Blurbs and trailers used to tease, not spoil. But these days they ruin things by telling you exactly what you are going to read or watch. We need a campaign for real blurbsby Adam Mars-Jones / April 27, 2008 / Leave a comment
What the world needs—and of course by “the world” I mean my diminutive sector of it—is a movement along the lines of the real ale lobby’s successful agitation against keg beer, to counteract another insipid gassy product flooding the marketplace. I’m talking about a campaign for real blurbs.
A draught blurb doesn’t spoil the reader’s appetite by giving too much away, and it reproduces in its malty-hoppy tone something of the book itself. A keg blurb summarises plot, whether baldly or fancily, and scatters a few standard epithets around—the usual suspects being “funny,” “moving,” “unforgettable.” The teaser (draught) is being driven out by the spoiler (keg), like the red squirrel being ousted by the grey.
The larger pattern in culture is of people apparently wanting to know in advance exactly what they’re going to get (hence the mystifying popularity of films whose titles end in a number). Occasionally there is some redeeming flamboyance involved—when a film is called Snakes on a Plane, then you will know to avoid it if what you want is a film about slugs on a bus. But I can’t help thinking that Joyce, publishing Ulysses in the current cultural climate, would come under pressure to call it Blooming June. As for In Search of Lost Time, perhaps it would become The Teacake That Changed The World Forever.
My DVD of Sunset Boulevard warns me that it contains “self-harm references” (presumably Joe Gillis says, “I could have kicked myself for getting mixed up with that crazy dame”). The poster for Kathryn Bigelow’s K-19: The Widowmaker promised “mild claustrophobic terror,” which is hardly surprising since the film is set on a submarine—it’s like the fabled packet of almonds with the warning: “this product contains nuts.”
The decline in the film trailer parallels the decline of the blurb. Nowadays a trailer will tell you most of what happens in the film. I could give you a fair summary of Sister Act without ever having seen it, thanks to an unforgivably explicit trailer: Whoopi Goldberg plays a Las Vegas entertainer who sees her criminal boyfriend (Harvey Keitel) killed. She hides out in a nunnery, where her feistiness and love of pop music at first antagonise and then win over not only her fellow nuns but the mother superior (Maggie Smith) and even the Pope when he pays a visit. How much of the film can be left? I…