JACKET REQUIRED: THOMAS PYNCHON’S V
In honor of the humble copy writer, we are inaugurating a new, occasional series here on the Graywolf blog where our editorial colleagues at other houses revisit the descriptive copy of classic or favorite books.
Literary publishing has long existed at the troubled but lively intersection of art and commerce. Publishers try to catch your eye in a bookstore through arresting graphic design and snappy descriptive copy—essentially advertising copy. When I used to rifle through the shelves at my local library as a kid, the words that appeared on the back cover or flaps of a dust jacket seemed like they had simply leaked out from the book inside. It would never have occurred to me that someone actually had to write the stuff.
When I first started writing copy, it felt like learning a new language. There’s an art to it, and there are shoals to avoid: dead words, vague words, words that have only ever appeared in the context of ad copy. Every editor has a list of hated words that loom like sirens when you’re facing the deadline for your publisher’s catalog. Lorin Stein, who was an editor at Farrar, Straus and Giroux for many years before taking the helm at the Paris Review, offered his: “luminous, ultimately redemptive, darkly funny, stunning, riveting, limns, yarn (as in, ripping good), meditation on X.” I’ve probably used all of them. “Never say a book is funny (or, heaven forbid, hilarious),” he added. I’ve definitely leaned on “hilarious” before. But there it is, on the inside flap of The Fun Parts by Sam Lipsyte, an author he edited.
Some copy writers are too honest. I always got a kick out of the copy on an old Noonday Press edition of Robert Graves’s The White Goddess: “It is a stiff book because of the weight of learning that the argument has to support, but we believe that it marks a wholly new era in the study of poetic and religious meaning.” Stiff! It’s amazing the book was still in print when I stumbled on it in the ‘90s. We like the royal “we,” too.
Our first guest editor in this new series is Gerald Howard, Executive Editor of Doubleday, who helps us limn some truly stunning and riveting copy that appeared on the first edition of Thomas Pynchon’s V.—Ethan Nosowsky, Editorial Director
Gerald Howard on Thomas Pynchon's V.
[Note: images can be enlarged by clicking on them.]
In my publishing geek’s view the best edition to own a book in is the first edition. You get to view the thing in all its yearning innocence as it comes into the world, before a consensus of any sort has formed around it. It feels relatively unmediated, not yet used up.
An excellent case in point is this dust jacket from the 1963 Lippincott edition of Thomas Pynchon’s astonishing 1963 debut novel V. As it happens I was friends with the man who was Pynchon’s editor for this book and later for Gravity’s Rainbow, the late Corlies “Cork” Smith. We had some excellent literary adventures together when we both worked at Viking Penguin in the 1980s and the consensus among people in the know was that Cork was just about the best pure fiction editor in trade publishing. In person and on paper Cork was a man who used language with great economy and effectiveness, and the style of his jacket copy here, written when he was a young editor, is of a piece with what I became familiar with at Viking—literate, a bit laconic, and right to the point.
The front flap doesn’t really work for me though. The assertion that it would be “the most original novel published in 1963” is an overfamiliar bit of publishing hyperbole, even though it was true. The next three sentences about the two men verge on the gnomic. “One of them is looking for something he has lost; the other never had much to lose and so isn’t looking for it.” That’s a mite fancy and tells the reader nothing. Why not mention the wonderful names of Benny Profane and Herbert Stencil anyway? So far, as a prospective buyer or reader, I am at sea. But I like the generalization that the book is, “like life itself . . . big, mysterious and fascinating.”
Things straighten out on the back flap, though. The first paragraph does an excellent job of conveying the novel’s scope and settings and the assertion that “it captures the ruthlessness and multiplicity of the modern world” is accurate and well put. One of the intended audiences for the dust jacket copy of literary fiction is book review editors and reviewers themselves. A well-struck phrase like that signals to the reviewer that he or she is dealing with a superior quality of goods and best pay close attention. The later phrases “a terrible beauty” and “a world gone mad with despair” have Yeatsian/Eliotic overtones that do the same thing. Bring your A game, Mr. Reviewer—your competition will.
The closing claim that “Neither the reader nor the American novel will remain unchallenged and unchanged by this astonishing book” climbs out on a risky limb; if reviewers were less than totally wowed that sentence would have come in for some mockery. But indeed V. did change American fiction and a whole lot of its readers, including me.
The verso is unusual in that I don’t believe I’ve ever seen another novel with its table of contents on the back ad. The chapter titles do convey something of the book’s mysterious and antic spirit. But why no pre-pub quotes? Surely it would have been easy to get them, but perhaps Pynchon just didn’t want to play that whole distasteful game. It is too late for me to ask Cork now, but if you happen to know Tom Pynchon, would you ask him for me? Thanks.
Gerald Howard is the Executive Editor of Doubleday. He has worked with such authors as Gore Vidal, Chuck Palahniuk, David Foster Wallace, Don DeLillo, Paul Auster, Ana Castillo, A. R. Ammons, and others.