It's a familiar story: The words on the theater marquee that shout, " 'Amazing! . . . Dazzling! . . . Stupendous!' -- says Constance Critic in the Morning News," were lifted from a review by Constance Critic that declared, "The stiffness of the dialogue is amazing, the clumsiness with which the actors stumble about the stage is dazzling, and the overall amateurishness of the production is stupendous."
But familiarity does not make such a little story any more palatable, as was brought home to me last week in a most disagreeable fashion. Sleepily poking through the newspapers early one morning while commuting to work, I suddenly found myself confronted with an advertisement for a novel called "Lace," by Shirley Conran, published by the firm of Simon and Schuster. To my utter astonishment, I read these words: " 'It soars!' -- Jonathan Yardley, Washington Post."
Yes, I discovered upon checking the files, the words were mine -- though the exclamation point most emphatically was not. But they came from a review that described the book as a "schlock novel" written with "transparent and exquisite cynicism." The review ended on a note that was intended to be tongue-in-cheek:
"Conran knows all the names, brand and otherwise, and she certainly knows where and when to drop them. 'Lace' doesn't sink under the weight of them, it soars -- right up into the same stratosphere where you'll find 'Valley of the Dolls' and 'Scruples.' If that isn't fast company, I don't know what is."
And if that isn't playing right into the hands of Simon and Schuster's advertising copywriters, I don't know what is. So what if the review was positive only to the extent that it described the book as competent "schlock fiction"? So what if the sarcastic tone of the final paragraph was, if anything, transparent? All that seems to have mattered to the person or persons who assembled the ad was that the review contained two words that, lifted out of context and embellished with an exclamation point, could be used to convey the absolutely false impression that I admired the book.
This is my little problem, of course, and it wouldn't deserve further comment except for a couple of somewhat larger considerations. One, need it be said, is that I resent this apparently deliberate misrepresentation of my views and I want, so far as possible, to correct it; for the record, in my judgment "Lace" is a piece of slickly executed trash and the stratosphere into which "it soars" is notable more for its tawdriness than for any more positive qualities. The other is that this unpleasant incident provides an opportunity to say a few words about how reviewers feel about the use of their words for advertising purposes and what strategems they employ to exert as much control as possible over that use.
Being quoted in ads comes with the reviewer's territory, whether that territory be books, movies, restaurants or politicians. If there's a reviewer alive who is displeased at having his or her words splashed about in large type or neon lights, I'm unaware of it; a certain amount of ego is inherent in reviewing, if not in fact necessary to it, and it follows that the reviewer doesn't as a rule resent the publicity that comes with being lavishly quoted in ads and commercials. Reviewers like to feel that their endorsement helps bring people to work they admire, and usually are happy to have favorable comments excerpted for promotional purposes -- though the thrill of it all diminishes after a few years. Reviewers further understand not merely that being excerpted and/or condensed for sales campaigns is an inescapable byproduct of their jobs, but also that they are always susceptible to being quoted out of context -- usually harmlessly, but occasionally with the result that their views are thoroughly distorted.
Because of that, reviewers can end up spending a lot of time phrasing their opinions with sufficient care so as to keep their words out of the ads. Indeed, that is precisely what I thought I had done in composing my review of "Lace." Consider as evidence this sentence: "It is a work of such transparent and exquisite cynicism that its triumphant march to the upper reaches of the best-seller lists seems divinely ordained." That is not great prose, but it certainly is careful prose; I was confident in writing it that the first half of the sentence would be a signal to the publisher not to quote the second half. An ad that read, " 'Its triumphant march to the upper reaches of the best-seller lists seems divinely ordained -- Washington Post," would have been patently dishonest. But past a certain point you simply can't protect yourself from being misquoted, and when Simon and Schuster came upon the words "it soars," it pounced on them.
In so doing, it violated the publishing industry's unspoken rule against lifting words and phrases out of context. Unlike the theater and movie industries, which over the years have driven many a reviewer to distraction with irresponsible quoting practices, the book business is usually pretty careful about using the reviewer's words in ways that reflect the reviewer's actual opinion. It's true that from time to time I have found positive words of mine lifted out of largely negative reviews, but the case of "Lace" is the first in nearly two decades of book reviewing in which I have been represented as making an exuberantly favorable comment about a book that in point of fact I described as having little real merit or value.
In doing this, Simon and Schuster has in my judgment made a sly and gratuitous effort to distort the relationship between reviewer and reader. As I have said in this space on other occasions, any reviewer has to operate on the assumption that his readers trust him -- that his readers believe him to arrive at his opinions honestly and to express them without ulterior motives. A reader who trusts my judgment and veracity could well be persuaded, on the evidence of the Simon and Schuster advertisement, to purchase a copy of "Lace." After reading the book, that person almost certainly would have second thoughts about trusting me again -- as would I were the roles reversed. It is for this reason that I find myself distressed and angered by what I would otherwise dismiss, with a degree of amusement, as a cynically resourceful piece of salesmanship.