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Wednesday, 20 April 2011

Can you believe the hype?

believe the hype

Rabinowitz: What are you reading?
Topper Harley: Great Expectations.
Rabinowitz: Is it any good?
Topper Harley: It's not what I'd hoped for.

Hot Shots: Part Deux

This is going to be a great post. Truly great. I’m telling you, this is the post you have been waiting for. This post will pop your socks. It will rock your world. Tell your friends. Tell them to tell their friends. Make peace with your enemies and tell them too. Tweet about it. Post about it. Text about it. Go out in the street and shout from the rooftops: “Listen! You have got to check out this post. Your lives will be incomplete until you’ve read it. Everyone else is reading it. You don’t want to feel left out. So what are you waiting for? Do it now. Now!”

Hype is not interested in foreplay. Hype doesn’t want to cuddle afterwards. Hype won’t call you in the morning. Hype is selfish. Hype promises much and delivers little if anything, but the worst thing about hype is that it invariably damages the very things it is out to promote because nothing can ever live up to its hype.

Hype is a form of marketing but where’s the difference? In his article, What’s the difference between hype and marketing? Tom Jarvis asks just that:

Is hype talking about something that doesn’t exist yet? That’s maybe the only distinction I can discern. If not, I’m wondering what ratchets marketing up to hype. Is there good hype? Bad hype?

The comments make interesting reading. Most associate hype with hyperbole; excessive, over-the-top claims that cannot be independently verified. I like what Tomas Jogin had to say about it:

Why are people so put off by “hype”? Probably because we know how to deal with marketing since a long time ago, our brains know how to differentiate marketing from “real” recommendations.

All Brian does, further down the page, is leave this quote:

[Partly from hype, a swindle (perhaps from hyper-), and partly from hype(rbole).]

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 4th edition

There is a thing called the hype cycle. There’s some question about whether it is actually a cycle but it graphically demonstrates the sequence of events:


Or, as Mickey Rooney put it, “You always pass failure on the way to success.”

We see this time and time again when it comes to computers and computer gaming – every new product is the ‘solution’ we’ve been waiting for but the simple fact is when they start marketing one product you can be damn well sure they’re already developing its replacement – but you also see it when it comes to books and films. I followed the production of Tim Burton’s first Batman film for years. I read every scrap of information I could about it and the simple truth is that I had built up my expectations so high that there was not a snowball’s chance in hell that I wouldn’t be disappointed, which I was. Later I started to see the positive things about the film but it will always feel like a bit of a letdown. Nowadays I’m careful not to read too much or get too excited especially when it comes to sequels. About the only film recently that I feel lived up to its hype was J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek.

imgharry potter and the goblet of fire1Books don’t tend to get hyped. Or even marketed that much if we’re being honest. There are the exceptions. Should J. K. Rowling decide to write another Harry Potter book you can be sure that it will not be long before everyone on the planet will know about it. When, in 2000, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (the fourth novel in the series) came out with an initial print run of five million, Mark Lawson reviewed the book for The Guardian. He gives it quite a favourable review actually. Why I mention this particular review is because of its title: Rowling Survives the Hype. It certainly suggests that hype can be a bad thing. He ends his review like this:

The difficulty is that inflated expectation almost inevitably encourages disappointment and backlash. But the view so far from this household is that, though no writer could justify this hype, Rowling survives it.

What I did find interesting is a comment made by Amanda Craig in her article for The Independent in the lead up to the publication of Rowling’s fifth book:

Perhaps the oddest aspect of Rowling's success is that while the posters and media hype may impress adults, children who adore the books tend to despise the hype and merchandising surrounding them.

By the time the last book (so far, so we’re told) was released, the print run in the USA alone was twelve million copies. With online retailers and major bookstore chains discounting heavily to guarantee big sales independent bookshops were unable to compete and some shops did not even bother to order copies at all which I think is rather sad.

Rowling is the most obvious example of an author who has been affected by hype but she is not alone. As Malcolm Bradbury noted:

The climate of over-promotion, hype and celebrity interview easily obscured all that was serious about the novel. Marketing and advertising shaped the market, the nature of literary reputation; literary prizes became the high-profile face of fictional competition. As D. J. Taylor complained in his After the War: The Novel and England Since 1945, the novel became far less literary: too engaged with the marketplace, the style-scene, generational culture, nepotism, author profiling and hype.


The nineties were the age of the busy high-street bookstore, the literary festival, the promotion of author and book as commodity. – Malcolm Bradbury, The Modern British Novel, p.517

That last word is the key. A book is not simply a product. At least it shouldn’t be. Let’s consider another author, Arundhati Roy:

[Her] novel The God of Small Things (1997) is most remarkable for the publicity it generated, both as the arrestingly good first novel of a young, little-known and unusually attractive writer and as an example of the star-making industry, the media-driven process by which a writer can be catapulted to a quasi-mythical celebrity status. … For some the marketing of the novel was an object lesson in commodity fetishism, with a carefully managed excitement at the latest ‘discovery’, and some salacious details about the private life of the writer – described by one reviewer, in [an] example of the touchstone effect, as an ‘unsuitable girl’ (Maya Jaggi, Guardian Weekend, 24 May 1997) – thrown into the mix. – Graham Huggan, The Postcolonial Exotic: Marketing the Margins, p.76

The God of Small ThingsWhat, of course, happened is that, after the hype, and the novel becoming a bestseller, reviewers started coming out of the woodwork suggesting that the book was perhaps too reader-friendly (the big dip in the graph). Only now, in the cold light of day, can the actual pedigree of the book be assessed – Huggan says the book “is an accomplished novel, and more sophisticated than it has been given credit” – but what it was not was some kind of talisman, a gift from the “goddess of small things” as Roy has been called (e.g. in The Village Voice.)

I have no opinion about the book. A bit like Rowling, Roy has her fans and her detractors. (Not sure if ‘detractor’ is the opposite of ‘fan’ because people can be fanatical both ways but you know what I mean.) Every book will have those who love it and those who struggle with it. As it should be. Where many people struggle with Roy’s book is when it comes to the way it was promoted; they see that it’s not a bad book but their objection is that is doesn’t live up to the hype. Type "doesn’t live up to the hype" into Google and you’ll get about 3,820,000 hits. I rest my case.

There is a reason the English language has the two words ‘quantity’ and ‘popularity’ . . . because they’re two different things. The problem these days is that too many people assume that quantity = popularity:

Paranormal Activity is the number one film in the country. I know! That means it's great. That means it's great! If it's the number one movie—this is the logic. For example, more people saw Paul Blart Mall Cop than saw The Shawshank Redemption. Therefore, Paul Blart Mall Cop is a better movie than The Shawshank Redemption. Do you see? That's right! More people like it, it means it's better! Don't you understand capitalism?Craig FergusonQuality By Popular Vote

If we can transfer this to literature:

Facts and figures about sales of books and incomes of authors are interesting but not interesting enough, unless they specifically reveal something about the way in which writers and their writings function in a culture. Publishing is relevant to literary history only in so far as it can be seen to be, ultimately, a shaping influence on literature. – K. V. Surendran, Indian English Fiction: New Perspectives, p.137

The bottom line is, has and will always be, the test of time. Fashions come and go.

star_wars_episode_one_the_phantom_menace_ver2What hype is is a tease. And reality loses hands down every time to imagination. Just a few minutes ago the January 2011 issue of SFX popped through my letterbox and, of course, I stopped everything to get my monthly fix. The very last article was entitled ‘Pre-Release Hype’ in which Richard Edwards talks about the expectation that was generated for The Phantom Menance or simply [air quotes] Episode I as it was known for ages. But he also comments on the whole industry’s approach to hype:

A well-constructed trailer is a work of art, something that can push all the right buttons with a few carefully placed edits or a cunningly planned reveal. Throw in a few posters, web campaigns and carefully distributed photographs and I’ll be hooked all the way to release – it’s almost a shame to buy the ticket.

In this respect he’s very critical of the influence of the Web these days and the amount of information that is available pre-release. Thankfull that doesn’t seem to happen with books so much. Unless the author’s someone like Sarah Palin or George W. Bush. Hype will rope in the core demographic but these are the people who were going to buy the game, watch the film or wear the T-shirt anyway. Real success follows when these people start texting their friends and blogging about their experience.

A good example of this is how people came to view the book The Road. I think most people would agree that’s it’s a decent book, a bit short but perfectly readable. But will you read it? I found a series of comments following a review of the book on Fyrefly’s Book Blog of interest. In part they say:

Karen: [I]f you compare the novel to the hype that it’s received, then I would agree it is a tad overrated.

Fyrefly: I read this novel a few years ago, when it was a recent Oprah book pick, and the hype seemed much more out of control than it is now. I wonder whether I’d feel differently about it if I’d read it after the hype had died down a little.

Karen: Yes sometimes our opinions are swayed, for or against a book, by how much hype it receives. So it would be interesting, seeing as there is a considerable amount of time between the time that you first read it, to read it again, to see if your opinions on the novel have changed or not.

Christina: I haven’t read this book and don’t know if I plan too. I think that I might be underwhelmed do to all of the hype.

Ladytink_534: I honestly don’t think it will live up to the hype that I’ve heard about it so I haven’t given it a shot.

It’s just as bad as judging a book by its cover, isn’t it?

the road 5The bottom line for me is not to be in a rush to see, read or experience anything in a hurry. I’ve read The Road. Without people writing about it I would never have heard of it but once I’d read enough to pique my interest – and I assure you that was very little – I didn’t read any more. I put the book on my Amazon wish list, my wife’s son bought it for me and I eventually got around to it long after all the fuss had died down. I really only learned about that when I started writing my review and began reading what others had said.

So why don’t we learn? As Samuel Johnson said, “We love to expect, and when expectation is either disappointed or gratified, we want to be again expecting.” It’s all about the chase, the unknown. What do you do when you’ve caught up with what you’ve been chasing? Have sex with it? Kill it and eat it? Toss it back in the river? I guess that all depends on whether you’ve been chasing a woman, a deer or a fish. Let me leave you with this profound thought: There is nothing more exciting than an unknocked door and a woman with her clothes still on on the other side of it.


Von said...

Hee, hee, love it! Now for some hype, don't miss 'Sunshine and Oranges" when it is released around your way.

Elisabeth said...

Very Jane Austen, that last sentence of yours, Jim, but I agree with you - hype can be a real destroyer of good things simply by ratcheting up our expectations to impossible extremes. The let down is inevitable.

I, too, prefer to go into things - books and films - without too many and 'great expectations' and yet I also get pleasure about imagining how something will be.

It's one of the reasons why I enjoy your reviews. They give a flavour, they affect my expectations, but I'd never accuse you of being into hype except your tongue in cheek first few paragraphs here. You certainly lay it on with a trowel and I wonder will it show in the response rate to this post.

Hype to me is such a turn off, but if my friends recommend a book or a film, then I take it far more seriously.

I've heard that there's this notion that something goes viral, often for no apparent reason.

I suspect it has to do with community spirit, especially among the young and technologically savvy. My daughters are forever pointing out things that 'everyone is twittering or tweeting about'. Popular in some ways, maybe meaningful and maybe not.

Thanks, Jim.

Jim Murdoch said...

Thank you, Von. Yes, I’ve seen a trailer for Sunshine and Oranges and it definitely looks like my kind of film. Thanks for the heads up.

And, Lis, never having read any Jane Austin I’m not sure what I can say about that last sentence. It made sense when I wrote it. I’ve always been fascinated by people’s need to see. Our curiosity about body parts is the simplest way to look at this. The fascination we have with glimpsing parts of people as if their boobs or bums are going to be that different to anyone else’s. But not knowing, only imagining. Ah, that’s so much better. Because once you’ve seen that’s it, you’ve seen.

And hype is all about selling the unseen. It takes our curiosity and knows how to tease, torment and torture it. It’s interesting the way people have used our curiosity to its full advantage in advertising campaigns. A great example is The Blair Witch Project:

One of the most interesting aspects of this film is the way in which it was marketed through the Internet. What started off as a cheap and easy way of spreading the word about the film became the perfect forum in which to effectively manufacture the hoax story of the Blair Witch and of the missing students. Months before the official release of the film, there were a number of dedicated websites filtering various pieces of information to an Internet audience intrigued by the rumours about the film, the witch and the students. Many of these sites had been set up by people who had not seen the film but believed it to be a true story. These websites effectively participated in the creation of a hoax, either unwittingly because they believed the film to be a real documentary about a real disappearance, or through colluding with the filmmakers to manufacture and maintain the hoax's hype. – Jump Cut

This is not simply advertising. Even I (and I’m really not a fan of the horror genre) sat down to watch the film I was so curious about what all the fuss was about. I lasted about ten minutes, skipped to the end and that was me – thoroughly underwhelmed. As I said: hype is damaging in the short term and in the long term because now when I read about something that looks too good to be true I always assume that it is.

Tim Love said...

I only found out about,_Libertine
this year.

One of the types of hype that I don't like is when "international prizewinner" is printed on the cover, then you find out that it won Little Spodgston Writers Circle's competition which was open to all (like most competitions are).

Jim Murdoch said...

I think that’s why I’m very wary of stats in general, litrefs, because it’s easy of misrepresent the truth by the way we present the facts: as soon as someone adds ‘ONLY’ to anything it changes out perspective – ONLY £5.99, ONLY 2% fat, for one week ONLY. Hype is like that with ‘MUST’ – a MUST see movie. I hate the way I’m made to feel as if I would somehow be an incomplete person if I didn’t experience some product. I cope just fine without a Smartphone for example and the only time I’ve ever taken a photo or video with my camera is to see how it was done when my wife first bought me the damn thing. Personally I’d still be using my old phone. It did all I required of it, it made phone calls.

Art Durkee said...

Two thoughts:

1. Hype happens because the entertainment media are geared towards, and generate, celebrity culture. It's not enough that a writer has to be good, they also have to come over well when being interviewed on camera. The entire entertainment media is based on promoting commodities: books are not reviewed because they're good, necessarily, but because they've been promoted. Reviewers don't have the time, usually, to go do their own research or library trips.

2. I never read anything during its period of being hyped by the media. (Exception being Rowling, who is exceptional as you point out.) The more people tell I should read this book now, the less likely I am to want to read it. I almost always wait till long after the hype dies down and fades away. Then I might read a book, on my own initiative, that people were trying to coerce me into reading earlier on. (Part of that is my innate allergic reaction to people trying to coerce me into doing things they want me to do.) Otherwise, I don't feel like I can read the book objectively, or form an opinion that isn't at least reacting somewhat against the hype.

So if I write a review, it's almost never timely or current. I actually like to write reviews of books years after they were released; it can lead to a re-assessment.

I worked in marketing and advertising for a long time, as you know. That's partly why I am completely resistant to hype. I know it's all lies. Even with the best books ever published, marketing is still all lies. Nothing could ever live up to the expectations created by marketing, which is one reason marketing gets more shrill the more desperate it gets. That's because it's all commodity: publishing is not an altruistic game, it is a profit-making business. Period. Any author who forgets that it's all about making money for the publisher is going to run afoul, sooner or later.

So it's best ti avoid the hype entirely. Even if that means reading something good long after everyone else has.

Jim Murdoch said...

What amuses me, Art, is the number of things that get hyped that I never hear about; I only learn about the blanket marketing after the fact. It’s like the book I’ve just read, when I accepted it for review I knew nothing about it bar what was in the press release. Now that I’ve read it I find that the Internet is riddled with reviews already and I’m puzzled why the UK publisher felt the need for one more. All I can hope to do is not talk about what everyone else has been talking about – it’s a novel about a chef and so all the focus has been on the vivid descriptions of food – and concentrate on the structure of the novel and the (in my opinion) lack of character development neither of which will be of any real interest to the book’s target audience. But I can see that you and I are very much on the same page here. I much prefer to read books that have stood the test of time. Some of the books I get sent are decent enough but no Nineteen Eighty-Fours or Catch-22s have dropped through my letterbox as yet.

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