The Envelope Call, or, “You can’t judge it till you’ve tried it!”
There is an apparently very widely held belief that it is not acceptable to judge a book, TV show, or movie unless you have consumed it. “Give Confederate a chance!” people say. “You can’t decide to avoid a book just because the advance reviewers are saying it’s offensive! It’s censorship to say you don’t want a TV proposal to be made and aired! You can’t judge until you’ve tried it!”
Oh yes I can. Just watch me.
Take Confederate. This programme about a US South that still has enslavement is still at a very early development stage. The makers said they haven’t yet written a script; they have not announced whose point of view it will be; they haven’t said if the Confederacy will be a Dallas-like glittering sexytimes place or the rather more realistic backward hellhole pariah state. They have simply sold the idea of “the South still has slavery” to HBO as just that, an idea; HBO have judged it as an idea and found it good. Yet for some reason those who think it is a bad idea are being told to wait for the finished product to judge.
Mate. If the people at HBO can judge this on the basis of its idea, so can I.
As it happens I think it sounds like shatteringly offensive garbage that will cause real-world damage. Maybe I’m wrong and it will be an artistic and human triumph that finally persuades those people who hadn’t yet grasped that enslavement is bad. But I’ve judged the idea and found it wanting, and I’m not going to give it any money until such time as new information causes me to change my mind. This is what we in the ideas business call “the market”, which is this newfangled thing whereby people decide if they want to buy your stuff based on what they hear and think about it. Nifty, eh?
/takes deep breath, resets sarcasm calibrator/
It’s not just Confederate of course. This happens over and over again in the book world. Copies are released, reviewers cite problems, other readers say “wow, I won’t read that,” and someone comes hopping in to say “Judge for yourself! You can’t judge a book till you’ve read it!”
I was an acquiring editor for 20 years. Judging a book before I’d read it was literally my job. There is a quote that I heard on the radio from an agent, which goes:
People ask, can you really judge a submission from three chapters? You can judge a book from three chapters, from one chapter, from the first page, from the synopsis, sometimes from the covering letter, and in extreme cases from the envelope.
This is entirely true. Like many acquiring editors, I developed the Envelope Call superpower and used to upset interns by handing back unopened envelopes saying “Nope, terrible slush, take it away”. They would protest, “You can’t say that without even looking!”, open it, scan the pages and go, “…oh.”
I can judge a book on any damn thing that comes my way and so can you. The current Romanceland row is about a taboo dark romance* which is a “swoonworthy” father/daughter* story with extended scenes of rape* and incest*. You might have decided to nope out at any one of those stars; you might equally have decided to one-click. Either of those actions is, wait for it, judging the book before you’ve read it. That’s what buying a book or even downloading a preview is: a judgement.
You might of course decide your initial judgement was misplaced, because opinions evolve with new information. (“My friend said it was amazing so I’ll try it after all.” “The first page of the preview made me want to throw up so I stopped.”) But it’s all a series of judgements, positive and negative. If I buy a book, I’ve judged that I want to read it, and put my money where my mouth is. When I read something I am judging that this book is more worth my time than the other seven billion books I could be reading instead. That’s a hell of a call.
I looked at the taboo dark romance in question. The blurb contains the following line in the content warning: “This book is only for the brave, the open-minded, and the ones who crave love in even the most dismal of situations.” Which is to say, if you don’t like rape and incest in your romance you’re cowardly and closed-minded, unlike the braver, better humans who buy it. Okay.
That blurb line is an Envelope Call for me all on its own. Not for everyone; others may find it intriguing or flattering or challenging, as was doubtless the intention. But I am putting a big red R for Reject on the book (and to be honest the author’s entire oeuvre) because of that line, just as people are making the Envelope Call on Confederate. I don’t need to open this envelope of worms, because I have already seen the signs that point to Terrible, take it away.
Perhaps in your head those signs point to a giddy wonderland of reading or viewing pleasure. People vary; my one-click may be your one-strike-you’re-out. Perhaps new information will come along to change my mind. Maybe Confederate won’t be a calamitously bad idea in practice, though I fail to see how.
But the world is full of media and art clamouring for our attention and our money. We constantly sort and winnow and judge based on the idea, the blurb, the envelope, because that’s all we have time to do. And the idea that anyone is in any way obliged to do more than glance at the envelope is creative entitlement of the most nonsensical kind.
It’s our time and our money, and we can judge how to spend both precisely as we see fit. Which means we all have the right to cry: That looks terrible. Take it away.
My latest release is Spectred Isle, a 1920s m/m paranormal romance. You have to buy it now you’ve heard that it exists, because if you choose not to you’re judging it without reading it, and that’s censorship.