I asked my co-brunchers what they thought of the book and one of them, a Mr. Tom Bissell, did this Bissellian thing he sometimes does and said, “I had some issues with it, I actually wrote the New York Times review.” Which is like, well, congratulations on having the winning opinion of Cloud Atlas.
It did strike me as funny that he’d written that particular review, since just a few days prior I had been joking about the outrageously lofty praise found on the book’s jacket. I’d even mentioned it in a post on this very blog. I remembered the pullquote from the NYT review in particular, partly because it’s prominantly featured at the top of the paperback edition’s back cover (see photo) but mostly because it’s awfully laudatory:
“[David] 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.”
At brunch, Tom was quick to point out that he wasn’t nearly so effusive in the rest of his review. When I got home, I read the full review, and of course it’s this very smart, thorough take on the book. And indeed, it’s far from a rave. Tom acknowledges the things Mitchell does well, but for the most part looks askance at Cloud Atlas, straddling as it does the line between triumph of human storytelling and android feat of literary engineering.
I mean, check out the sentence immediately following the book-jacket pullquote:
“But ”Cloud Atlas’ is the sort of book that makes ambition seem slightly suspect.”
So the full paragraph containing the excerpt is as follows:
“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.”
Tom then goes on to note, “The novel is frustrating not because it is too smart but because it is not nearly as smart as its author.” I guess that bit isn’t making it onto book jackets anytime soon. It’s a good review, go read it.
Sometimes game publishers will contact me about reviews I’ve written for Kotaku, asking permission to use pullquotes on their marketing materials or game boxes. It’s something my boss and I figure out on a case-by-case basis, though for the most part promotional quotes, even truncated ones, are fine by me. They quoted me in this Journey trailer once, calling the game, “A triumph… astonishing.” Cool by me, given that what I actually wrote, excerpted from my review, was even more over-the-top than that:
ThatGameCompany’s creation is a triumph, a video game that is as remarkable for its discipline as it is for the effortless manner in which it welds its vast reserves of breathtaking beauty.
(Jeez, Kirk. Slow down, have a cigarette.)
I think I’m on the box for Far Cry 3, or maybe just in a trailer? It was something like, “Gorgeous… immersive.” Okay, sure. I liked that game, too.
That said, I’ve never had a quote appear where, in the full text of the review, the very next sentence qualified the quoted praise. And there have certainly been times when I’ve turned down quote requests because they didn’t reflect the spirit of what I wrote.
But I’m not really criticizing Cloud Atlas‘s publisher or the NYT, and I have no idea how this sort of thing is hashed out in the literary world. I don’t even think that using that particular quote out of context is all that misleading. As far as I’m concerned, David Mitchell is clearly a genius, and if someone in a bookstore wants to read a book written by someone who’s clearly a genius, Cloud Atlas will do the trick.
But it was a good reminder that it’s important to, well, read the fucking article. Pullquotes are selected to help sell stuff. Well-executed criticism usually contains artful ideas both celebratory and critical, whether they’re written in magma or in plain ol’ Times New Roman. Embrace the phrase, not the paraphrase. RTFA.