Do books really need Hollywood-style trailers?

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Nov. 18 2009 6:30 PM

Coming Soon to a Shelf Near You

Do books really need Hollywood-style trailers?

This month brings the publication of Eating Animals—a vegetarian's memoir and manifesto, a Peter Singer sort of guide to a Michael Pollan world, the third book by novelist Jonathan Safran Foer. In support of it, the author and his publisher have concocted a short Web video. When I watched it over dinner last night, it put me off my lamb shoulder chop (medium rare) only in its unpalatable tone, which is extremely cute and incredibly twee. It's but the latest reflection of the ways that such clips—"book trailers"—can reveal the hopes and fantasies of readers, writers, and publishers alike.

For an establishing shot, Foer offers his audience a Google Map pinpointing the corner of Seventh Avenue and Fifth Street in the Park Slope neighborhood of Brooklyn, N.Y., and—with too minor a garnish of sarcasm—defining his neighborhood by way of a photo of a fancy baby stroller. The three minutes that follow comport with the borough's hard-earned reputation as a roost for self-satisfied, quince-eating Bobos.

Troy Patterson Troy Patterson

Troy Patterson is Slate's writer at large and writes the Gentleman Scholar column.

The author pretends—"Oh, hello"—that the camera has snuck up on him in his capacious study and proceeds to describe the book's inspirations and intentions. In bold graphics appropriate to the opening credits of a Guy Ritchie film, he acquaints us with his son, his dog, and his grandmother, who at one point asks whether he would like a nice piece of fruit. "At the end of the day, it's a family story," Foer says, using a cliché that no one of his intelligence should ever use outside a Hollywood pitch meeting. In conclusion, the clip presents a series of outtakes, the last of which—"the Hebrew one"—finds him saying shalom to the bubbies in the book-buying audience. Personality upstages purpose. What matters here is not the moral seriousness of Eating Animals but that its author has turned us a cheek to be pinched.

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A company called Circle of Seven, which produces videos for an impressive array of trash, trademarked the term book trailer in 2002, but the phrase has caught on broadly, and there will be no turning back. A consideration of the form might begin, and even end, by dwelling on the word trailer itself, conventionally used to indicate a montage that, running in a movie theater before a feature, gives away too much of the plot of a film not yet released. No one would think to call an ad for a TV show a trailer; it is a promo or a spot or maybe a teaser. In embracing the term, the publishing industry helps itself to some Hollywood glamour. And in avoiding the most obviously appropriate word for these commercials—that is, commercials—sacrosanct literature keeps grubby commerce at an arm's length. The book trailers that feel most properly trailer-ish promote genre novels with all appropriate lurid color, whooshing noise, and bold strokes. See, for instance, the clip for Stephen King's new Under the Dome—apparently about a Maine town trapped under one of those thingies that goes atop a footed cake plate—or, a YouTube favorite, the tongue-in-cheek, tentacle-around-suitor ad for the Jane Austen-spoofing Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters.

Where the King trailer sells mass-market sensation with bold strokes, more "literary" endeavors tend to make a fetish of their independent sensibilities or to appeal to the viewer's admiration of his own intellectual gravity. In the first category, we must place the doggedly whimsical trailer for I Was Told There'd Be Cake, Sloane Crosley's rather charming essay collection, a clip that at least conveys something of the book's tone. Perhaps we can agree that it has a cousin in the promo for No One Belongs Here More Than You, Miranda July's sporadically readable short-story collection, a clip that plays like propaganda against quirkiness.

At least the July promos has something like a sense of fun. You would not get the idea that Aleksandar Hemon's The Lazarus Project is, in fact, a good book after watching the trailer for it, largely because you would not be awake. Black borders; flat, ghostly score; disconnected excerpts presented in a somberly serifed typeface. Rarely does a sentence with a semicolon in it belong in a video clip. But the reader's self-image as a serious person is duly flattered.

I'd much rather that publishers play to my anxieties the old fashioned way, by selling sex. This series of Penguin Classics ads takes an ironic approach in suggesting that a close familiarity with Jane Austen will help you get laid—ironic but not really kidding. Please note how the tattooed shelf-browser featured at the 0:15 mark of the introduction fits into her skirt. And mark the narrator's claim that "social situations [are] excellent opportunities during which you can express the parallels that exist between great works of literature and everyday life." This is not perhaps what Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren had in mind when devising their Great Books list, but Roger Sterling and Bert Cooper would approve.

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