Monday, August 16, 2010

The Hype Machine: Love It or Loathe It?

Personally, I hate it, and yet this time, I'm uncontrollably drawn to it. The hype machine: It makes people, at best, skeptical, and at worst, cynical — but let's face it, the hype machine always works.

For the purposes of this post, if you'll permit me to back up a second, let's define the "hype machine" simply as the glut of articles, interviews and other press that make their way across our Starbucks tables and computer screens during the lead-up to a "publishing event." Sure, publishers drop millions on marketing for books they know will be hits, and novelists have publicists who carefully manage that writer's image in the media. Many times, though, the hype machine builds on itself naturally, as each new media outlet notices a trend that's drawing readers and wants to make sure they're not left out.

So now to the meat of this post: Unless you've been living in Dan Brown's basement, you're probably aware that Jonathan Franzen will publish his follow-up to 2001's The Correctionsin approximately 348 hours, 14 minutes, and 23 seconds. (That would be August 31st, for you non-mathletes.)  The hype machine for Freedom has been churning along at near break-neck speed all summer. In fact, I can't ever remember the anticipation for a literary novel as intense as it is for this one.

The hype for Freedom peaked late last week when Time published its Aug. 23rd issue with Mr. Franzen eruditely and intellectually gazing off to the side of the cover. The headline: "Great American Novelist." It's the first time in 10 years a living American novelist has been on the cover. Stephen King was the last in 2000. (Unfortunately, you can only read part of the story online — another sure sign that Time feels like the story will grab readers and newsstand sales.) I thought it was a great article, especially the parts about Franzen's friendship with David Foster Wallace and how, with Freedom, Franzen's realized that story and characters matters most, and has laid off the literary tricks and fireworks.

Also, the NY Times' Michiko Kakutani big-worded her way through a really positive review that appeared yesterday — for a book that doesn't come out for two weeks! In fact, most reviews so far have been very positive — feeding the hype machine even more.

There are tons of other examples of the hype: a Huffington Post piece about why books still matter framed around Freedom; the fact that the film rights have already been sold. Franzen is everywhere. And, as usual, the hype machine is working. At the time of this writing, Freedom is #8 on Amazon's bestsellers list — a full two weeks before it's published. 

Frankly, I can't get enough. It may diminish my enjoyment of the book (which is what people who hate the hype machine are known to claim, right?), but I love the fact that a literary novelist has so pervaded our consciousness. And so I continue to devour every clip I can find. Yes, normally I hate the hype machine — but this time, the end justifies the means. 

So, what say you? Can you remember a non-Twilight, non-Harry Potter, non-Girl Who novel hyped as much as Freedom? What's your take on the hype machine? Cynic? Skeptic? Loathe it? Love it?


  1. Augh. I know I'm reading this one when it comes out. I might just might rage at customer service if I find out that we here in the Philippines won't be getting the book in approximately 348 hours. Huff.

    Funnily enough, I haven't read Franzen. Haven't even bothered figuring out what kind of books he wrote. But with all the hype -- I'm thankfully informed now. I mean, his are the "type" of books I like, judging on jacket copy and reviews. And to think I kept ignoring a pristine copy of The Corrections at a secondhand store.

    Hype that backfired: So much anticipatory love for Audrey Niffenegger's second novel. I went ahead and read it. I BLEEPING LOATHED IT. It was a terrible book, hype or no. So, meh.

    Bottom line, it's still what's the book about, I think. Rather than all the money that goes into its marketing.

    PS - I really hate that cover, though.

  2. Great post, Greg. I'll admit that I'm excited for the release of Freedom, and it gratifies me to see the hype machine turn its attention to literary fiction, but I'm definitely one of those people that views the object-of-adoration-of-the-moment with a cynic's eye. So very much of what sells today is the product of full-press marketing that I simply cannot trust that any reviewer's analysis is objective anymore.

    To take an example from the headlines: how is it that an "honest" author can (1) develop and pitch a "non-fiction" book proposal about life-changing experiences in various exotic locales around the world that are yet to occur, (2) obtain an advance on publication for this work about discovering him- or herself, and (3) pass it off to legions of readers as non-fiction narrative and organic experience? Worse yet, how can the entire media machine buy into it without questioning the honesty and integrity of the entire exercise? The answer, I'm afraid, is that the media understands that the mass market is comprised of sheep and their integrity went out with the advent of television. Sorry for the rant ...

  3. I think in a weird way,the literary universe is trying to make up to Franzen all of the flack he got from Oprah regarding his doubts about The Corrections being one of her book club picks a few years back.

    Personally,I think he was overly persecuted for that and that Oprah should have him on the show and discussed the whole matter with Franzen,if she truly intended her book club to be a real dialogue about literature and not an excuse for a televised therapy session.

    Anyway,while I may not be chomping at the bit to read Freedom,I wish Franzen all the luck in the world there. The hype is a bit much at this point but hopefully,it won't hurt the book's chances at doing well.

  4. August seems to be the month that all kinds of things go center stage in the MSM. I will never forget the hype on shark attacks the August before 9/11. Never heard a word afterward about sharks.
    I just think that perhaps the adults go on vacation and the kids get to run media in August and things that would never get on the Time cover get there.
    Whatever the cause I am thrilled to see Franzen get this type of coverage. Great post.

  5. I tend to hate the hype machine. It usually means I will wait a few years to see if I really want to read the overhyped book. And as a bit of a contrarian I tend develop book aversions based on hype--and sometimes I am delighted to be wrong when I finally do read the overhyped tome.

    I am somewhat at odds with Lady T's comment above. I don't necessarily disagree with her, especially about her point that Oprah could have turned it into an interesting discussion. But, I think Franzen behaved like an a**. He was fine with the notion of selling books like crazy but then couldn't stand to be lumped in with Oprah's often low brow picks.

  6. I just learnt my lesson with The Passage, never again. If this book is till around in a few years Ill read it then but Im not rushing out to buy it in hardback.

  7. @Sasha - I don't think you were alone in loathing Her Fearful Symmetry, but the hype machine still totally worked - the book sold well, even if it was a far cry qualitywise from The Time Traveler's Wife. Your point, though, is well-taken - skepticism and cynicism arise about the hype machine because of instances like that...

    @Patrick - Normally, I'm on the cynical side, too - but like you, I'm so encouraged that Franzen is getting so much press, that I'm quite enjoying this ride on the hype machine. A contract to write a novel about life-changing experiences before having them? WTF!? What book is that?

    @lady T - Ha, nicely done - you touched off the Oprah vs. Franzen debate (see Thomas's comment). Is this the literary version of Team Jacob vs. Team Edward? And, I'm pretty sure, in this case, the hype machine will definitely HELP the book's chances of selling very well.

    @Kathy - Interesting theory. Not sure I buy it necessarily, but I'm glad you're excited about Franzen, too.

    @Thomas - I'm also a bit of a contrarian - for instance, in this case LOVING the hype machine about Franzen instead of loathing it, which would be my normal setpoint. You're definitely right, though - it's nice to be wrong. I've held off on the Millennium Trilogy solely because of the hype, but I'm gonna start it soon, and I sure hope they're "worth the hype" as the nugget goes. And my impression of the situation wasn't that Franzen was worried about his sales, he was worried about his book slathered with that silly Oprah logo. He may have behaved like an ass, but I sort of liked him more for it.

    @Jessica - Normally, I'm totally with you on the hype machine and have learned a few lessons myself (Under the Dome, anything by Dan Brown). I just read your review of The Passage, and I can totally empathize with how you must've felt after finishing it.

  8. I've been reading and enjoying (if that's the right word) Franzen's work since I bought "The Twenty-Seventh City" back in 1988. I was stunned to see the hype over "The Corrections." I think it helps that he publishes big novels sparingly (Updike's output diluted his impact, particularly with the beautiful "In the Beauty of the Lilies," which covers some of the same ground as Franzen). His books are events. Big hype, however, produces big backlashes. Expect an "Inception" level push-back here, led by James Wood.

  9. Apparently I have been living in Dan Brown's basement. It's a little awkward though because I am surrounded by copies of the Da Vinci code and he keeps asking me what I thought of his book. I have been avoiding telling him I haven't read it. Maybe I will soften the blow by telling him I haven't read anything by Franzen first.

    I guess I am immune to book hype or out of the loop. Either way, I am still perfectly happy to not to hvae read any bestseller before it made it to the top of the NYT bestseller list. I am with Jessica on the patience thing. I'll give it a few years to breathe (maybe a decade) before I pick it up.

  10. I usually think the hype is fun and then I want to race to read it as soon as I can. I'm totally one of those that they market towards, lol. I haven't ever read The Corrections, though. Is Freedom a sequel?

  11. I couldn't get through The Corrections so I feel I am immune to the Jonathan Franzen hype, but I guess I am glad that a "literary" author is receiving exposure in mainstream media.

  12. Interesting. I just contributed to the hype today, posting an author video of Franzen that I found both interesting and amusing. Maybe I've been bombarded with so much Franzen hype I couldn't help but regurgitate some of it. Ahhh the power of the media.

  13. I don't care either way about the hype machine - although I have to admit that most books there is hy[e about - my experience is that the books deserve the hype.

  14. Greg, at the risk of hijacking the comments here, the examlpe I used above is Elizabeth Gilbert's Eat Pray Love.

  15. @RichLehC - Did you see that Kakutani in the NY Times praised Franzen's ability "to throw open an Updikean picture window on American middle-class life." You think Woods will push back? Usually that's Kakutani's job, and she actually liked it!

    @Leah - Do me a favor, keep stealing D.Brown's laptop until he just gives up! ;) I'm not opposed to giving a novel a few years to breathe, but in this case, I can't freakin' wait!

    @Jenny - Freedom is not a sequel, but is definitely of the same Franzen oeuvre - about a dysfunctional middle-class family.

    @Suzanne - The Corrections definitely has its detractors. It's interesting, for a novel so many people loved, it has more people who hated it or couldn't get through it than any other popular literary novel.

    @Brenna - Loved that video - thanks for posting. Here it is, for other readers:

    @Becky - Yep, the hype machine works much better for good novels than crappy ones.

  16. @Patrick - Ahhhhhhh...Makes total sense. Thanks for filling me in!

  17. I don't have strong feelings one way or another about the hype machine. I tend to make decisions on books based on (1)my prior experience with the author and/or (2)something that just "hits" me while browsing in a bookstore. Since I've been blogging, I'm definitely influenced by what I read from bloggers I respect.

    Having said that, based on the fact that I LOVED The Corrections, I have already preordered my copy of Freedom on (which, by the way, is offering a good preorder price).

  18. I wrote about this already ( which I know you know, but I'm still on the fence on this one.

    Never let it be said that I don't play into the hype machine (ahem The Passage), but I think that as book bloggers, there's no easy answer. I read and write about books that I like, and I never would suppose that every book I like will appeal to everyone else. That would be completely presumptuous and egotistical. But I also would never write a review about a book I've never read, good or bad, and I think our responsibility as bloggers is to provide honest feedback about each book we read so as to not contribute unworthily to the hype machine. But yes, I did like The Passage so I'm going to say so, whether that feeds the machine or not.

    I think the example Sasha used is perfect. Her Fearful Symmetry got a lot of hype from the publisher before its release, but as people started to read it and realized it sucked and told people that it sucked, the hype died down and fast. But hype that sustains is a reflection of the quality of the book.

    We can't always protect ourselves from books we don't like, nor do I expect that everyone who reads a book I liked will also like it. I'll be sad if you don't, but we all have individual tastes to contend with. Reading bloggers that have like-minded interests can help, but it's not a perfect system.

  19. I have no intentions of starting a fight with anyone here,but to Thomas,I must say in my defense that during that Oprah/Franzen clash,I hunted down exactly what Franzen said in that particular interview and the worst thing he said was that her book choices were "schmaltzy"(something that a lot of book people were saying behind closed doors about Oprah's picks).

    I don't have a problem with an author who expresses some honest doubt about being swept up in such a publicity parade and yes,I get that he may have sounded like a jerk,however,Franzen also gave Oprah credit for bringing book talk more into the mainstream.

    Greg,I think you may be right about this being the arthouse version of Team Edward vs. Team Jacob(for the record ,I'm Team Edward)and love the poll. I think you can guess how I voted:)

  20. (Sorry for the tardy response everyone.)

    @2manybooks - I've also been influenced much more by bloggers since I started blogging. Strange how that happens, right? ;)

    @home - You know, now I understand why some writers say they won't read while they're working on their own novels - because they can subconsciously steal ideas. Sorry I didn't credit you for the idea behind the hype machine. And, totally agree that Her Fearful Symmetry is an example of the seedy underside of the hype machine - it worked for the initial bounce, but then petered out when people started spreading the word that it wasn't great. And, of course, I couldn't agree more about being presumptuous enough to assume that every book I like - and hype - everyone else will too.

    @lady t - Yeah, my impression was that the whole fracas really started when Franzen declined Oprah's invitation to dinner, too - which, it's a free freakin' country, right? Oprah's not the President - she doesn't issue summons. I voted the same way you did - and it's a landslide!

  21. Imagine the life he's living? To hell with it. Own it. Sell out, if that's what people call it. I'd do anything to make a living writing stories. He's lucky and he can do whatever the hell he wants, in my opinion. If I started drenching him in haterade it would be out of pure jealousy. I will read the book eventually, but I refuse to stand in line or pre-order it. That will show the hype machine!

  22. As one who couldn't get through The Corrections, despite three attempts, I'm not looking forward to Freedom. If I was sent it as an Arc, maybe, but goodness knows it doesn't need any new press.
    Franzen himself I find annoying (and I don't even know what the Oprah thing was about) although I like the concept of a print author getting press. He just seems so incredibly opinionated as to his literary presence, when he's only written these two books (?) Am I right, or has he done more? To have the authority to back up his statements I think he needs a track record and two books doesn't make a track record, no matter how good they are. At this moment in time, he's at the same level as Nicholas Sparks on my author value rating.

  23. I would rather read about the literary shenanigans of Jonathan Franzen than read about Lady Gaga, Lindsey Lohan, et al. Franzen writes big, serious books and he does it well. Yes, I went out and bought Time Magazine on the way home from school today, and I will read Freedom, too, alongside a towering pile of lesser-known writers. Hooray for hype! Hooray for people buying books of any kind. I particularly love that we are having this conversation--bibliophilic debate is so much preferable to the vitriol that passes for public conversation these days, so hooray for your post and all the comments too!

  24. @Ken - Agreed, contrary to Amy's sentiment below yours, I'm firmly in the camp that Franzen's literary cred can allow him to do/say just about anything he wants.

    @Amy - He's actually published four novels, a memoir, and publishes frequently in The New Yorker. And doesn't being the only living American fiction writer to appear on the cover of Time in 10 years speak to the fact that somebody thinks his track record is pretty darn good? What "statements" exactly do you think he not have the literary track record to back up? And, finally, equating Franzen to Nicolas Sparks is like equating Hemingway to Danielle Steele. But, hey, there's no accounting for taste.

    @bibliophiliac - Ha - good analogy. I went with the literary version of Team Jacob vs. Team Edward but the idea of this whole hype thing plus the Oprah/Franzen thing being like the literary nerd version of TMZ or US Weekly works real well too. Hooray for people buying books, indeed! And hooray for YOUR comment - one of my favorites on this post.

  25. Really enjoyed this post, especially the comments. Personally, I tend to be a skeptic of hype, unless it's an author I already know and love. Then I soak it all up :)

    I second bibliophiliac -- hooray, hooray, hooray!