I can imagine no more frustrating a reading experience than the one I just had with Iain M. Banks' Excession. Is it a great novel?
I don't know.
Is it a good novel?
I don't know.
Why don't I know?
Because I didn't—because I couldn't—read the novel on its own terms. I spent the entire time awaiting the arrival of a plot that never materialized. Why did I do that?
Because of the back cover:
[Diplomat Byr Genar-Hofoen has been selected by the Culture to undertake a delicate and dangerous mission. The Department of Special Circumstances—the Culture's espionage and dirty tricks section—has sent him off to investigate a 2,500-year-old mystery: the sudden disappearance of a star fifty times older than the universe itself. But in seeking the secret of the lost sun, Byr risks losing himself. There is only one way to break the silence of millennia: steal the soul of the long-dead starship captain who first encountered the star, and convince her to be reborn. And in accepting this mission, Byr will be swept into a vast conspiracy that could lead the universe into an age of peace . . . or to the brink of annihilation. ]
Because of the teleology imposed upon the novel by the back cover, however, every other element of the novel is subsumed by this bit of narrative driftwood. That is not to say this subplot is unimportant, merely that it is the equivalent of this:
Not that there might not be value to doing that—countless classic novels could be made greater by misdirection of this sort—but this mode of false advertising utterly alters the experience of reading the novel. Were you to read the version of Gravity's Rainbow above, you would spend the whole second half of the novel awaiting the return of the beach-terrorizing octopuses. The back-cover plot summary is as critical a heuristic as the title: we all remember that Introduction to Literature exercise in which the instructor asks you to imagine that the title of the book is Ahab or The Demure Daisy.
The back cover functions similarly, only more powerfully, because (if the book is unfamiliar) it is the reader's first encounter with the narrative skeins, and (even if the book is familiar) is something the reader will process almost every other time he or she handles the book. You may not read the words on the back cover every time you pick the book up, but you see and hazily remember them. The fact that they are pre-critical—that they guide the way we read the novel without us noticing them the way we notice titles—compels me to think that they are more responsible for our evaluative responses to literature than we would like to admit. Is this yet another factor we need to take into account when assigning books? Does anyone prefer the Dover to the Norton Critical edition of whatever because its plot summary leads to more wide-ranging class discussions?
*I'm aware that that summary makes no sense to someone unfamiliar with Banks' Culture novels.