the art of the blurb

Just finished reading David Mitchell's intriguing, but for me, slightly disappointing novel Cloud Atlas. Disappointing both because some years ago I had read and very much enjoyed his first novel, Ghostwritten, (despite it going a bit off the rails at the end), and also because the book arrived with such extravagantly glowing praise from the literary press.

Among the many laudatory blurbs that blanketed the book's back cover, was the following from the august New York Times Book Review:

Wow! I doubt that any writer who was miraculously given the opportunity to secretly ghostwrite his or her own New York Times review quote could come up with anything better than that. I wouldn't be surprised to see that blurb make an appearance on pretty much every Mitchell book from here on out.

But. (You knew there was going to be a "but," didn't you?)

After finishing the book, I decided to read some reviews to see if I could gain a bit of insight into why my perception of the book differed as much as it did from that of the ecstatic blurbsters. And it was thus that I found myself reading the very New York Times review from which the above blurb was excerpted. And guess what. It is an almost wholly negative review.

So where did that laudatory quote come from? Here it is in context:
Taken as a whole, ''Cloud Atlas'' seeks to give the novel a steely new rigging of the possible. It is an impressive achievement. Unfortunately, impressive is usually all that it is.

It is a devious writer indeed who writes in such a way that the critic who finds himself unresponsive to the writer's vision feels like a philistine. So let it be said that Mitchell is, clearly, a genius. He writes as though at the helm of some perpetual dream machine, can evidently do anything, and his ambition is written in magma across this novel's every page. But ''Cloud Atlas'' is the sort of book that makes ambition seem slightly suspect.
Note that the "So let it be said that" didn't even rate an ellipsis.  

This used to be called quote mining. These days it's generally called journalism.

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