Friday, 23 March 2012

Non-Fiction Sidebar: Blurb Generators, Blurbing, Blurbs, Blurbists

   Does the reading public take blurbs seriously? The type of blurbs I'm talking about here are the ones the normally appear on the first-printing edition of a book, before reviewers have said their peace.
   These blurbs are written by other authors and adulate the work being published. In providing nothing but praise, then, all these blurbs essentially have one goal: assisting in sales. "Dear Reader," they pronounce, "the author of the book you're considering is worthy of your attention.
   But because they all make the same claim—re: Dear Reader, the author of the book you're considering is worthy of your attention—they basically say nothing at all. After all, in being exclusively positive, they're not really assessments. (No publisher prints this blurb: "Despite a weak ending and florid writing, there are some worthy features in this novel.") By being seemingly indiscriminate, blurbs are simultaneously like those film critic comments accompanying the worst imaginable release ("Wow! Heart-pounding action!! And my pulse is still racing!!! Go see it now!!!!") and the nod of approval from a reputable critic whose views you trust. How can anyone differentiate one from the other, then? How do you read between the lines?
   If their gushing quality renders them suspect, so too does the content of blurb. A couple of new books I rather enjoyed recently came with blurbs awash in words like "observant" and "talented" and "good writing" and "one-of-a-kind"—presumably to inform would-be buyers that these books are not written by unobservant, untalented, and dime-a-dozen authors whose publications showcase either bad or run-of-the-mill writing.
   But, really, calling a published author observant? That's on par with proclaiming a grammar teacher to be literate. No kidding, what else are they going to be? Ditto "talented." Does it not go without saying that any author publishing a book of literary fiction possesses talent?
   Perhaps what really matters is not what the blurb itself proclaims but who is making the proclamation. Maybe the book buyer thinks, "If [well-respected author] is saying such kind words, then this book really must be terrific."
   I'm not sure. I scan the blurbs (which usually seem no different than the comments produced by blurb generator websites), look at flap jackets, and sample a couple of pages to get a sense of the author's style. And, naturally, I read reviews.
   Earlier this year the New York Times sponsored a debate (well, a discussion; there wasn't much in the way of a point proven or a conclusion drawn). Stephen King said: "One thing I'd never do is blurb a book just because a friend wrote it. That's the road to hell. Whenever I do it, it's because I think it's a story readers would really like. A book like that is worth banging the drum for, if only to be on record."
   Meanwhile, Sharon Bowers, identified as an American literary agent and the author of something called A Very Candy Christmas, concluded that the blurbing convention is a despised perpetual motion machine: "Everyone hates it. So why does everyone keep at it? Do publishers really care? Not as much as they care about a seething, roiling pot of social media, a regular column or a radio show, or the golden calf, TV. Still, nobody would agree to a moratorium; blurbs are an integral part of the package, a necessary evil, a box that must be ticked."
   If the claim Bowers makes has validity, blurbs, "a necessary evil," are outmoded and pointless but yet widely practiced; the rationale behind them is no longer questioned because it's just the way things are done. Like throwing rice at weddings or a bride wearing a white veil...
   According to Wikipedia, blurbing in its current form has been around since 1907. Even back then, apparently, it was subject to skepticism and mockery. Over a century later, this "integral part of the package" is still widespread, a machine the chugs along for no apparent purpose.

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