Non-readers can’t cope with brand new challenging stuff. They need that sense that they’ve been here before, writes Terry Prone.
THE tables in the bookshops of every airport are littered with them. Pretty in pastels, most of them. The covers are variations on a summery theme. Shots of wandering walkways show them leading between tall beach grasses to a turquoise sea.
Photographs of towels thrown over a fence made of old sun-bleached wood. Adirondack chairs, their backs to the reader, empty.
But sometimes occupied by a human. A man and a woman or two women, holding hands between the chairs.
Occasionally, the visual is of a sun hat carelessly thrown alongside sunglasses on what the potential buyer is led to assume might be the deck of a cruise ship.
When a long shot is used, it’s always of white-washed, sun-blazed Mediterranean villages clinging in sequence to a steep hillside. When human faces are seen, they belong to ecstatic children clutching bright buckets and spades.
Oh, and perhaps holding hands, too. Holding hands is a recurring theme. Same as words such as ‘heartfelt’ and ‘warm’ heading up the description of the book on the back cover.
These, you see, are the beach books. They provide reading for people who essentially stopped the practice the minute the education system stopped making them.
Paperbacks fattened with big print and red-circled offers — ‘buy one, get one half price’ — so the purchaser can quell their conscience if iced coffee gets spilled on it or if the spine of the volume is snapped, all the better to stay open on the lounger as the reader heads for a cooling swim.
Because beach books are for non-readers, deja vu is the key marketing device. Non-readers can’t cope with brand new challenging stuff.
They need that sense that they’ve been here before. Which is provided by beach book writers who do thematic recycling the way women do their mother’s roast chicken, making it taste new by adding chili or julienned sun-dried tomatoes.
The American ones tend to have a central character who was made pregnant by the handsome, witty, sweet-natured baseball captain who then abandoned her, forcing her to flee elsewhere with her unborn.
She returned, unrecognisable (like that ever happens), to discover that he’s now widowed, partly disabled, but still attractive.
When they fall for each other all over again, it is revealed that he never betrayed her at all, back then. His mother or evil sister or the girl he first married concocted a twofer: A story for him that convinced him his beloved was a faithless betrayer, and a matching narrative for her that sent her into exile.
The Irish version has a newcomer arriving in a small seaside village. Ninety per cent of the time, the newcomer is female.
Gossip establishes her as a hugely successful businesswoman in Dublin or New York or London, which means everybody in the small seaside village can hate her, because what woman ever gets to be hugely successful without also having a hard neck on her and a penchant for human sacrifice?
A couple of villagers go against groupthink because either they’re fundamentally goodhearted or because they have a nefarious plan.
As the book proceeds, the woman’s hateworthy success story is mitigated by the revelation that she has a fatal disease or has lost husbands or offspring in tragic circumstances.
All Irish beach books are predicated on coffee shops and eternal verities.
The twists and turns in what we’ll laughingly call the plot of the book are set in context by some character who knows about life and who helps the other inadequates hanging around between the pastel covers to be more generous, kind, compassionate, and fearless.
This common sense wisdom tends to be dispensed in a coffee shop, sometimes by the coffee shop owner and a bow gets put on the whole thing when the dislikeable newcomer, having proven herself humble, sweet-natured, and covered in life’s bruises, joins up with the coffee shop owner to expand it, make it solvent, or turn it into a hotel.
Deliverance and redemption are key, together with punishment for “having it all”.
The minute you see that phrase, you know the character is goosed. Nobody, but particularly no woman, is allowed to “have it all” for long. Maybe an opening chapter.
After that, the character pays. The toddler gets kidnapped or turns out to have been swapped just after birth.
The husband turns out to be a spy or an embezzling philandering crook, or both. Her business is infiltrated by a fifth columnist she believed to be her best pal.
Then there’s the genre of books written about people who used to have it all, have lost it all, and are basically surviving on coffee and contempt, their grim lives lit only by devotion to the child abandoned to them when their wife died of cancer or to a former colleague who, after some unspecified explosive incident, is as legless and permanently pissed off as Lieutenant Dan in Forrest Gump.
California, particularly, is awash in disappointed wry detectives who are always getting screwed by the system or some superior officer whose lack of respect for their mission makes them look like they’re understudying Donald Trump.
The guarantee implicit in beach book presentation is that the potential purchaser, who, remember, is not a committed reader, won’t be challenged by it.
Publishers work extra hard to reduce the threat level on the non-pastel, non-Adirondack summer offerings.
One way is to put the word ‘girl’ or the word ‘sister’ in the title.
Another is a sentence from what the industry calls a quote slut, meaning a famous author who gives a newcomer a leg-up.
Some famous writers give leg-ups to so many newcomers, you have to wonder how the hell they find the time to go through all the offerings to which they attach their considerable clout. Of course, sometimes the newbie and the famous writer share a publisher.
OCCASIONALLY, too, the famous writer manages a great ambiguity: “A new writer of promise” means no more than the quote slut covering their ass. Its ambivalence also establishes they probably haven’t read the book.
The description double-wraps the quote slut in self-protection. First of all, notifying the potential reader that this is a new writer is a warning. Stating that they show “promise” is a careful lack of commitment.
Let’s face it. If someone tells you the chef cooking your dinner is new and shows promise, you’d be wise to head for McDonalds.
In similar vein, ‘unputdownable’ means the quote slut is long past bothering to avoid a handy cliché.
One of the funnier current valedictory quote is the one reading: “If you liked Gone Girl, you’ll like this.”
Note how the writer doesn’t exactly share your enthusiasm for Gone Girl. Note, also, their fearless assumption that all you want is a near carbon copy of an earlier work.
You don’t often read a quote slut to the effect that “If you loved Ulysses, you’ll go for this in a big way.”