by J.D. Rhoades

     Last Saturday, we turned down the lights, made popcorn, and watched the movie “Paranormal Activity.” You may have heard of it.

     The movie  was reportedly made on a microscopic budget of around 15 grand (yes, you read that right). It played some minor film festivals,  caught the attention of several studio execs (Including Stephen Spielberg), and was eventually released nationwide, where made a ton of cash. It was billed as  “one of the scariest movies ever made”. The marketing campaign even mentioned that people walked out of test screenings, which worried the filmmakers until they saw that people were leaving because the movie scared the living daylights out of them.


     Certainly it’s a scary film, and cleverly made. Like THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT and CLOVERFIELD, it’s supposedly filmed by the main characters on their home video camera. Katie and Micah, a cute yuppie couple (well, her anyway), have been hearing weird noises and whispery voices in the middle of the night.  Micah (who is, by the way, an utter douchebag) wants to see if he can document what happens while they’re asleep (and maybe make a little x-rated home video while they’re at it; see “utter douchebag”, above).

     I can tell you,  there are some shivery moments. The nighttime shots,  where the right half of the frame is the couple asleep in bed and the left half is their open bedroom door with the darkness of the  hallway beyond, inspire real dread.


     You just know that something really awful is about to appear in that door.  And it does.

     But the movie’s central conceit hamstrings its ability to create a really effective  ending, and you’re left going “wait, that’s it,  it’s over?” In the end, I found the movie disappointing.

     Then I started wondering: if it hadn’t been billed as “the scariest movie ever made” (a title that, in my mind, is still and always will be held by THE EXORCIST),  would I have been so down on it? Had I stumbled across it on TV or picked it up at the video store not knowing anything about it, would it be the type of movie that I go around telling everyone I know “you gotta see this, this is total genius”?

     So I’ve been thinking about hype, and its effects, both good and bad.


     It happens a lot with the so-called classics. How many of us have come to a book that our friends have solemnly described to us as  “essential” or even “life changing”, only to walk away going “THAT’s the best book you ever read?” For example, I thought CATCHER IN THE RYE was amazing the first five times I read it, but I know people who can’t stand the book or its main character. I, on the other hand, was let down by  MOBY-DICK, which I finally put down in disgust when I realized that  Ishmael had been  blathering through 100-plus pages and he wasn’t even on the damn boat yet.

     More recently, I found myself disappointed by Neal Stephenson’s ANATHEM, which got a lot of press and a lot of hype. It even made quite a few “Ten Best” lists.  I was really looking forward to it, because I loved CRYPTONOMICON and really liked QUICKSILVER. I have a high tolerance for Stephenson’s rambling, discursive style, because usually the rambling takes you to some fascinating places. But ANATHEM just took the whole rambling thing just that one step too far for me. It can best be described by  review I wrote of the book for Goodreads: “Monkish scientists on an earth-like alien planet  are brought out of their cloistered existence to confront a potential alien invasion, which they do by attempting to talk it to death for 900+ pages.” I wonder though, if I’d have been more tolerant had it not been so heavily promoted as  “the most brilliant literary invention to date from the incomparable Neal Stephenson”.

    On the other hand, there are some works whose hype goes too far in the other direction, works whose reputation is so bad that when one finally encounters them, one is slightly disappointed to discover that they’re really not all that awful. Joe Queenan described this phenomenon in his hilarious work RED LOBSTER, WHITE TRASH, AND THE BLUE LAGOON, in which he coined the term scheissenbedauern (“shit regret”) to describe “the disappointment one feels when exposed to something that is not nearly as bad as one hoped it would be.” My example of this would be that great bugbear of the literati, THE DAVINCI CODE. Yes, it was dreadfully written, but it was fun, possibly because I had no expectations by the time I finally read it. In movies, my example would be STARSHIP TROOPERS, which I think I enjoyed because after months of my fellow Heinlein fans screaming about how it was nothing like the book, and in fact was a betrayal of all the book stood for, I was ready to take the movie on its own terms.

     Now, as writers, let’ s be honest. We’d probably all like to see our books get some real high octane hype. We’d love a national TV and radio blitz accompanied by full page ads in all the papers and magazines, telling everyone that our next book is going to change the face of literature as we know it, cure cancer, and bring about peace in the Middle East because everyone will be too busy reading it to fight.

      But then I think about someone I used to know, who one day got the book contract of her dreams. High six figure advance, serious publisher support, major buzz. And when the book came out–it sold respectably. For a debut, in fact, it sold pretty damn well. But “respectably” and “pretty damn well” weren’t going to cut it after all the money they’d thrown at it.  Her career seems to have recovered, but I hear it was a damned close run thing for a while there.

     So, ‘Rati, if you dare: do you think that hype helps or hurts a book or movie? What works have you seen that you think might have been spoiled by all the hype? Which ones gave you a melancholy touch of scheissenbedauern?




24 thoughts on “Hype

  1. Cornelia Read

    I usually hate things that are heavily hyped–my expectations are just too high. And I would make a point of NOT seeing a film billed as the scariest thing ever made, because I’m a total wuss. My daughter often asks me why scary things aren’t to my taste, since I write about killing people and stuff. I say, "because when it’s me writing, I happen to know it’s not true. Ahem."

  2. Stephen D. Rogers

    I really enjoyed the movie STARSHIP TROOPERS, but then I didn’t expect it to be the book.

    Books and films: two different mediums, with two different approaches to effective storytelling.

    On the whole, I don’t pay too much attention to hype, especially as I’m usually reading so far behind the curve. (That CATCHER book, is that out or did you see an ARC?)


  3. Becky LeJeune

    I think hype is definitely a double-edged sword. I mean, when does it go beyond word of mouth and into hype, for example? I consider hype something that builds my expectations grandly. If I’m hearing lots of recommendations to see or read something, that’s ok. But if everyone’s in my face about how this is the best thing ever!, chances are I’m going to be disappointed.

    I like to see the big blockbuster movies as early as possible after opening so that I can avoid this. There are books that I won’t touch after years of hearing how fantastic they are and how everyone must read them.

    And I HATED Paranormal Activity. I love horror movies and thought Blair Witch was interesting, though not scary in the least until the last 5 minutes, but I really don’t think that tactic should be used for a horror movie ever again. PA was definitely hyped and did not deliver. But I would have felt the same if I had seen it without hearing all about it first.

  4. Pete

    I remember the BLAIR WITCH. As a teenager I was all about the scary movies. My friends and I heard the hype and after seeing that movie I’ve never ever trusted a movie review again-ever. But with movies hype is essential. You have to get people to fill those seats fast before the next big thing comes out, and people start telling you don’t go see that movie. As for books, I remember the hype surrounding the Harry Potter books. At the time I resisted reading them; dismissing them as over hyped. But everyone in my college courses was talking about the books, so I finally gave in, and loved the series. Another book I remember was Kostova the HISTORIAN. That book was well promoted and sold well. So, I believe hype is sometimes warranted, but in the case of movies, it’s usually just a ploy created to increase ticket sales.

  5. Karen in Ohio

    The most outstandingly disappointing reading experience I’ve ever had was to read the entire Leatherstocking series (James Fennimore Cooper), after being thrilled by the movie "The Last Mohican". Hollywood sure sold me a bill of goods. JFC was the dullest writer on the planet; how they ever made such an exciting movie out of his books is beyond me. Perhaps three pages out of the series, and half a dozen characters, made the cut onto the screen. Blech. That is two weeks I’ll never get back.

  6. Louise Ure

    SATANIC VERSES was the uber-hyped book that let me down. I started out with the notion that "if this book caused a fatwa to be placed on the author, it must be relevant/important/a work of genius." I discovered that fatwas can be authorized for pretty dull work, too.

  7. JD Rhoades

    My daughter often asks me why scary things aren’t to my taste, since I write about killing people and stuff. I say, "because when it’s me writing, I happen to know it’s not true. Ahem."

    Now if you could just convince the rest of your family of that 🙂

    Stephen: I’m often behind the curve as well.

    Becky: I tend to resist the "big blockbusters" because hype makes me nervous. I been burned before. Don’t get me started on THE PHANTOM MENACE. And I have no real interest in seeing AVATAR. I’m sure the FX are amazing, but the story looks totally cliched. One wit referred to is as "Dances With Smurfs."

    Pete: good point about the hype being essential for movies. It may be good it may be harmful in the long run, but asses in seats is the goal, and hype does that in the short run. And I was late coming to THE HISTORIAN, but I did love it.

    Oh, Karen, this is my lucky day. I get to refer you to Twain’s wonderful piece on James Fenimore Cooper: Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses.. Enjoy, if you haven’t already.

  8. toni mcgee causey

    Karen, I am so with you there on Cooper. Same thing happened for me… I hadn’t read the books, loved the movie, then picked up the first and thought This? Seriously? WTF?

    I agree with Louise, too, about SATANIC VERSES. And I felt the same way toward A HEARTBREAKING WORK OF STAGGERING GENIUS.

    On the personal front, the most recent movie that just annoyed me was UP IN THE AIR with Clooney. I really like Clooney as an actor–he has range and he’s easy to look at. This film was well-acted.


    There’s a twist I did not see coming, and up ’til that point, I was pretty worried about the point of the story. I thought, "oh, wow, look at what they’re doing here, brilliant…" and then… nothing. This is a film made in the middle of a recession, when unemployment is unbelievably high, and while Clooney gets a sort of personal wake-up call, he never has to feel what the people he fires feels, and he never really loses anything definite. He loses the potential of a relationship and he’s maybe learned some lessons about sharing his life, but as devastating as his job is, I, frankly, wanted to see more soul to the story. The movie ended just when it was getting good, and there was potential for something more, something deeper, and they just skimmed across the surface. When the credits rolled, I was truly surprised that was the ending.

    I went to see it first instead of Sherlock Holmes that day because it had gotten so many Golden Globe nominations. We saw HOLMES later in the week and loved it.

  9. Gar Haywood

    Boy, I’m with Tess on this one. Whatever the downsides are to hype, I’ll be happy to risk ’em. Hype me to death, please.

    Here’s a question: Does the disappointment from reading a book that failed to live up to its hype necessarily prevent you from reading that author again if the book was actually quite GOOD, if not astonishingly brilliant?

  10. Dana King

    All things in moderation. The example you gave near the end of the post sums up one of my (many) frustrations with the publishing industry. Let’s say a publisher buys a debut novel, pays a huge advance, prints up a million copies, and hypes it out the wazoo. The book sells well, especially for a new writer, but not anything close to the levels described above. Whose career is endangered?

    Uh-huh. The writer’s.

    Yes, the responsible parties at the publishing house can’t get away with too many of these, but it’s the writer who will likely be looking for a new publisher while wearing an albotross around his neck with a sign that reads "Disappointing sales." It wasn’t the writer who set those expectations, but that’s who will suffer most immediately for them.

    Maybe writing contracts need options the way some sports contracts have them, based on performance. Sell more than 25,000 copies and the option for Book 2 automatically kicks in under the following conditions… That way the author knows what’s expected before signing the deal.

    @ Toni,
    I agree completely about UP IN THE AIR. Liked it a lot until the last few minutes, and walked out of the theater wondering what was the point.

  11. Gayle Carline

    I think Pete’s right about hype being necessary for movies, especially those first-weekend sales figures. We’re a fickle bunch, apparently, and will snuff a movie like a cockroach under our shoes if it doesn’t break box office records out of the gate.

    So whose hype disappointed me the most? Titanic. Sorry, I know it won the Oscar, yadda, yadda, but I had too many questions through the whole thing, and you know I’m not enjoying it when I’m looking at my watch, thinking, could they just sink the damn boat already?

    Also hated Dances with Wolves. Maybe I’m not an big-ole-movie person, but Costner is a little too precious for me and I can’t forgive them for killing the horse and the wolf. Gratuitous.

    As for books, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo still eludes me. When I got to the actual plot, it was interesting, but Dear God, nine paragraphs to explain how that guy got his nickname? Waddup with that? (Of course, when the Swedish Chef appeared in my head to read the book to me, things picked up.)

    Some of the old books I read I may not be as impressed with, but I cut the classics a little slack because they were written in voices we just don’t hear a lot these days. When I read Hugo, Dumas, Dickens, even Cooper, it takes me a bit of time to get into the mindset of the way people spoke and stories were told. Perhaps if The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was an old classic, I’d have liked it more.

  12. JD Rhoades

    Gayle THANK YOU. You and I may be the only two people on Earth who don’t think TITANIC is The Greatest Movie Ever Made. My distaste for that over-hyped, over-long, overblown pile of fluff may explain my aversion of AVATAR (even though I revered James Cameron for ALIENS).

    Gar, I think if I read any book that disappoints me, for whatever reason, I’m going to be less likely to pick up another book by that author. I have been persuaded by friends to give an author another try, though.

    Toni, Dana: I had a choice on Christmas Day between UP IN THE AIR and SHERLOCK HOLMES. I picked HOLMES. It seems I made the right choice, although I’m sure I’ll see UITA when it’s released on DVD.

  13. pari noskin taichert

    A book that really disappointed me was THE LOVELY BONES. I really enjoyed the first 2/3 of it and then it seemed to become something else — as if the writer felt like she had to tack on a "happy" ending or an editor told her to.

    Another was THE NANNY DIARIES. The book was fun for about five minutes but then I couldn’t get past the intrinsic snottiness of it and didn’t feel like it was "brilliant" or "clever" as much as just mean . ..

  14. Venus de Hilo

    Biggest post-hype letdown of 2009: "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo". WTF? And it’s not "A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius" if I’m so disinterested in the characters at the halfway point that I return the book to the library unfinished. In spite of alarming quantity of hype, I did enjoy Avatar, to which I was dragged by hubbie, more than expected. Story is beyond cliche, but Cameron (unlike authors of aforementioned letdowns) knows how to tell a story. The visuals alone were worth going to the big screen for, even if "dances with smurfs" is hilariously accurate.

  15. Dana King

    JD and Gayle,
    There are at least three of us who think TITANIC was an overrated piece of junk. Great effects, lousy movie. Maybe the worst Best Picture ever.

    You and I are on the identical page re: DRAGON TATTOO. Larson had a gift for going on too long about some things and not long enough about others.

  16. Karen in Ohio

    JD, thank you so much for that link. I’ve been totally cracking up, reading Twain’s hilarious commentary. Numbers 3 and 10, in particular, are LOL funny. I haven’t finished reading it yet, because I have to run some errands, but am saving it to savor later.

    Don’t we all wish we could write like MT?

    Count me in the not-impressed column of Dragoon Tattoo, as well. Just because the guy died is no reason to deify him.

  17. Judy Wirzberger

    So, who’s rushing to a movie advertised as "Here’s a so so movie that you might want to watch if you’re bored with everything else in the world, but don’t waste your money on popcorn; you may not stay long enough." I’d camp overnight to be first in line to see that one — if Cornelia brought the Schnapps!

  18. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Dusty

    Great post. I find that too much hype will drive me away from a book, but not a movie, strangely enough. There’s such a lot of what we call Emperor’s New Clothes Syndrome about ‘literature’ – just because something’s impenetrable, that does not necessarily make it clever.

    And sometimes hype can positively spoil a book for me – there’s nothing worse than the cover blaring the fact that a story’s got the best twist ending EVER, if when you get there … it isn’t.

    But overly gushing blurbs are something I actually find very funny. It doesn’t necessarily put me off the author that’s being blurbed, so much as the one that’s doing the blurbing.

    And, hey, the movie ‘Titanic’? What? The boat SINKS? Well thanks for spoiling the ending of that one for me … ;-]

  19. PK the Bookeemonster

    In books, I think Steig Larsson’s books were hyped for some people and they were disappointed. I waited a few months to read the first one when the hype had died down a bit and I really loved it and the entire trilogy. In movies, most recently is Avatar. Hyped to high heaven. I saw it; thought it was qn okay movie.

    I think some of it comes down to what some experiencers (readers/viewers) have already experienced in their past and what they have to compare to it. An example: for some, the Harry Potter books were their first exposure to anything remotely fantasy or even reading for that matter and were therefore completely blown away — not having known anything like it previously. I’ve read lots of SFF in my life and I enjoy the books very much but it wasn’t the same experience for me. My first exposure was the Dune books by Frank Herbert in junior high. THOSE blew me away because I had never truly had that complex of a storyline experience before. For some now, it also includes the Twilight series therefore the huge reaction.

  20. JT Ellison

    Hype is a fascinating thing – I went for a long time knowing that if a certain movie reviewer hated a film, I’d love it, and if they loved it, I’d hate it. The one that comes to mind was MAGNOLIA – Tom Cruise. Oh, my God. I can’t ever remember thinking WTF more in a darkened theater – yet everyone was talking about how incredible it was. (Yes, JT, get out of the way back machine, already…)

    STAR WARS was another. I’d heard how great it was and pitched a fit when my Dad said we wee going – then fell in such complete and utter love that I begged to stay at the theater and see it again.

    I’m so glad I don’t like horror, though, because if there was ever a subjective genre, that’s one.


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