earn a liv­ing as a pub­li­cist for a high­ly-regard­ed inde­pen­dent Cana­di­an pub­lish­er. So I am inti­mate­ly famil­iar with the con­cept of ‘spin.’ I have had oppor­tu­ni­ty to scour reviews for phras­es I can employ to high­light my books in press releas­es and adver­tis­ing. And occa­sion­al­ly, I have lift­ed chunks of wordage and used them slight­ly out of con­text, so that a review that rates a book as aver­age can be used to high­light a novel’s mar­velous atmos­phere or rich char­ac­ters. It’s part of the job. Not lying, exact­ly, but tweak­ing the truth in a cer­tain way to achieve an intend­ed result.

But this … this is com­plete fal­si­ty. They are using a review specif­i­cal­ly designed to keep peo­ple as far away as pos­si­ble from their book as a tool to lure peo­ple in. They’ve tak­en a spray can to a sign labelled DO NOT SWIM, SHARKS IN THE AREA, leav­ing it blar­ing to the pub­lic, SWIM AREA.

I do admire the abil­i­ty to make chick­en sal­ad out of chick­en shit, no ques­tion. But when faced with Tell-All, the proof is in the quotes; they did not have many to choose from. Check out the screen­shot of the praise page above: most of them are fair­ly qui­et on the nov­el itself, con­cern­ing them­selves with Palah­niuk and his rep­u­ta­tion rather than the mer­its of the book. I’ve looked around; crit­i­cal praise for Tell-All was fair­ly lack­ing. The page looks good, but when you come down to it, it doesn’t tell you any­thing more than the praise pages for most of James Patterson’s recent books, pages made up of glo­ri­ous plau­dits from blog­gers and blog­gers only. Yes, I’m being a lit­tle snob­bish here, but my point is, there is no crit­i­cal praise from rep­utable sources to be had. Some show it obvi­ous­ly (Pat­ter­son) and some hide it expert­ly (Palah­niuk).

Who to blame? It’s all the pub­lish­ing com­pa­ny, and the pub­li­cists. They’re try­ing to sell a prod­uct here, the art is left to the artists. I don’t blame Palah­niuk for the man­ner in which his com­pa­ny mar­kets him, I only blame him for the prod­uct itself.

My point? Could it be, don’t believe every­thing you read? That’ll do, I guess. But the real point here is:

I did not praise Tell-All. The Win­nipeg Free Press did not praise Tell-All. The quo­ta­tion is a bald-faced dis­tor­tion, a lie through and through. If you must read Tell-All, don’t blame me if you feel used after­wards.