JE: To blurb, or not to blurb–not even a question, as far as I’m concerned. I’m a blurb whore. So far this year, I’ve blurbed roughly a dozen authors, including Greg Olear, Greg Downs, Hesh Kestin, Ben Loory, Gina Frangello, N.L. Belardes, James P. Othmer, and our very own Jason Rice. I’ve still got a blurb pile a foot high I’m working on– so, if you’re in it, sorry for the delay. I’ve got diapers to change. And guess what? They’re all great books, as I knew in each instance they would be. And guess what else? I never lie when I blurb. Maybe sometimes my blurbs don’t use phrases like “a harrowing achievement” or “a modern classic,” but there’s always something good to say. Blurbs are a great tool for a young author.. They’re not just for book jackets, they’re for catalog copy, press releases, and they’re great for–lordy, how I hate this word–“pinging” your agent, publisher, publicist, etc. ” Check out this blurb I just got from Gary Shteyngart,” is a way better than: “So, any news?” I must’ve collected a dozen blurbs for “All About Lulu” and every single one of them helped me gain steam at some stage of journey, though not all of them made the jacket. So, it chaps my ass when I hear an author proclaim that they simply “don’t blurb.” I’ve heard a number of stories recently about Author A blurbing Author B (or in one case writing a rave review of Author B for a major publication, which then goes on to be wildly successful), and later, when Author A asks Author B if he’d be willing to take a look at his novel with an eye toward blurbing, Author B says no– flat out, no. Really? Damn, that’s cold. That’s kind of like reaching the summit, and pulling the rope up behind you! It’s one thing to decline because of schedule (the boilerplate no), another thing not to blurb friends due to social and political blow-back (understandable, I suppose, but what kind of friend is that?), yet another thing to decline blurbing having read a work and not found anything good to say about it (that’s just integrity), but to just stand on your literary mountaintop and say to the literary universe: “Hey, fuck you, write your own damn blurbs” is cold-blooded. You gotta’ help a brother out! I’ve been declined for all number of reasons by the likes of John Irving and T.C. Boyle and Jonathan Lethem. Once, an author read Lulu and declined to blurb it because of what he perceived as a certain “hubris” on the part of the narrator. I didn’t agree with his assessment, but I gratefully thanked him anyway, and told him I understood. Two years later, when Lulu was getting a lot of face time in airports and the like, the same author asked me to read his novel . . . and guess what? I said ‘yes.’ Ha!
Bottom line: blurbs are important for young authors, but how much weight do they really carry with the consumer?
JC: I like to see blurbs on books. If I’m on the borderline in deciding whether or not to read it, it might push me over the edge one way or another. I’ll take a chance on an unknown author if they have the right blurb. JR sent me a few books the other day and I nearly passed over Nicola Keegan’s Swimming. The jacket and copy looked kind of interesting, but not really my cup of tea. But with quotes from Lauren Groff and Rivka Galchen on it, I thought – what the hell, I’ll give it an hour. And it’s good. I wouldn’t have bothered without the blurbs. I would have just gone on to something else. And it happens all the time with new authors. Sure, there are tons of blurbs that don’t really do anything for me, because they are targeted at different audiences, and some authors who overblurb a bit. I mean, I’m sure they feel like JE, that they are giving back, but a George Pelecanos blurb doesn’t do anything for me as a reader anymore (although I know that, as a writer, I’d be perfectly happy to have him laud my work), and Chuck Palahniuk and Pat Conroy were getting a bit diluted there for a while too. But I see a lot of books, so I see serial blurbers much more than the average consumer, who probably don’t notice. These are great writers, and if they like a book, especially *YOUR *book, it’s a good thing. If it helps some good books get a few more sales or see the light of day, I’m not going to complain. JE’s right about authors who won’t blurb. I can understand if someonerefuses simply because they can’t do the blurb on a timely enough basis tomeet a deadline, or if they just don’t like the book enough (a tough blow,no doubt), but the all-inclusive blurb kibosh is bad form. That’s like detonating the bridge once you’ve gotten across, as if another successful author is a threat of some sort.
DH: Who I’d call the “general reader” doesn’t pay much attention to blurbs. Most readers can’t name the publisher of the book they’ve just read. They certainly don’t know the name of any editor…just like most moviegoers can’t name a cinematographer.
I reviewed a Kafka translation once whose intro stated that the book was intended for the “general reader”. That really pissed me off. So I kept referring to myself as “just a general reader”. Then I kept trying to blow the notion apart by being as intellectually tough and idiosyncratic as I could be in order to implode the stereotype.
Reading literary novels is a pursuit of elites…of people who self-select themselves to be part of a more interesting cultural enterprise. I agree with what JE & JC have said about blurbs. I also think of blurbs as a specialized form of networking.
It’s an extraordinary performing art: JE sitting in his cabin with a pile of “blurbable” books. That pile of books represents the liveliest community of artists and their support staffs of publishers, agents and skilled readers.
I’d like a blurb map. That would be fascinating. A spidery tracing of who is blurbing who. It would be a snapshot of contemporary American literature. There would be JE in the lush Northwest with firm black lines extending outward to the writers he is supporting. Then there would be gestures of support heading back to him. You could see the massive nebula that is Stephen King. On this blurb map you could also see tiny dots with no connections. Those would be the writers who refuse to get involved.
As a reader I ignore blurbs that sound vacuous. Stupid blurbs equal stupid book….at least that’s my knee-jerk reaction. And I read blurbs “in reverse”. If I read a blurb from a writer I don’t know then I may research the blurber and try to decide if I would like **their** boo
ks. Sometimes I never get back to the original volume but am off on a book quest where you don’t turn back.
Have you ever read Ron Currie’s one-liners on Facebook or Twitter? They’re great. They draw you in. Whet your word-appetite for more of his intelligence. That’s what a great blurb should do! Don’t write: “This is a great book!” You’re not helping.
JR: I completely disagree with the statement: “Reading literary novels is a pursuit of elites” It seems to me that people who read literary novels are attracted to good writing, strong characters who are flawed in some way and remind the reader of themselves. I do think that the people who read those novels are literate, and have some form of education that would have exposed them to these books, writers, it certainly doesn’t make them “elite”, just magnetized to books and writers that are more challenging (people in general don’t read novels, literary or not). As far as blurbs go, I’m in the process of getting a few for my book, I’ve had great luck, and I feel incredibly fortunate to have them. I think it’s helped me a great deal. It’s part of the networking and platform building that JE talks about, and until this book I never really thought much about. Along the way I’ve run into several stern “no’s” when I ask, and the reasons range from, not wanting to hurt feelings, to, it’s a political process to blurb, to, I don’t have time. And my response to the last excuse, you don’t have time…you’re kidding me, you don’t even have to read the whole book, just an excerpt, and I even had an author tell me to write what I want the blurb to say and sign their name, which I won’t do, as it just doesn’t make sense. But to tell me you don’t have time, after I’ve enjoyed all of your books, and we’ve been friends for years…well…whatever makes you happy.
I myself look to blurbs all the time. I want to see what a writer whom I respect has to say about a book that I might read. Zadie Smith> and Jonathan Franzen both blurbed How To Sell, and I hated the book. But the blurbers, well, I worship them. But did FSG have sway with Franzen? Do editors and publishers get their stable of writers to read a debut to help it along? Sure, Mom and Pop superstore shopper in the fly over states doesn’t know who Zadie Smith is, but the 200k who read literary novels in this country do, and that’s what the editor is hoping will sell the book. Hardcovers are pricey, you need to load the deck to get them to move, especially if you’re a newcomer.
I picked up and read Lucky Girls because Richard Ford blurbed the book. The author was a nobody, and this book put her on the map. But then I find out that she worked at The New Yorker and one day she handed a story to the editor. It makes the fiction issue, and the rest is history. There is a network of blurbers out there, Colson Whitehead, Kate Christensen, Walter Kirn, Richard Ford, a lot of New York writers who know each other, and that’s totally fine, it actually doesn’t really make that much of a difference where the rubber meets the road.