Thursday, September 29, 2011

Absolute Potboiler? Well, Not So Much

Here is the front-cover blurb from Peter Abrahams' book Bullet Point: “’An absolute potboiler.’ —Gordon Korman, New York Times bestselling author of One False Note and Pop.”
The book in question

Did they change the meaning of “potboiler” while I was out surreptitiously excising misplaced apostrophes from increasingly illiterate signage? Does it now mean “thrilling,” “amazing,” “most excellently keen?”
Because I was under the impression that it still meant pretty much “writing done by a hack.”
So I went to the arbiter of all things wordish and otherwise (thank you Wikipedia) to discover that “potboiler” still means what I thought it meant: “Potboiler or pot-boiler is a term used to describe a poor quality novel, play, opera, or film, or other creative work that was created quickly to make money to pay for the creator's daily expenses (thus the imagery of 'boil the pot', which means 'to provide one's livelihood'). Authors who create potboiler novels or screenplays are sometimes called hack writers.” (
The longer blurb from which the cover blurb was taken appears on the back of Mr. Abraham’s book: “With characters that are vivid and 100% believable—this is an absolute potboiler. I wish there were more books like this aimed at teens. —Gordon Korman, New York Times bestselling” et cetera et cetera.
Sounds like he thought it was a good book. Sounds like he enjoyed it. Sounds like he was trying to say something nice about it so that its writer could sell a lot of copies. Although I suppose it’s always possible that a writer HATES his audience, and wishes there were more MEDIOCRE books written to annoy them.
So this is what I want to know: how did a WRITER fail to know that “potboiler” is not praise but pejorative; how did the PUBLISHER, who works with actual WORDS on a daily basis—who employs people who are paid to know what actual, individual words MEAN—allow a blurb DISSING the book on its front cover, even if it was written by a New York Times bestselling author; and is Peter Abrahams—who, by the way, did NOT write a potboiler, at least not in any sense that Wikipedia I and recognize—going to send Mr. Korman a dictionary?

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