A matter of interpretation: Publishers’ publicity departments praising their authors

October 8, 2010 · 2 comments

Photo by Sid Tabak

So yesterday I wrote about Jane Leavy’s new book on Mickey Mantle, published by Harper Collins, which got the “excerpt treatment” from Sports Illustrated. Since I have yet to get my copy, I started looking around to see if there were other excerpts available. I eventually found my way to Leavy’s page on the Harper website. Within the bio background was this line:

Jane Leavy is the author of the New York Times bestseller Sandy Koufax: A Lefty’s Legacy and the comic novel Squeeze Play,which Entertainment Weekly called “the best novel ever written about baseball” in a 1990 review.

Now I read the magazine regularly and I know how prone they are to hyperbole. You think it’s a coincidence that Ms. Star comes out with a new movie and suddenly she’s on the cover of GQ, Redbook, Cosmo, etc.? But for a publication like EW, which I do consider a step about People and its contemporaries, calling Squeeze Play the “best novel ever” on the game seemed a bit bizarre, given the novels of Malamud, Greenberg, Roth, and Kinsella, to name just a few.

Fortunately, EW keeps its review online, so I was able to find the piece, which was written by Allan Barra, himself the author of several baseball titles, including a recently published book about Rickwood Field, the oldest ballpark in the country. Of course, this whole business of authors writing reviews, especially on books in their own field, is questionable, giving the levels of competition among them.

Anyway, here’s what Barra wrote in 1990, with my emphases in bold:

Jane Leavy’s Squeeze Play is the best baseball novel ever written by a woman.

Uh-oh.

Better be careful here. Are you saying women can’t/don’t write/haven’t written about baseball as well as men?

Actually, I can say a lot more for it than that. It’s the best novel ever written about baseball.

(Good save. That’s the quote as Harper used it.)

Well, that might be overstating the case: Lots of people like W. P. Kinsella’s Shoeless Joe (from which the film Field of Dreams was made) more than I do; Ring Lardner’s You Know Me Al is the best of all baseball fiction, but it’s not really a novel; Bernard Malamud’s The Natural is a great novel, but it’s more about the failure of the American Dream than baseball; Robert Coover’s The Universal Baseball Association Inc. was about a man’s obsession with a board game; and James Joyce’s Ulysses has some writing as terrific as Leavy’s but almost nothing about baseball.

The Harper publicity department must have had a word limit and left out that part. Allen continues:

Maybe Squeeze Play isn’t the best baseball novel ever written; maybe such judgments should be left to the ages, or at least until American literature produces a cross between Edmund Wilson and Bill James. It is the funniest, raunchiest, and most compassionate baseball novel I’ve ever read and is sure to offend some people who cried during Field of Dreams — and that’s good enough for me.

That’s why I don’t like to review fiction. It’s tough and soooo subjective. Some readers don’t go for the all that sentimental timeless, pastoral, metaphor stuff; others do. Some think Moby Dick is boring (ask my teenage daughter), while other can’t stop singing its praises.

It’s all a matter of interpretation. That’s why as soon as I see words like “best” or “greatest” the hairs on the back of my neck stand up.

You say tomato, I say shut up.

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  • Carol Brobeck

    Good for you to encourage others to be as critical of blurbed praise as of the content praised. And good for you for mentioning James Joyce’s “Ulysses.” I wonder what a Joyce book about baseball would have been like. Still, because of your mentioning this book, I’m finally catching up to reading “Squeeze Play,” to be delivered soon.

  • Anonymous

    Thanks, Carol. although the Ulysses reference belongs to Barra. I imagine a Joyce book on baseball would be rather long.

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