Last night a friend mentioned he'd discussed Flight of the Vajra with someone at a geek meetup, although the lead-in was a bit oblique.
Other Person: "I don't read long stories as much as I used to."
Friend: "This book has a guy punching another guy in the brain with a city."
Other Person: " . . . what?"
Yes, this sorta-kinda does happen, but it's that the climax of the story, and it's far from being the most important thing that happens in it. But it's become something of a running-gag-explanation for my friend, who drops it in peoples' laps as a way to spark their curiosity about it. He also came up with a great one-liner to describe the book, one which never fails to turn heads: "A more responsible version of Tony Stark has to save the galaxy, and his elite strike team consists of a circus acrobat, the Dalai Lama, Commissioner Gordon, Seven of Nine, and David Bowie." (I'm putting that on cards and using them for my table pitch at the next con.)
Funny as all this is, every time he uses this approach, I'm reminded of how people by and large form an interest in something because it contains a given ingredient, and not because of what it's "about".
Most people are not critics or creators, so naturally they have a tendency to be drawn into things by way of their most easily recognized attributes. We don't typically talk about Iron Man (speaking of Tony Stark, ha ha) as being a story about a guy who finds his true calling in life; we talk about a billionaire genius playboy philanthropist donning a suit of armor and fighting evil. The former is an abstraction; it's all smoke, mirrors, wind, and puffery. The latter — now that's something that puts asses in chairs!
Authors get hammered on hard to favor "about" over "includes", but forget that readers go by "includes" more than they do "about". Or rather, one is for the author and the other is for the publicist, and I suspect that's why authors are in some ways very poorly equipped to sell other people on the merits of the story if they really care about it. They care too much about the work to sell it to people as a bunch of buzzwords and warmed-over ad copy. Maybe there is something to have another entity do that heavy lifting for us.
That said. I do think any writer who can think about this stuff both as a pitchman and as an artist without compromising either end has a leg up on his competition. I've only been good enough at the "bow-wow oratory" side of things (as Vonnegut might have put it) to draft some reasonably catchy ad copy for the backs of my books. Time to play that much further over my head in this respect.
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Other Lives Of The Mind