One of my favorite activities, when not parenting, writing, cooking, cleaning, translating, shopping, listening to music, spending time with friends and family, exercising, or doing the laundry, is browsing in bookstores. And one of the best parts of the browsing experience is finding something unexpected and unknown. This activity, however, is not without a particular danger, and that is the danger of being misled. The primary culprit in deception is the duplicitous blurb or endorsement on the back cover. These snippets are often longer than the description of the book itself, and rarely offer any true insight as to the quality or enjoyment of the work. In addition, these endorsements are often either less than honest or written for the gain of the endorsement writer. For this reason, among others, I think the blurb, and trusting in the blurb, is a very bad idea indeed. Beware the blurb bearing praise.
The first type of bad blurb is of the blatantly misleading variety. A review of a book could perhaps state the sentence “I found this book riveting,” which is then quoted on the back of the upcoming paperback version of the book. However, the context of the sentence is ignored and the buyer does not have the opportunity to read the entire sentence: “While I found this book riveting for the first couple of pages, it was largely trash.” Nearly as bad, but harder to escape or rectify, is the misattribution of the source of the quote. This happens frequently with the Times Literary Supplement. Each year, the TLS asks about 40 well-known and mostly well-regarded authors to select a book or two they found to be the best they had read that year and to write a paragraph review. Instead of citing the author of the review, many books will cite the publication, especially if the publication carries more gravitas than the author. Hence, a few years ago, Thomas Nagel selected the creationist tripe “Signature in the Cell” as his choice for book of the year. The publisher jumped on this as an endorsement from the TLS, not from Nagel, running ‘A TLS book of the year’ as the leading endorsement on future publications of the book. What was not disclosed was the acrimonious response and argument within the TLS over the very selection of the book. Here, the author of the book and the publisher are not being dishonest at all, but the reader in the bookshop, unless that reader has more than a cursory knowledge of the TLS, has no idea of the nature of the endorsement.
The next type of bad blurb is the back-scratch (speaking of TLS), an endorsement by an author, institution, academic, or financially interested party. One of my favorite books, by my favorite modern author, is a prime example of the sort of self-interested cronyism that spoils the back of a book. On the back of Javier Marías’s ‘Your Face Tomorrow,’ the esteemed historian Anthony Beevor and major poet John Ashbury offer glowing praise. I have no doubt that the praise is genuine in this case, but both are friends with Marías, and Marías thanks both in the acknowledgements of the work for their friendship and advice. In addition, Marías has served as Ashbury’s major translator into Spanish, earning the poet further recognition, and more money. No wonder Ashbury selected ‘Your Face Tomorrow’ as his choice of best book...in the TLS. The next copies printed dutifully informed the reader that in their hands was nothing less than a “TLS book of the year.’ I feel it is probably the book of the decade, but that is not the point. Many books have blurbs by authors with similar books, and reciprocal blurbs are often given. Many books contain blurbs by authors from the same publishing house, who have the same agent, who are friends, who like the opportunity to have “by the author of” next to their name on the blurb, and so on. The praise could be real, but the buyer is only sometimes aware of the self-interest of the author of the blurb. And of course, many blurbs are written out of simple praise, and some are written unwillingly or out of pity or the obligation to help a fellow writer trying to break in. In many cases, the blurb writer is trying to be as helpful as they can.
Why are these blurbs written? Very rarely is it at the instigation of the blurb writer. Many writers have a “no blurb” policy. The hesitation to write blurbs shows in the uniform cliché of the printed atrocities. “Razor” and “wit” are frequent dance partners, as are “penetrating” and “insight,” “beautifully” and "written,” and that standard pairing in the land of academia, “original” and “contribution.” If a work is by a first-time author, it is too often by a “fresh new voice,” or worse, it is a “brave and bold new work.” Works by prolific or eminent authors are either their “magnum opus” or, in the case of scholarship, “sure to be the standard work in the field.” Barf. In truth, a blurb says nothing, conveys nothing, helps with nothing. If a reader is looking for a book just like the one they just read, perhaps they should consult the flap copy, the synopsis on the back or inside cover of a book summarizing the contents, and make a judgment for themselves. So, why does such an evil exist? This tripe is dutifully written, and gleefully printed, because you, dear readers, love it. According to market research, over half of all book buyers listed a blurb as the reason they purchased a new or unheard-of book. Those chestnuts of mediocrity tell a buyer almost nothing about the book in hand, and yet they are read and their jejune advice followed. This needs to end. The blurb needs to die. As readers, we deserve better, and writers deserve to avoid whoring for the blurbs of more famous writers or avoid writing blurbs to appease a publisher/agent/friend/mother/other demon. So what can we use to help us find our preferred and particular types of literature, the unique authors who appeal to our individual tastes? This is the information age, and I’ll attempt an answer – or at least offer suggestions far superior to the blurb - in my next post.