excerpt exceptions

It happened again at lunch today. I was reading an article about a new poet and they included one of her shorter poems at the end of the article.

The article itself was a gush. It stated quite baldly that any Canadian who reads should be reading this poet.

I am inclined to check out the poet's work, if only because I haven't read any poetry lately. But the short poem that was included in the article didn't really help to build the case.

It's not that the poem was bad; I thought it read fine. The problem is it didn't do what it set out to do, which is give the reader an idea of what was inspiring the hyperbole in the article.

Excerpts are tricky things. It's one of the reasons why if you go to hear a stand up comedian, and then try to tell one of their jokes around the water cooler the next day, probably it will fall flat. It's why, even though people often complain about this, most readings are excerpts from the beginnings of novels.

So what to do? What to do is reintroduce the context. I once went to a reading where the author had contacted several major corporations in the process of writing his novel, asking them for money for product placement in the story. He figured if major authors got paid for doing so, he could too. Since he was an unknown at the time they all rejected him.

For his reading, he read out each rejection letter and then the relevant part of the novel where the product placement occurred. It gave him a chance to show off the characters and the plot arc without divulging any spoilers.

And of course it made the reading very funny. But I'm not going to recount in the examples of that.

You had to be there.

Moral of the story: it's not enough to choose an excerpt of the right length and which semantically stands on its own. Run it by a disinterested third party to ensure they agree that it really does sound as amazing as you feel it does in context.