(The National Post, 6 October 2015)
The literary blurb, which consists of a few words of recommendation that one writer donates to the dust jacket of another, must be the most marginal form of literature ever invented. It exists in the world of advertising and stands no higher in principle than a jingle extolling toothpaste. Probably no writer on the planet spends more than 15 minutes composing a blurb. No one confuses it with a sonnet.
Publishers love it, and send it forth into bookstores (and e-book catalogues), investing in it their often wan hopes of success for what they produce. Many non-publishers scorn it as a pointless form of promotion that does no good and sometimes makes blurbers look silly. Yet the blurb began life in the most distinguished way possible, in the hands of two first-class authors, Walt Whitman and Ralph Waldo Emerson.
In 1855 Whitman self-published Leaves of Grass. At the time he was little known outside the borders of Brooklyn but he was full of hope and ambition. He sent a copy, unsolicited, to Emerson, already a famous philosopher. Emerson responded with a note of praise. It was a private letter but Walt ("I celebrate myself ") Whitman made it public by letting the New York Tribune print it. A year later he put one of Emerson's glowing sentences on the book's second edition: "I greet you at the beginning of a great career." It was not only the first but perhaps the most stylish of blurbs.
Few readers, their eyes routinely passing over the sales pitch on the back of a novel, realize the delicacy of the transactions behind these brief sentences. Publishers may think long and hard before asking anyone to blurb. They search their memory (and the memory of the writer whose book they are promoting) for evidence that Critic X or Novelist Y has already taken a kindly interest in the writer. The refusal of a blurb request could be embarrassing and it's not the sort of thing gossipprone writers are likely to keep secret. And there are writers and critics who consider blurbing a tedious and unimportant task, beneath their dignity. They may be affronted by anyone who asks them.
Others do it with a glad heart. Among serious novelists, Graham Greene was perhaps the most willing blurber.
He knew how difficult it was to make a living as an author and did everything he could to help out. Brian Moore, one of his favourite novelists, could count on pre-publishing approbation from Greene, and always deserved it.
Gary Shteyngart, the Soviet-born American novelist, author of The Russian Debutante's Handbook, is probably the most prolific blurber now in play. He's good-hearted, available, and anxious to offer cheering words on the jacket of anything he admires. He confesses to writing at least 150 blurbs. He's full of enthusiasm. "I've compared people to Shakespeare, Tolstoy or whatever," he once said.
In fact he's now almost a celebrity blurber. One website actually compiled an anthology of Shteyngart blurbs. That may have been meant as a vicious thrust, implying lack of discrimination, but that's not how Shteyngart saw it. A Twitter user suggested he write about his own blurbs. He responded: "Gary Shteyngart's blurbs are funny, touching and true. This is a blurber to watch." That makes me love Shteyngart even more than I would otherwise.
The literary community of writers, publishers and readers divides into pro-blurb and anti-blurb factions. The anti-blurb people frequently reveal a mild form of paranoia. To them, the plethora of solicited praise that appears on the back covers of many books looks like a screen covering furtive exchanges of favours between successful authors. In the last century Spy magazine carried a column, Logrolling in Our Time, which attempted to expose the presumably sinister habit of authors trading good reviews and blurbs with each other. As a moderate problurbist, always glad to help a good writer, I find this attitude mean and conspiratorial.
Careful readers of dust jackets know that certain words are favourites among blurbers. Radiant, brave, bewitching, unflinching, compelling, unputdownable and dazzling are among those I've noticed. Paula Mc-Lain, the author of The Paris Wife, scored a hat trick when blurbing on Priya Parmar's Vanessa and Her Sister, a novel about the Bloomsbury group. She called it radiantly original and bewitching. "Prepare to be dazzled," she warned us.
I'm always fascinated by the sheer nerve of blurbers who imply that we are duty-bound to purchase the subject of their blurb. They grab your coat collars and all but pluck the credit card from your pocket. My favourite this season reads "If you value your city and your happiness, read every page of this fascinating book." Charles Montgomery, author of Happy City, wrote that about a book on city planning, Colin Ellard's Places of the Heart: The Psychogeography of Everyday Life.
The intimidation blurb, on the other hand, goes deeper, rooting around in a reader's self-image. It assaults your inner life by claiming that if you are what you think you are, you'll buy this book right away. A perfect example is Robert Bothwell's "This is a book that should be on the shelf of every Canadian interested in our foreign policy." It appears on the jacket of Antony Anderson's The Diplomat: Lester Pearson and the Suez Crisis, just out.
Blurbers are particularly vulnerable to a literary affliction we might call the Adverb Twitch. As professional writers they have been advised by editors to "Lay off the adverbs, Fred," or something more subtle. They try to comply, but in the haste of blurbing they forget that lesson. They want to say a book is funny, compelling and readable but those words, when entered on the computer screen, look rather mild, even half-hearted, which is almost as bad as a pan.
That's when the twitch kicks in. It must have happened to Joyce Carol Oates when she was blurbing Ron Hansen's A Wild Surge of Guilty Passion. She ended up calling it "mordantly funny, vividly compelling, and irresistibly readable." Even in blurbland, where few words of praise are ever considered excessive, it was a case of trying too hard.