I think it’s important for a writer to read outside his or her own genre, so that their work doesn’t sound like everyone else’s. So I’m always on the lookout for something, which means I read a lot of back cover text, searching for that elusive spark of interest. I understand the purpose of those descriptive blurbs: to tell potential readers what they’re getting, and to intrigue them into dropping their (on average) twenty bucks. But sometimes, in my opinion, they play too tightly to their genre.
On a recent trip, I was scoping out books in an airport and came across Dream Lake by Lisa Kleypas. She’s a best-selling author, but I wasn’t familiar with her work; still, the title and cover illustration got me to pick up the book and peruse the back cover. Here’s what it said:
They say that opposites attract. But what happens when one has been devastated by betrayal and the other is so jaded that his heart is made of stone? Enter the world of Friday Harbor, an enchanting town in the Pacific Northwest where things are not quite as they seem and where true love might just have a ghost of a chance….
Okay, so far, so good. Call me a wuss, but I enjoy Alice Hoffman-esque magical realism. I understand that love is often at the heart of a magical-realist story, and that’s okay, too. So I read on:
Alex Nolan is as bitter and cynical as they come. One of the three Nolan brothers who call Friday Harbor home, he’s nothing like Sam or Mark. They actually believe in love; they think the risk of pain is worth the chance of happiness. But Alex battles his demons with the help of a whiskey bottle, and he lives in his own private hell. And then a ghost shows up. Only Alex can see him. Has Alex finally crossed over the threshold to insanity?
Again, so far, so good. Better than good, in fact. I like the idea of a troubled hero with a ghost only he can see; one of my favorite TV shows, Slings and Arrows, played with exactly that conceit. And one of my favorite tropes is the idea of the cynical, bitter hero reclaiming his idealism (if you don’t believe me, check out any of my own Eddie LaCrosse novels). Again, I read on:
Zoë Hoffman is as gentle and romantic as they come. When she meets the startlingly gorgeous Alex Nolan–
And that’s where it lost me. Because honestly, I have no interest in the stories of people who are startlingly gorgeous. It’s so far outside my experience that I just can’t identify with it. In our society, gorgeous people are a breed apart, treated like royalty and held to different standards. Don’t get me wrong, I understand that the book’s target audience probably eats that up with a spoon, and it may in fact be a terrific novel. But I’ll never know. (Addendum: in the interests of fairness, I’ve decided to read this book, and put it on hold at the library. 27 people are ahead of me, which says that my problems with it are far from universal.)
This got me thinking about other things that immediately put me off. For example, I love horror movies, but if I see the words, “a group of teenagers,” “a group of college friends,” “a dozen young people,” or anything similar, I move on. Experience (and the SyFy Channel, and the Chiller channel) have taught me that this is short-hand for “there will be lots of meaningless victims,” and (depending on the rating), “there may be breasts.”
How common is this trope? Here’s the results of just fifteen minutes of scanning the horror new releases on Netflix:
“Six young travelers check into a shabby hotel…” The Child’s Eye, 2010
“Six friends venture into a forbidden part of town…” The Hunters, 2011
“Miriam and four college friends run afoul of….” Evil Things, 2009
“A fun-filled weekend getaway turns into a nightmare…” Don’t Let Him In, 2011
“College kids travel to a small mountain town…” Madison County, 2011
“When a tour guide and her friends investigate…” The Haunting of Whaley House, 2012
“A weekend of beach house debauchery turns into a nightmare for a group of friends…” Shark Night, 2011
“A group of kids takes an illegal tour…” Chernobyl Diaries, 2012
“Four London art students living as squatters…” Spiderhole, 2010
“A group of indie rockers seek solace…” Don’t Go in the Woods, 2010
So what back-cover copy turns you away from a book, movie, or TV show?