The Marriage Plot

I swear, this is not a wedding post.

This book choice is unrelated to my impending nuptuals. I probably don’t need to tell you this, as you’ll have seen it being pushed by every bookseller in the land.

Bookselling and PR is a funny old beast. By reading, you think you’re exhibiting an intellectual independence not available to the consumers of mass culture. You walk into the bookstore and feel that you are joining the ranks of history’s geniuses and dreamers. But this is fantasy. Occasionally, this comfortable illusion is lifted by articles, written in tones of righteous shock and grudging respect, which uncover the Power Publishers (PPs) of the land who rule the hearts and minds of the novel-reading nation by deciding what to showcase on the recommended stands at the fronts of chain bookstores. These favoured volumes rack up some horrifying percentage of the store’s sales, while the lesser choices, with spines only visible, shudder together for warmth on the draughty cobwebby shelves at the dimly-lit back. Even the decision as to which books on these shelves are rotated so the covers are available is carefully made. And, to be honest, I struggle to think of the last time I bought a book which was not rotated around on shelf (unless guided by a famous author or friend’s recommendation.) I am Waterstone’s plaything.

What is easier to resist are the reductive and unsubtle posters that these same PPs seem to feel are the way to sell books. Ghastly things, both from an advertising and reader’s perspective. They shout out the name of your book with a pithy phrase of praise, as if the novel is one of the more predictable Hollywood outputs of the year – and I head in the opposite direction with my far superior choice which has in fact also been plotted and picked out by the same PP. How they laugh as they predict my Customer Journey.

This rant was prompted by the heavy publicity around my latest read, The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides. Either this is the PP’s choice of the summer or the author has some incriminating jacuzzi photos of the PP Summer Party, because this thing is being marketed like hell. The main strapline is “One Day meets George Eliot”, following that very favourite sales ploy of situating something new between the twin axes of past successes. This isn’t so bad, as the book does contain shades of both. However more thoroughly offensive is the loss of any attempt to reflect the book’s substantial literary criteria and position it purely as the easy-read blockbuster of the summer. The book’s underground poster reads simply “One Girl, Two Guys.” This, my friends, is a heinously inaccurate summary of a book which contains a serious and enlightening depiction of manic-depression, takes a wry and highly informed look at American academic life in the early 80s, and portrays the emotional struggle to find an intellectually coherent path in the world for oneself. At very best, that poster will mislead many into buying a book they’ll find alienating. But by then the PPs are laughing in the echo chambers of their penthouse apartments, crystal champagne flutes in hand.

Personally, I derived much of my enjoyment of the first half at least from the fact that I studied English myself so recognise plenty of the authors, approaches and jokes of the 1982 Brown University English Department (which doesn’t differ so hugely from the University of Durham circa 2004.) These are insider jokes, it seems – discernible to outsiders but warmly putting an arm of complicity around those who either studied English or went to university in the early 1980s.

This isn’t to say that The Marriage Plot doesn’t appeal to a wider audience. The reviews on the first three pages are eye-watering, and surely they weren’t all English majors at Yale in 1982. I share their adoration; this is the sort of book that in some fabulously gifted universe I would wish to write myself. It is funny, insightful, interesting, profound, inspiring, resolved. It is excellent.

So, ironically, I recommend it as heartily as the PPs would wish. Go, buy, and line their coffers. But expect more than the peccadillos of one girl, two guys.


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