Wednesday, 14 July 2010

TO BLURB OR NOT TO BLURB

Hi everyone,

Many years ago, when I was growing up in Johannesburg, a relative gave me a copy of Joyce Carol Oates's novel, Bellefleur. He had purchased the book while on a trip to the United States as at the time, her work was almost impossible to find in South Africa. I was immediately captivated and have remained an ardent reader of Oates's work ever since. Two years ago, I contacted her. Not only because she is a writer of genius, but because - like yours truly -- she is a fight fan. On my shelf of favourite reads is her book On Boxing, in which she gives eloquent expression to her fascination with the sweet science. Wouldn't it be wonderful, I thought, if I could persuade her to read Keeper of Light and Dust (which is set in the world of fighters and martial arts) and give me an endorsement?

Of course, this was never going to happen. I knew before I wrote to her that I didn't stand a chance and so it proved to be. Oates has a no-blurb policy and has had for years. As she explained to me in a charming email, she would not get any of her own writing done if she responded to the avalanche of requests that arrive on her desk every day.

I didn't really expect to have any more success with the other author I contacted. Robert Twigger, an Oxford educated poet, is an exceptional writer and won the Somerset Maugham Award for his book, Angry White Pyjamas. In it he tells of his adventures as he joined the Tokyo riot police in their excruciatingly tough training in martial arts. Sharp, side-splittingly funny and poignant all at once, Pyjamas is a marvellous piece of writing.

I managed to find Twigger through his publisher who promised to forward him a copy of my book and my cover letter. And oh, happy days - he got in touch, told me he loved the book and had read it in one sitting, the dear man. What's more, even though he now lives in Egypt, the planets aligned at exactly the right time and in the week of my book launch he happened to be in England on business. It was a great treat meeting him. There we were, drinking champagne and talking joint locks and Aikido. Perfect.

I should, however, make it clear that I am not a fan of the blurb. In my perfect book universe blurbology (nice word, huh?) would not exist. But this is not a perfect world and along with most other writers, I have no choice but to chase the blurb. Why? Well, because publishers insist on it. And the reason they are so insistent is because studies have shown time and again that the book buying public is vastly impressed by these endorsements. After all, if your favourite author gives a nod to the work of an unknown writer, wouldn't you be more likely to give it a try?

Before I became a published writer, my answer to the above question would have been "yes." I have since become more cynical. It is true that many authors do put in the hours and go through the time-consuming, frustrating and often humiliating process of tracking down a genuine blurb. When they are successful, as I was with Twigger, it feels like a true accomplishment. But blurbs regularly appear on jackets for reasons that are not literary. Often the blurb writer shares a publisher or agent with the seeker of the blurb, and has his arm twisted. Sometimes friendship is the motivating factor, which makes for a messy situation. Even if the writer really does like your book, your friendship means that people who know about the relationship will scoff at the effusive praise. On the other hand, if she doesn't like your book, she has to compromise her principles and lie.

Most writers detest being asked to give a blurb if for no other reason that writers have far too much to read already and a blurb request just adds to the load. Mo Hayder gave me a blurb for Season of the Witch and I know she would probably not have gone to the trouble of reading my novel if we hadn't shared the same editor. But it was also made very clear to me from the outset that if Ms. Hayder didn't like my book she would refuse to write it up. Unfortunately, there are many other writers - some very famous indeed -- who are not as scrupulous and whose names appear with depressing regularity on books of dubious merit. These are usually one word blurbs such as "stunning," "enthralling," "brilliant" and makes me wonder if these authors had even bothered to work through the pages. This is why I admire Stephen King who makes a point of championing books by writers with whom he has no connection and who didn't ask him for his endorsement in the first place.

And then there is, of course, the hyperbolic prose, which often makes blurbs appear so stupidly insincere. This practice was roundly ridiculed over the past week here in the UK by The Guardian newspaper that picked up on the novelist Nicole Krauss's over-the top praise of David Grossman's To the End of the Land.

By all accounts Mr. Grossman's novel truly is a great one. But Ms. Krauss's blurb (which appeared in reduced form on the advanced review copies of the book) is maybe a tad overwrought. Here is an extract:

"For twenty-six year he has been writing novels about what it means to defend this essence, this unique light, against a world designed to extinguish it. (This) 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."

The Guardian found this so amusing that it has set its readers the task to come up with a blurb, which outdoes the Kraus endorsement. However, instead of the Grossman book, they have asked readers to blurb Dan Brown's Da Vinci Code. The results are hilarious and I urge you guys to take a look. Here is a link to the original article, followed by the readers' contributions: david-grossman-nicole-krauss-blurb

But let me know what you think? Do blurbs influence you? Remember - I am talking blurbs - not reviews. Sometimes it can be difficult to distinguish as some authors also work as critics (e.g I quote best-selling author Jon Land on the paperback jacket of Keeper but I had never contacted him for an endorsement and these words were taken from his review of my novel) but generally, when you see a line of praise followed by an author's name, that author was formally asked for a blurb.

Hope you are all well and are having a fantastic summer. We had a blow-out couple of weeks here in London - all blue skies, hot sun and heady temperatures. Yes!

11 comments:

  1. I have to confess that I am often influenced by blurbs. But after reading your post, I will be a great deal more skeptical! If Stephen King recommends something I will always pay attention. Happy to learn that his endorsements are the genuine article...

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  2. Great blog!! And I took a look at the readers blurbs for the Da Vinci Code as you suggested. Hysterical! I like this one in particular.

    "To be human is to be forever on the brink of solving a mystery so great that none dare speak of it, nor even define it. It is a mystery that encompasses religion, art, beauty, language, even life itself. Who are we … we who call ourselves the “human race”? Who are our fathers and mothers? Who are our gods?

    I must correct myself. I say “none dare speak of it” but now finally, after all these millennia, someone has dared. Someone has understood...Yes, it is popular novelist Dan Brown. I am grateful to the day that brought this man into the light."

    Go baby go!!
    Nick

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  3. I liked the blurb that said "I placed a copy of this book in my father's coffin and he rose from the dead":-))))))

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  4. I am a fan of the blurb, but I'm not a fan of the process. I've noticed certain authors who tend to blurb anything and everything. I think the authors I see less of are probably genuine in their praise and the ones I see all of the time are the ones I pay little attention to now.

    As an aside, I wish, wish, wish that there was a database of blurbs! It would be fun to search -- I'm pretty sure some of the habitual blurb-ers probably reuse phrasing frequently!

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  5. @Buffy:
    Yes, Stephen King is a class act. I have to admit that I once handed him one of my novels at a convention in the hope lightning may strike. The poor man is probably constantly pestered by authors desperate for a glamour quote. If you're interested, you should read one of my older blog posts titled "The Day Stephen King kissed my cheek." It was very exciting but I never did get that blurb...:-)

    @Nick:
    Pleased you enjoyed this entry. It was fun to write!

    @Becky:
    Now you're talking. A database of blurbs! Why hasn't anyone thought of this before?

    What I find interesting is when the quote is very "neutral" and you can just tell the writer was having a tough time finding something nice to say. You know the kind of thing I'm talking about: " a lively tale" or "a unique look". I even once saw a blurb that read, "What can one say about this novel?" The fact that the blurb writer didn't try to answer her own question was not a good sign...

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  6. I had never really paid a lot of attention to blurbs. When I was young (and that was a loooong time ago), I didn't even know the authors that were doing the blurbing. As I got older and saw books that came as highly recommended by many to be completely unreadable to me (Lord of the Rings), I realized that just because someone else likes it is not an indication that I will. Most recently, I saw praise from Robert Jordan on J.V. Jones latest work. Jordan was DEAD when this piece was finished! So no blurbs for me.

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  7. Oh, how funny. This is one for the ages. He was dead?!

    I don't like blurbs for all the reasons I've stated but I have to be honest: my perception may also be coloured because of my great envy of star authors whose agents and editors do all the legwork on their behalf while the rest of us have to hustle!

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  8. Hi Natasha, I enjoyed this blog. Like Mike, I also didn't know the authors doing the blurbs when I was young.Stupidly I just assumed that they must be important writers if they are asked to provide a blurb and that I should therefore take what they say as gospel.

    Of course, now that I'm older, and so much wiser...not really :-) I have become a skeptic. I do pay attention to reviews although here too, one has to use judgement. There are at least two reviewers who have radically different tastes from mine. If they give a book a good write up I can be sure I will hate it. So in the end the system still works!

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  9. My favorite Da Vinci blurb is "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."

    I'm a sucker. I read the blurbs and I'm always impressed by them. But I will be a whole lot less after reading this blog. But what was I thinking? That big name authors just sit around reading new books and give unsolicited praise because they feel like it? (Well maybe Steven King does.) But obviously there has to be some backscratching involved. Publishing is a business after all.

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  10. Must admit I don't really take much notice of blurbs, I have in the past hated books which have had great praise from some of my favourite authors so I guess it all boils down to a taste things, however I imagine a lot of people would be impressed enough to buy a book which has been blurbed by a really sucessful author.

    I will admit to the cardinal sin of being enticed to buy a book by an eye catching cover.

    Electricwitch.

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  11. @electriwitch: I'm easy too, believe me. A stunning book jacket will get me every time -- and very often the cover does not live up to the expectations. Of course, these days, when I enter a book store I usually already know what book I'm looking for and I don't dawdle. This is very sad, as a good browse in a book store is one of life's great pleasures. But it does mean that I'm less likely to fall for alluring book jackets...

    @Kelly and @Deirdre: Even knowing how the biz works, a big name blurb will still catch my attention and might persuade me to read through a few pages, which I may not have done otherwise. It is a powerful hook...

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