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Ad Absurdum

When I was growing up, a household rule dictated that my brother and I mute all television commercials. If my father found either of us staring glassy-eyed at Count Chocula, as the caped vampire tried to convince us that cookie-shaped cereal was part of a complete breakfast, or at Ms. Pac Man as she pranced across the screen singing “Honey don’t ya know, I’m more than Pac Man with a bow,” he would snatch the remote control and send the screen into darkness. He swooped in to preserve the crucial distinction between cartoon shows and cartoon advertisements. I don’t blame him for his zealous monitoring of our cultural frontiers. Unclear boundaries mandate the strongest defenses, and it was but a short distance from Count Chocula to Garfield or the Smurfs. Parenting is partly an exercise in brow-raising.

Advertising has always been the tawdry sister of literary narrative, requiring the same building blocks (words, image, conflict, change), and pursuing the same ends (draw you in, keep your attention). This similarity has additional ramifications. The commercial world often provides shelter for those who cannot cut it as master prose stylists, or have not yet made it in the literary world. The ad agency depicted in Joshua Ferris’s novel Then We Came to the End is home to many bitter copywriters who abjectly store photocopied novels in the top drawers of their desks. In the television series "Mad Men," the young accounts man Ken Cosgrove is the envy of his colleagues when he publishes a short story in The Atlantic

Dwight Garner’s intriguing book offers a century-long visual catalog of the cohabitation of these sometimes bitter bedfellows. It is also a wide-ranging examination of the way publishers, advertisers, and authors have handled the unseemly necessity of literary promotion. A book unknown will be a book unread. No matter how high-minded the material, “a boy has to hustle his book,” as Truman Capote put it. Garner’s interesting compilation reveals the awkwardness of meeting market demands with a literary product. Some of the advertisements that he reproduces stick to a lofty mandate, with block quotes of somber endorsements, while others gallop into melodramatic territory. “The gutsy, daring novels that shocked even Paris!” an ad for Zola blares, just above a swooning woman fit for the cover of a Harlequin romance. (This was not a complete misrepresentation of the book.) The ads also demonstrate the sheer difficulty of reducing a book to a visual pitch. Faulkner’s Pylon is clumsily described as a work “as sure to make a ripple as a ten-ton boulder in a quiet lake.” (A frustratedand badpoet must have written that copy.) The publishers of Thomas Pynchon’s V. were wiser—if less confident—about their ability to find a suitable metaphor: “It is easier to nail a blob of mercury than to describe this first novel V.”

If this collection was only filled with melodramatic missteps or admissions of inadequacy, it would be less pleasurable to peruse than it proves to be. Garner’s book rescues forgotten treasures whose titles make them all the more delightful to discover. H.G. Wells’s This Misery of Boots, for example, is memorably described as a “disquisition on Socialism in terms of footwear.” Garner also captures moments when soon-to-be icons modestly entered the common imagination. Tarzan of the Apes is called “new” and “different” at the last moment before he and his apes permanently entered the realm of the cliché. And Garner captures moments when exorbitant praise announced an arrival that would soon be forgotten. An ad for the writer Hall Caine declares: “No other living or dead writer of fiction has had such a record.” Superlatives lose their polish with age, and comparisons lose their heft with repetition. Publishers in every decade, this book reveals, thought they had found a new Joyce: Genet’s Our Lady of the Flowers, Pynchon’s V., and Breece Pancake’s Stories all earned a Joycean pitch.

There are comically counterproductive efforts depicted as well. An ad for the actual Ulysses, aimed at “those who hesitate to begin it because they fear that it is obscure,” reassured readers that it was “essentially a story and can be enjoyed as such,” with two large pages filled with lengthy excerpts from scholarly essays, a map of Dublin, a list of characters, a breakdown of the chapters, quotations from critics, and a note on the format of the published text. Some reassurance. Anyone capable of making it through the ad would probably have no trouble with the masterpiece it was selling. 

Garner also offers fine-print pleasures showcasing a range of advertising strategies, from delicate inducements undermined by antique modesties to brash tongue-in-cheek witticisms. The ad for The Big Sleep in 1939 kindly requests that you “please read it.” A 1960s ad for John Knowles’s A Separate Peace is only moderately more forceful: “We suggest that you order a copy immediately from your bookseller.” Yet there are nudges and winks hidden in the small type as well. A woman who knew a thing or two about a gentleman’s proclivities, the socialite novelist Anita Loos (author of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes), endorsed Lolita by claiming it was “the only sure-fire classic written in my lifetime.” 

There are a few disappointing elements in Garner’s collection. The prevalence of boastful numbers (“five million sold”) gives the impression that many of these advertisements were issued for books that were already selling, and the collection omits too many of the less commercial books published in the twentieth century. With the exception of translations of French philosophers and re-issues of nineteenth-century British classics, there are few non-American writers whose ads appear here. But the book’s meagerness in these respects is probably less an editorial failure than an honest reflection of the demands of the industry. Garner has assembled a panoramic view of twentieth-century literature that captures both the limits of literary marketing and its hidden creativity. Read Me casts an interesting new light on our literary past. As Garner correctly observes in his introduction, such a collection tells “a story—a kind of secret history, narrated in public—about America’s literary history over the past century or more.” A hundred years from now a carefully curated audio-visual library of cartoon commercials might just appear to fill a similar void.

Chloe Schama, a writer living in Washington, is the author of Wild Romance: A Victorian Story of Marriage, a Trial, and a Self-Made Woman.