It's funny that with all the recent talk of book criticism having grown too nice, and reviews potentially being faked (or sometimes too mean), we haven't spent much time discussing the strange business of book blurbs. That shall be fixed, now. Book blurbs: They are those enticements from bylined outside sources telling you why you should read said book. They are all promotional, ranging from compliments about the author him- or herself to praise for the content of the book and its prose to favorable comparisons of the book to other books you likely have been enticed to read by other blurbers.
My copy of Caitlin Moran's How to Be a Woman, for instance, which is in front of me, features front cover copy from VanityFair.com—"The British version of Tina Fey's Bossypants"—and Zoë Heller—"Caitlin Moran is a feminist heroine for our times." All very nice, but are such statements necessary? Do people even read them? And, if readers do consider the blurb, do they take them as anything more than a form of marketing copy, i.e., does a book blurb actually lead to the purchase of a book? If we're going to spend so much time handwringing about how criticism is dead and social media has made us all a bunch of nicey-nice afraid-to-offend wallflowers, it seems increasingly difficult to defend the book blurb, an early portent of that insidery compliment cycle of I like you, you like me, we are liked! Like us please! that we now blame on Twitter and Facebook.
The Guardian's books blog included an article titled "What's the Point of Blurbs?" in 2009, and Laura Miller asked the reading public to stop giving any credence to book blurbs in a piece in Salon back in 2010. Yesterday the Daily News' Alexander Nazaryan picked up the torch, expressing his exhaustion over blurb-saturation, all those "breathless quotes" from reviewers claiming that this is the greatest work of a generation and praising prose in the most glowing yet meaningless of terms—"elegant," "superb," "delicious," and so on. He writes, "I was having lunch with my literary agent not long ago when I mentioned an idea to him: When/if my novel is ever published, I don’t want a single blurb anywhere on its cover or so-called front matter .... I want it to rise or fall on its own merits."
His agent was not particularly impressed with this stance, however, and explained that blurbs are just part of the business, indicating that "your publisher cares enough about your book to roll out some endorsements for it." It's all just part of the machine, so to speak, and writers don't really have a choice; they're lucky to even be published! Nazaryan's concern that he wants his book to stand on its own merits isn't really something that needs to relate to book blurbs at all—no blurb has prevented an honest critique, I'd dare to venture, and just because a blurb is good doesn't mean a book is. But his point that blurbs may have become obsolete because of, of course, the Internet is a fair one. "You might well trust a blogger more than the New York Times Sunday Book Review, and you might well have good reason for doing so," he writes, explaining he'd prefer there be no blurbs at all. Failing that, at least you can bypass them by buying directly through the Kindle store, he explains.
Back in March, the New York Times offered up the question of the blurb on Room for Debate: "Do book blurbs serve readers? Do they help writers?" Stephen King weighed in, telling writers to never blurb a book just because a friend wrote it; author Sophfronia Scott wrote that a blurb had changed her life. Meanwhile, journalist and novelist Bill Morris vowed to never blurb again, even though "one thing everyone seemed to agree on was that blurbs will always be with us even though no one knows for sure if they help sell books. In that sense, they're a bit like the vermouth in a martini: can't do any harm, might do some good, so let's have it." Literary agent Sharon Bowers discussed a love-hate relationship with blurbs: The love part is that sometimes, in a publishing world overrun by blurbing, there is the rare blurb that does what it should—it makes you read.
Ah, there's the rub. The question is not whether book blurbs will die out entirely—where there is room on a cover, or spare inside pages, why not adorn them with marketing copy from people and publications prospective readers will trust in the hopes of possibly getting another sale? The question is about the nature of the book blurb itself. In a world in which advertising pervades nearly all but is also seen as exactly such, something to be avoided or fast-forwarded past or simply ignored, maybe the book blurb needs simply to shift in its nature. Instead of existing as an overtly complimentary sell or brag, maybe the book blurb could go the way of the underbrag, the Retweeted admonishment as opposed to the self-congratulating back pat. Take the case of Quentin Rowan, a writer with an admitted addiction to plagiarism whose latest book, Never Say Goodbye, a confession-memoir, includes pages of front material designed to look like book blurbs (see at right). These are not blurbs in the old-fashioned form we know them at all; they are quotes from people who've said unpleasant things about him. Is he simply self-flagellating in hopes of sympathy reads? Being ironic? Or ushering in a new era of the blurb? These comments are cringeworthy, upsetting, and strange to read—but they do serve to make a person feel things, and not simply turn to the next page. Hard to say if they'll make you buy a book, though.
The ideal book blurb, you'd think, would be an outlet for or extension of the book itself, a way for a reader to connect to what's inside through the words of someone else. But when our 140-character Tweets and Facebook likes and even civilian Amazon reviews seem to get more attention than do the printed sales pitches on the books we read, maybe the blurb really should change. How long that takes and what it will become, though, remains to be seen. After all, compliments can be hard to kill.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.