Judging By The Cover

October 7, 2011

We’re always told you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but the fact is if you’re not familiar with an author or a particular book a cover can still draw your attention and make you pick up a book you might have passed by otherwise. Still a cover by itself isn’t going to make you buy a book or check it out from the library. That’s why they have those blurbs on the backs, the sort from various critics you’ve never heard of or magazines or newspapers you never read, that say things like, "Once the check the author sent me cleared I found this book to be the greatest work of literature since Hamlet." Or praise from the author’s friends, even though you know they’re probably all really thinking, "Finally he’ll shut up about no one wanting to publish his book."

But it’s rarely the one-sentence recommendation from a complete stranger that makes us want to open the book–or, for that matter, buy a copy of a movie. If anything nudges us from curiosity to being willing to get out our wallets it’s the plot summary on the back cover of the book, or whatever case or box the movie is in. This isn’t like buying a cookie where flashy packaging and the promise of chocolatey or caramelly or coconutty or tripey goodness is enough to win us over. A book or movie is a larger financial investment, and an intellectual investment of at least a couple of hours. I had an uncle once tell me that people who work nine to five jobs are chickens while people like writers are pigs. I’m sure he was speaking as someone who’d met plenty of professional writers, but he was actually making a subtler metaphor. People who work day jobs, he believed, were like chickens: they lay their eggs and move on with their lives. How salaried employees fit in here is a mystery, but it’s something to think about the next time you bring home a bucket of fried chicken for dinner.

Anyway, writers or other professionals are according to him, like pigs: they offer their whole lives up to their career. Because, you know, ambitious piglets often stop suckling long enough to say, "You know what I want to be when I grow up? Prosciutto." I don’t know whether he was trying to make a point about writers and other artists being supposedly more dedicated than people who pursue more traditional, and sometimes more stable, careers, or whether he was trying to dissuade me from ambitions of being a writer. Either way I don’t think it was as simple as he was trying to make it out to be. There are some very dedicated people who work day jobs, and I suspect there are some people who write for a living who work an eight to five shift five days a week and dream of working in accounts receivable in an office or of being a fast food restaurant manager. Okay, maybe not, but I don’t think the people who write the blurbs for the backs of books are doing what they’ve always wanted to do. And then there are the people who write those film plot summaries for newspapers, magazines, or, for that matter, the backs of the cases the films are packaged in. I’ve always wondered who writes those.

A summer of working for a temp agency opened my eyes to the not very profound fact that many things we take for granted–from display stands in grocery stores to perfume samples in magazines–are made and placed there by someone. There are a lot of jobs that simply go unnoticed. But I bet the people who write film plot summaries think they’ve got a pretty sweet gig. Maybe I’m na├»ve but I think that has one of the greatest jobs in the world. Watching all those films would be a definite plus. Yes, that would mean sitting through some really awful movies, but a day of watching bad movies beats a bad day at work. Then, as an added bonus, there’s the special challenge of having to sum up the film itself in sometimes fewer than a hundred words. And I can just imagine the training they go through, learning to make even the most awful films sound entertaining and how to avoid phrases like "terminally putrid" and "I can’t believe I watched the entire thing." And there’s the challenge: they have to be concise and to the point, but also make people want to purchase, or at least go see, a movie. I once read a short blurb for a movie in a newspaper that said it was the story of how a woman surprises a man by moving in with him after only one date, "with wacky results." That last phrase has stuck with me because I’m pretty sure among the writers "with wacky results" translates as "they couldn’t pay me enough money to watch this entire film."

What really made me think about this was the back of a two-movie DVD I picked up because it was only a dollar. Actually it was originally a dollar, but it was in a half-off bin. You can’t even get a really good cookie for fifty cents, and besides, each movie would only be an intellectual investment of a little over seventy minutes. The summary for the first movie on the DVD, Revolt Of The Zombies (a 1936 zombie film) was very straightforward and professional-sounding, the sort of summary you’d read in your guide or in a newspaper. The other film was called Vengence [sic] Of The Zombies. Its summary was more like a book report written at the last minute by a third-grader on the bus. Okay, I take that back, because it’s unfair to third-graders. Here it is in its entirety, and I swear I’m quoting this exactly:

"These two grave robbers are robbing a tomb when they get trapped inside. Then this voodoo guy shows up and brings the body to life and it kills them. The dead body’s cousin (I think) goes to this seance, then goes to a cursed house to visit this guru."

It’s neither concise nor to the point, but it fulfills the purpose of making me want to buy the movie, even without knowing anything else about it. Even if it had been as much as a dollar I’m sure I still would have wanted to buy it, if only to see what this voodoo guy looked like, especially since his appearance clearly had wacky results.

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