Overhyping Cultural Products: Nothing New!

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I’ve never been too crazy about “book jacket hype”… you know statements about how good the book is, quotes from questionable sources about the great qualities of the book… Like the one that is found on the North American edition of Östergren’s Gentlemen. Horace Engdahl , from the Swedish Academy, is quoted to have said or written the following: “A breathtaking performance… On offer, for once, is the shameful secret ingredient that used to make great literature readable: entertainment.” Hum, really?

Now, the same Engdahl created a controversy in 2008 for dismissing the cultural value and influence of American writers and claiming that after a 15-year drought, American writers would still not win the Noble Prize for Literature (see the article about this in the Guardian http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2008/oct/02/nobelprize.usa).

Other bloggers have been somewhat skeptical about Engdahl’s book jacket claimed and commented that Östergren’s book, while being entertaining, just wasn’t superlatively so.

There is another connection between this book and my dislike of overhype. The main character in Gentlemen is writing a pastiche of Strindberg’s The Red Room. Stindberg does use this novel to comment on a number of practices in the cultural field, one of which is the marketing of writers and their outputs. It is described at length at the beginning of Chapter 5 titled “At the Publisher’s”. Strindberg describes a powerful publisher, the “mighty Smith”, who had the power to “make” an author. His influence is described in the following way (in the Ellie Schleussner translation at Project Gutenberg):

A young, inexperienced writer submitted his first novel, a bad one, to Smith. For some reason the latter happened to like the first chapter—he never read more—and decided to bless the world with a new author. The book was published bearing on the back of the cover the words: “Blood and Sword. A novel by Gustav Sjöholm. This work of the young and promising author whose highly respected name has for a long time been familiar to the widest circles, etc. etc. It is a book which we can strongly recommend to the novel-reading public.” The book was published on April 3. On April 4, a review appeared in the widely read metropolitan paper the Grey Bonnet, in which Smith held fifty shares. It concluded by saying: “Gustav Sjöholm’s name is already well known;[60] the spreading of his fame does not lie with us; and we recommend this book not only to the novel-reading, but also to the novel-writing public.” On April 5 an advertisement appeared in every paper of the capital with the following quotation: “Gustav Sjöholm’s name is already well known; the spreading of his fame does not lie with us. (Grey Bonnet).” On the same evening a notice appeared in the Incorruptible, a paper read by nobody. It represented the book as a model of bad literature, and the reviewer swore that Gustav Sjöblom (reviewer’s intentional slip), had no name at all. But as nobody read the Incorruptible, the opposition remained unheard. The other papers, unwilling to disagree with the venerable leading Grey Bonnet, and afraid of offending Smith, were mild in their criticisms, but no more. They held the view that with hard work Gustav Sjöholm might make a name for himself in the future. A few days of silence followed, but in every paper—in the Incorruptible in bold type—appeared the advertisement, shouting: “Gustav Sjöholm’s name is already well known.” Then a correspondence was started in the X-köpings Miscellaneous, reproaching the metropolitan papers with being hard on young authors. “Gustav Sjöholm is simply a genius,” affirmed the hot-headed correspondent, “in spite of all that dogmatic blockheads might say to the contrary.” On the next day the advertisement again appeared in all the papers, bawling: “Gustav Sjöholm’s name is already well known, etc. (Grey Bonnet).” “Gustav Sjöholm is a genius, etc. (X-köpings Miscellaneous).” The cover of the next number of the magazine Our Land, one of Smith’s publications, bore the notice: “We are pleased to be in a position to inform our numerous subscribers that the brilliant young author Gustav Sjöholm has promised us an original novel for our next number, etc.” And then again the advertisement in the papers. Finally, when at Christmas the almanac Our People appeared, the authors mentioned on the[61] title page were: Orvar Odd, Talis Qualis, Gustav Sjöholm, and others. It was a fact. In the eighth month Gustav Sjöholm was made. And the public was powerless. It had to swallow him. It was impossible to go into a bookseller’s and look at a book without reading his name; impossible to take up a newspaper without coming across it. In all circumstances and conditions of life that name obtruded itself, printed on a slip of paper; it was put into the housewives’ market baskets on Saturdays; the servants carried it home from the tradespeople; the crossing-sweeper swept it off the street, and the man of leisure went about with it in the pockets of his dressing-gown.

This is too much of a coincidence. Did Östergren plan to have such comments made on his book on purpose as a cheek-in-tongue link to the Strindberg tale?

References:

Östergren, Klas. Gentlemen. MacAdam Cage, 2007.

Strindberg, August. The Red Room. Norvik Press, 2009. Originally published in 1879.

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