Wouldn't you be thrilled if your publisher paid for a mailing to one of the nation's largest target audiences of readers with the tag line THE BEST FIRST CHAPTER YOU'LL EVER READ?
The question mark's mine. The tag line, with "Publishers Weekly" as the sender, comes not as a question, but an assertion. Note that it's not the best first chapter ever, which would exclude books not yet written. The claim is both prophetic and hyberbolic - that by clicking this link, readers will be treated to the best first chapter they will ever read, in their lifetimes.
So much for the old adage about underpromising and overdelivering. Of course I bit, and of course the chapter, while chilling (in all respects - it's the first chapter of a YA novel called Across the Universe, coming out on 1-11-11 - more marketing genius? - that renders a teen watching as her parents are cyrogenically frozen alive and then succombing to the process herself) is far from the best first chapter I've ever read, and therefore not a candidate for the best first chapter I'll ever read.
But I digress. As with much of the daily slam in our so-called "information age," the point is not that the assertion is true, but that it got our attention. I clicked, I read, I commented - complete with link. Mission accomplished.
And thus a funny little distinction I first learned in real estate spills into the world of - do we still call it literature? If you make a claim so outrageous that no one would truly believe it, it's not fraud - it's puffing. A cute, innocent-sounding term, isn't it?
I guess we shouldn't be shocked. Book puffing (sounds like a strange and harmful habit, like something you'd do in a hookah shop) has been around for awhile, in blurbs from authors who use all sorts of clever hyperbole to praise books they've never read. But somehow it's less shocking when there's one person's name attached, as opposed to a statement that's put out there as fact, purportedly from Publishers Weekly.
We long ago left the idyllic world of "build it, and they'll come" (isn't that what publishers love to tell writers - just write a good book, and readers will find it?) for "say it, and it will be true."
I wonder what's next, now that "best first chapter you'll ever read?" has been shot out to the universe. Once a book declares itself the winner, is the battle over before it begins? Maybe a barrage of late contestants will flood our mailboxes with subject lines like THE REAL BEST FIRST CHAPTER YOU'LL EVER READ and THE BEST BEST FIRST CHAPTER YOU'LL EVER READ and THE LAST BEST REAL MOST FIRST CHAPTER YOU'LL EVER READ.
Perhaps I'm a cynic. Jealous my publisher didn't think of this first. Except I somehow doubt that I could ever lay claim to having written the best first chapter that will ever be written. On the bright side, I can quit trying, since the prize is already won.