Once a decade reviewers are treated to a subversive comic masterpiece thatwrong-foots the critics. Last week, the 2010 Edinburgh International Book Festival brochure was published, a pitch-perfect send-up of PR puffery so echt the majority of readers appear to believe it’s genuine. A descendant of Nabokov’s Pale Fire, the brochure appears to be an event-by-event chronicle of a book festival set in Scotland’s capital. But look deeper: this is a timely warning about bad writing and our inability to recognise it.
Anyone who has browsed authentic book festival brochures knows they have a stomach-upsetting habit of chucking praise at even the most indifferent of writers. The 2010 Edinburgh International Book Festival brochure satirises the trend brilliantly from the off. In an introductory piece by the fictional festival director ‘Nick Barley’ (surely a reference to Charlie Brooker’s fictional meeja wanker Nathan Barley), he manages to squeeze into barely 200 words, ‘vibrant…thrilled…keen…legendary…exciting…inspiration…’, virtually the entire range of adjectival cliché one encounters in brochure lit.
It was a satiric masterstroke to set a demolition of rotten prose in a guide to a literary festival, the last place you’d expect to find mouldering figures of speech. I snorted as I came across ‘set to reach a new career high’, ‘searingly honest’, ‘a devastating analysis’, ‘some notable successes’, and so on. By the climax, the brochure was oilier than the Gulf of Mexico. I was chortling so much I almost missed the crowning joke, the strapline to an event by ‘Roger Scruton’: ‘The tragic consequences of false optimism’.
The author has researched his topic superbly. He really has a knack of capturing the tone of the glazed prose that haunts these things. Look at this passage describing a ‘Zadie Smith’: ‘She consumes books and then discusses them with an ideological openness and a zeal so often missing in other literary criticism.’ It reads as if it was written by a policy wonk or has been translated from Albanian into French into English. Either way, the author has understood what the crucial point about brochure lit is: it’s written in a manner no human being has ever spoken.
I realise I’m starting to froth almost as much as the brochure itself, but I must continue to praise. The author has a masterly touch when it comes to pastiching that mainstay of brochure lit: the mixed metaphor. ‘The radically opposing versions of the arc of human history lock horns in this event.’ While you contemplate the image of an arc with horns, consider this: ‘Two novels use the historic fabric of Venice as a springboard.’ The fabric is
Just time enough to mention the expert way in which the brochure’s design is calculatedly awful. What better way to symbolise the mess the English language (and indeed, the country and its economy) is in than by having a layout that’s hard to follow. I also enjoyed the way in which the brochure seeks to undermine its ‘guests’ through faux-quotes (imprisoned in Rothko-esque blocks of colour) that make them look stupid. Here’s one by ‘Adam Foulds’: ‘He smiled. His whiskers looked mischievous.’ Huh? The pull-out quote by ‘Brian Keenan’ ‘According to my dad, Sundays were days of devilment’ is featured on a page publicising events on a Thursday.
I can’t recommend this book enough. If you want a gut-busting critique of where thirteen years of New Labour have left us a much abused language, mediocrity rewarded, group delusion then read this meta-textual masterpiece. It’s all there.