Archive for July 10th, 2010

The whoredom of the blurb

Saturday, July 10th, 2010
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So how do you decide to buy a book?  Do you buy it on the recommendation of some famous author who touts the book in a pithy blurb on the back jacket?  If so, you’re like 62% percent of the buyers who do precisely that.

Now the whole whoredom of blurbing has been exposed.  The smoking debate in the blogosphere this weekend swirls around Nicole Krauss, who penned these unfortunate words on Israeli author David Grossman‘s forthcoming To the End of the Land:

Very rarely, a few times in a lifetime, you open a book and when you close it again nothing can ever be the same. Walls have been pulled down, barriers broken, a dimension of feeling, of existence itself, has opened in you that was not there before. To the End of the Land is a book of this magnitude. David Grossman may be the most gifted writer I’ve ever read; gifted not just because of his imagination, his energy, his originality, but because he has access to the unutterable, because he can look inside a person and discover the unique essence of her humanity. For twenty-six years he has been writing novels about what it means to defend this essence, this unique light, against a world designed to extinguish it. To the End of the Land is his most powerful, shattering, and unflinching story of this defense. To read it is to have yourself taken apart, undone, touched at the place of your own essence; it is to be turned back, as if after a long absence, into a human being.

Conversational Reading asked, “what the hell is up with this blurb, which is plastered right on the galley’s front cover in a largish font,” adding, “I think I can live without having Grossman’s book touch me at the place of my own essence. For that, I listen to Michael Jackson.”

Krauss: center of a controversy

A commenter noticed that his advanced reading copy had an abbreviated version of the over-the-top blurb — apparently the publisher had second thoughts.

Laura Miller at Salon denounces “praise inflation” here, and describes the unhappy servitude of authors who get asked to blurb their colleagues.  One commenter posted: “One phenomenon Miller does not discuss is blurbismo, where the blurb writer essentially draws attention to himself with an unwontedly chest-thumping blurb.  There was a rash of this back in the late eighties if I recall; Fran Lebowitz was a particular offender.”

Book Ninja got in on the act.  MobyLives deplored Krauss’s “sophomoric gushing.”

But for the best reaction, you can’t top The Guardian, which has launched a contest for the most absurd blurb for Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code.  If it “touched you in the place of your own essence, you really need to tell the world about it.”

One gem:

“The DaVinci Code didn’t make me miss my train, it made me step in front of it, so engrossed was I by its intricate spell. When the doctors pieced me back together, they explained that I would need extensive reconstructive surgery before I’d stop scaring kids. I told them I wanted my new body to be modelled on the description of Robert Langdon and bless them, they complied.”

And another:

“I buried a copy of this book in my father’s coffin and he rose from the dead. Her tears of ecstatic joy when I read it aloud to her washed away my grandmother’s cataracts. My chronic eczema disappeared once I’d finished the first chapter.”

Sandy-haired, polo-neck shirted novelist book writer author scribe Mr Brown is a god placed upon this earth and I having started a church in his name in recognition of the words he has graced us with.

Full disclosure: I’ve been strangely gratified when my when my reviews have been blurbed on the backs of books (cf. here and here and here) — though I never actually pandered to the blurbosphere by writing the perfect, laudatory sound bite that will find it’s way to the bookjacket.  Maybe I’m not trying hard enough.

And a true confession:  I’ve never read Grossman, though long ago I added this quote from him in my electronic commonplace book:

“No such thing as a silly story exists. … Every story is connected, somewhere, in the depths, to some greater meaning. Even if it is not revealed to us.”

***

UPDATE:  Discussion continues at The Independent over  here, and also a what-we-meant-to-say post at Conversational Reading here.  But there’s more conversation on my Facebook page.  My reply:

There’s one piece missing from this puzzle: Assuming, as The Independent does, that this is a case of author naivete (an unconvincing argument, since even new writers know enough to avoid New Age blather), where was Knopf/Random House in all of this?

Where was the wise, staying hand in Knopf/Random House publicity to say “no”? This wasn’t just a lapse in Ms. Krauss’s good taste (in her expression of her appreciation, obviously, not in the appreciation itself) — it was also a serious lapse in judgment from a major publishing house. The publicity department didn’t merely excerpt it and use her stuff — they ran it on the cover of advanced reading copies in large type, presumably to sway the reviewers on the receiving end of these galleys.

I, too, have been blurbed by publishers from my reviews in major daily papers — but that’s an important difference. My credentials were vetted, possible conflicts of interest discussed, and final reviews were sifted by more than one editor.

That would seem to be one answer: use more newspaper reviews for blurbs. That doesn’t nix the problem altogether, but it reduces the chance of collegial backscratching, and guarantees more jaundiced eyes will catch purple prose.

Two problems, of course: 1) Newspaper book sections are an endangered species; 2) Timing; it would be hard to get newspaper reviews in time for the publishers to put them on the jacket.

Meanwhile, anybody have one of these advanced reading copies to spare?  I’d love to read the Grossman’s book.