The whoredom of the blurb


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.

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6 Responses to “The whoredom of the blurb”

  1. Frances Madeson Says:

    Leaving the “They Have No Shame, Never Did, But Now Everybody Knows It” Department, by way of contrast, here’s the most adorable (from the heart) blurb I’ve seen recently (it’s from Ralph Nader’s Summer Reading List):

    4. Saved by the Sea: A Love Story with Fish by David Helvarg (Thomas Dunne Books-St. Martin’s) is an enthralling bedtime or beachtime read. Helvarg combines knowing how to write with knowing the ocean, reefs and surfs. His touching, tragic story of the love of his life and of aquatic nature is beyond unique.

  2. Rebecca Says:

    Love this book, it changed my life.

  3. Cynthia Haven Says:

    @Rebecca … So, this is your submission to The Guardian‘s contest?

    @Frances: Not sure it’s an issue of “having no shame,” although the blurb culture does encourage pandering (and it is gratifying to see your pithy quote on the back of a book you like). It’s a question of creating some standards in a field where the previous criteria (e.g., book sections in major newspapers) are disappearing. As Dana Gioia wrote in “Can Poetry Matter” nearly two decades ago (and it’s just as true for prose):

    “We have an odd situation: although more bad poetry is being published now than ever before in American history, most of the reviews are positive. Critics say, ‘I never attack what is bad, all that will take care of itself,’ . . . but the country is full of young poets and readers who are confused by seeing mediocre poetry praised, or never attacked, and who end up doubting their own critical perceptions.”

    That’s why it’s worth talking about this at all. When even encomia are written badly (and attached willy-nilly to bad or excellent books), how do people trust their own critical perceptions? The Da Vinci Code gets mistaken for literature, even by people who should know better.

  4. Frances Madeson Says:

    Scrap the blurb system (where blurbs appear on the book products themselves). It’s corrupt through and through. Sorry if I don’t see a possible tweak to correct it. Scrap pay to play. Publishers pay bookstores to place their books where customers will pick them up, read the corrupt blurbs, and buy the product. Level the playing field, throw the decision-making back on the unmediated reader and see what happens. At least test it in a pilot study. Maybe people will buy even more books if they have the promise of the thrill of discovery! Instead of being force-fed to chew over somebody’s already chewed (sorry to be gross) pulp.

  5. Cynthia Haven Says:

    I’m not sure the “unmediated reader” is going to do us any good. Writing a lot about poetry, I know that its reputation spreads slowly, via word of mouth. It never (or at least rarely) makes the front table at Barnes & Noble. Moreover, the major bookchains cycle books out if they aren’t moving after about 6 weeks — way too short for word of mouth to take effect. To throw the decision back on the mediated reader would mean changing the publishing industry, changing the bookselling industry.

    So, under these circumstances, how does one have a pilot study? And how evaluate its results?

  6. Frances Madeson Says:

    I don’t know, Cynthia. I get my alumni magazines and there are always these terrific stories about this grad who reformed the corn chip industry to produce a healthier snack, or who streamlined the delivery of legal services to the poor, or many other useful innovations. I never read about efforts to make the publishing and bookselling industries healthier or more rational. The idiocy of the blurb is just one of the fraying threads. Really, one could pull any of the others and find them just as worn and corrupt.

    I just finished Reader’s Block by David Markson. Among other wonderful things, it’s in part a catalog of the many writers who killed themselves, went mad, or lived in circumstances of extreme poverty and degradation. And it wasn’t because they didn’t get blurbed or because of praise-inflation. The whole system stinks, is a crock, and needs to be–sorry, can’t resist–essentially reconceptualized. These manufactured and diversionary controversies that are trotted out from time to time just keep the well-oiled machine running. Can’t you see that? It’s a way of managing, or trying to, what gets critiqued and it’s always this surface crap, not the exploitative and unjust economics at the center of the bad and unethical business practices.

    Just as an experiment, if we put the notion of nurturing and sustaining writers–body, mind and spirit–at the center of the business model, my guess would be that we’d be forced to move away from winner take all payouts to the likes of Sarah Palin (I heard $6 million) and peanuts for the David Marksons of the world, as well as radical changes in the number of books and the ways in which books are brought to market in the first place and distributed. Currently it couldn’t be more ass backwards if the goal is to reward literary merit, which it clearly isn’t. So why pretend otherwise? Why bother nibbling at the edges and buying into their fantasy du jour of “taking a hard look at the blurb and reining in the excesses?”

    I don’t believe in business as usual anymore, not when the results are so obviously unfair and miserable for most writers and READERS! Just by way of example, in my own book, I mocked the blurb system by extracting praise from my characters for both the book and the author. I don’t buy the blurb system so I’m certainly not going to shove it down my readers’ throats. Plus the blurbs themselves are just so damned funny, if I do blurbs again in my future books, I can’t imagine doing it any other way (unless I can come up with something even funnier).