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Brief Analysis of Books Christina Henry’s Alice and J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone

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The phrase do not judge a book by its cover is one most people will be familiar with, but this analysis will do exactly this for one simple reason: Based on what, if not the surface level, are readers to decide whether or not a book is worth their precious time? Authors and publishers rely on readers to buy their book and therefore need to find ways to make their ‘product’ attractive to a broad audience, which ultimately means also making it more desirable to buy than the book of another author – this is often achieved through book blurbs. These are aimed at potential readers to give them an idea on what to expect from the contents and convince them of purchasing it. Some research has been done on blurbs; however, few seem to focus on fiction, much less on young adult literature. Cronin & Barre state that “elements that have a connection to, but are not part of, the body proper of the text” (2005: 17) should be included in a blurb; this will also be assumed to be true for young adult fiction.

This paper aims to investigate the following research question on the basis of comparing the book blurbs of printed editions of Christina Henry’s Alice (2016) and J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (2014): Are book blurbs, at their core, just advertisements? Which rhetorical organization, communicative purpose and linguistic conventions do they follow, and how necessary are these elements to the genre? The findings shall provide writers, readers, and publishers alike with basic guidelines for a successful, persuasive book blurb.

A genre is expected to display certain features. In terms of rhetorical organization, that would be a relatively stable move structure, with obligatory – and possibly also optional – moves. Naturally, to make claims of this kind, it would take a study of a bigger scale than the comparison of just two blurbs, nevertheless it is useful to get an idea of what is possible, and also currently done. A study of online book blurs finds three essential moves: “Description (obligatory), Evaluation, About the Author” (Gea Valor 2005: 48). A cross-cultural study makes a similar discovery, where book description and book promotion are obligatory moves in both the Amazon UK and the Turkish blurbs, while the about the author part is optional in the Turkish blurbs (Önder 2013: 184).

Closely linked to the move structure is the question of communicative purpose. Some moves may perform an “affective function, because [they aim] to convince the potential buyer of the qualities and beneficial effects of the book” (Gea Valor 2005: 51). This seems to be the case for reviews; therefore, special focus will be on this specific move. The about the author section seems mainly informative, although arguments for persuasiveness could be made. To perform this persuasive function, a range of “expressive linguistic means and stylistic devices” (Kobyakova & Chulanova 2014: 19) can be used. In the following text, these devices and their function within the respective moves (content description, reviews, about the author) in the selected book blurbs will be highlighted.

As for the first, undisputed, obligatory move, a content description is featured on the back of both Alice and Harry Potter. “Description usually means a summary of the book’s contents” (Gea Valor 2005: 48). In order to spark curiosity, they do not provide a summary of the important plot points, but just an idea on how the story starts off, and introduce one major plot point (i.e. that Harry Potter is a wizard who will have a magical adventure, and that Alice is in an asylum and about to embark on a monster hunt) without giving away too much of the story itself. The mainly informative function of the content description is due to the use of declarative sentences and a lack of addressing the potential reader or other “linguistic and discourse conventions typical of advertising discourse” (Gea Valor 2005: 41). However, there can be no doubt as to why this move is obligatory, as readers need it to decide on whether or not to make the purchase.

Evaluation/book promotion in the form of reviews is also present in both examples, although their placement and presentation differ. The purpose of a review is to compliment both the book and the author, using positive language to persuade the potential reader to buy it. As Kobyakova & Chulanova put it: “Advertising sells emotions for attention” (2014: 19). Rowling’s Harry Potter Bloomsbury edition (2014) first page features two sections of reviews titled “What readers say”, featuring quotes by children, giving their age, and “What newspapers say”. A similar page can be found in Henry’s Alice (2016), showcasing three reviews by fellow authors; however, there are also short reviews on the front and the back cover. It is notable, that two of the reviews are taken from the ones on the first page, while the remaining three are from newspapers and magazines. As can be expected, the reviews of other authors mark them explicitly as such (Gea Valor 2005: 49), e.g. “Gena Showalter, New York Times bestselling author of Alice in Zombieland” (Alice). Presumably, it also matters how well-known the author writing the review is. Cronin & Barre claim: “A blurb from Umberto Eco, Susan Sontag or Stephen Hawking may well help an aspiring author stand out in ‘a hype economy’” (2005: 18); although they focus on non-fiction books, this notion of a review by one author being worth more than by another, should be taken into consideration in fiction as well.

While the possibilities of useful linguistic devices in reviews seem endless, Gea Valor narrows it down to “complimenting, elliptical syntactic patterns, the imperative, the address form ‘you’ and […] curiosity arousers’, usually in the form of rhetorical questions and excerpts from the book” (2005: 41). While examples of all these linguistic conventions can be found, only few are present in both book blurbs. Complimenting occurs in the form of emotional language (Gea Valor 2005: 52): “My mom loved it so much” (Harry Potter), “[…] thanks to Henry’s complex characterisation of Alice” and “I loved falling down the rabbit hole” (Alice). The pronoun ‘you’ can also be found in both blurbs: “[…] you can’t put it down” (Harry Potter); “[…] will lead you on ”, “If you’re looking for”, “[…] will make you feel like you were” (Alice). Adverbs, ellipsis and imperatives can only be found in Alice, while superlatives and curiosity arousers can only be found in Harry Potter. Therefore, it can be assumed that the linguistic conventions Gea Valor lists are possibilities, but not obligatory for a successful book blurb. It is similar for the linguistic conventions mentioned by Kobyakova & Chulanova (2014: 19-20): declarative sentences, as expected, are the most common; one instance of an imperative sentence can be found in Alice (“Careful”), and one instance of negation appears in Harry Potter (“You can’t put it down”). Another feature is the use of adjectives, which arguably convey emotion in the easiest way (Qasim et al. 2017: 20; Önder 2013: 187). Numerous examples can be found in both blurbs such as “unsettling”, “dark, gritty” (Alice) and “funny”, “brilliant” (Harry Potter).

Both blurbs contain an about the author section. Typically, “the author’s professional background is offered, which usually includes previous publications, awards won, current interests, and occasionally place of residence and family details” (Gea Valor 2005: 51). Both authors receive the to be expected praise for their works. There are only declarative sentences and a few adjectives that refer to the authors’ books “the record-breaking multi-award-winning Harry Potter novels” (Harry Potter), “the author of national bestselling Black Wings series” (Alice). Rowling’s about the author page especially highlights her work for charity. While Henry’s features personal details such as hobbies and her family situation in addition to her achievements, Rowling’s blurb includes a whole page (“fact file”) that gives personal information such as pets and favorite school subjects. This move can be used to establish an emotional connection that might persuade someone to buy the book.

This brief analysis has only looked at two examples of young adult fiction book blurbs, therefore it is impossible to make absolute claims for the genre. Nevertheless, it provides starting points for a more in depth-analysis. The necessity of including a content description is without question; however, further analysis into a possible move structure of the description itself might be worth investigating further. Furthermore, although not all secondary literature considers reviews an obligatory move, they indisputably contain most of the persuasive language features; looking at newly published YA fiction, there seems to be at least a trend to always include reviews in the book blurbs, indicating that this aspect of promotion is becoming more important. Lastly, the about the author section does not seem to provide much input in terms of persuasiveness, other than the possibility of making the author appear more attainable to a potential reader; however, this does not seem to be achieved by using particular linguistic features.

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