Wednesday, 14 July 2010
TO BLURB OR NOT TO BLURB
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!