Tuesday, November 30, 2004

Jacket Flak
Do Book Blurbs Bear Sincere Praise Of Peers, Or False Fawning Of Friends?
Courant Books Editor

November 28 2004

Think of them as tiny billboards clamoring for your attention:

"A stunning debut from an emerging writer!"

"Another richly conceived novel from one of America's most beloved authors!"

"Once I picked it up, I could not put it down!"

Book blurbs - those back-of-the-jacket hugs-and-kisses from one author to another - have been around for about 100 years and are essential weapons in the ever-more-competitive arena of book marketing. Editors and publicists play matchmaker to marry appropriate blurb-writers with the book being launched. Authors agonize over whom to approach for blurbs and, if they've become well known themselves, often complain they are overwhelmed with requests to write them.

Yet as integral to the publishing process as they are, blurbs still engender some controversy. Are their always-generous sentiments always genuine? Do some authors scatter them so indiscriminately that they earn the nasty epithet blurb whore? Are readers misled if they aren't aware the blurber may be the good friend, lover, editor, teacher, mentor or publishing-house colleague of the blurbee?

Giving And Getting

Stewart O'Nan, the Avon-based author of "The Night Country" and co-author with Stephen King of the about-to-be-released "Faithful: Two Diehard Boston Red Sox Fans Chronicle the Historic 2004 Season," frequently provides blurbs. And, he says, he's more than happy to write them - and get them.

"I like to champion the work of first-time novelists or overlooked authors," O'Nan says.

And because "my own work is all over the place" in genres and subjects, he says, the right blurb can "tell the reader what kind of book it's going to be." A blurb by Stephen King, for example, is a tip-off that the novel will be "foreboding," while one from Amy Bloom signals it's a book about family issues.

"They're a clue," he says.

Steve Almond, author of the story collection "My Life in Heavy Metal" and the delicious memoir "Candyfreak," says book blurbs offer the reader "collateral filtering - if so-and-so likes this book, then it must be cool."

"It's quality by association."

And readers aren't the only ones who may be impressed by a blurb from a respected author, Almond says. "Inside publishing houses, they don't necessarily know whether what they have is good or not or how well it will do," so a bigfoot blurb can spark extra effort to promote the book.

"People have to do everything to draw attention to their books," Almond says, but he acknowledges that seeking a blurb can be daunting.

"It's inhibiting to ask so nakedly for praise," and it feels like an imposition to ask a busy writer. Almond says that requesting a blurb amounts to asking: "Will you like me, and write that you like me, so other people will like me?"

The Art Of Blurbing

Writing a blurb can be tricky, says Wally Lamb, the Connecticut author whose first novel, "She's Come Undone," became a bestseller after Oprah Winfrey praised it.

"If you are going to do one, you owe allegiance to that writer and to the readers - you don't want to steer them in the wrong direction. Once, Lamb recalls, he was "accosted by a reader who hated a book I blurbed."

He says "no" more than "yes" to requests, and if he agrees to write one, he reads the entire book first.

"I don't ever not finish a book or walk out of a movie," he says.

Yet even savvy blurbers can make mistakes, Lamb says, noting that he passed up the chance to write one for Arthur Golden's "Memoirs of a Geisha," which went on to become a huge seller.

Elinor Lipman, a novelist who lives in Northampton, Mass., wrote a piece on blurbing for The New York Times in 2002 that she hoped they would headline "Confessions of a Blurb Slut" (they didn't). Lipman says that even though she has tried to impose "a blurb moratorium" on herself, she still writes about a half-dozen a year.

"I've run out of adjectives," she laments, laughing. "It's hard to come up with something fresh and new."

Many do fail to find something original to say.

Tom Payne, writing for the website www.telegraph.co.uk, excoriates those who rely on such hackneyed terms as "achingly beautiful," "darkly comic," "like (insert name of another author) on (insert name of mind-altering drug)," "vast, sprawling epic" and many other clich├ęs.

Still, says Lipman, she hates it "when people say you can evaluate blurbs by how often an author writes them. That's not true, and it's unfair," she says. "Can you not love 10 books a year?"

But before she agrees to write a blurb, she has to love the book, says Lipman, whose most recent novel is "The Pursuit of Alice Thrift."

"I feel I have to give it a standing O," she says.

"If I'm reading it, and I'm thinking about who I know that would love the book, then I'll blurb it. I take my own pulse, and if I realize `this is doing nothing for me,' then I won't."

She's also surprised when booksellers say, "I saw your name on the book and then ask, `Did you really like it?'"

She tells them, "If you saw my name, it's sincere."

Almond says it's "a huge compliment when you are asked to blurb a book. You think, `Oh, wow; I matter.'

"The blurber gets to do a profound thing - to represent an artist who might really need it - but writers should never blurb books they don't really believe in."

Bagging Those Blurbs

For publishers and publicists, the process of bagging the right blurb is a challenge.

"It's a huge amount of work to find amenable writers," says Caryn Karmatz-Rudy, a senior editor at Warner Books in New York who has pursued blurbs for 11 years. They may be on deadline themselves and lead very busy lives.

"If you are a desirable author, you get solicited by every editor in town," she says, "and plenty politely decline.

"But there are incredibly benevolent souls who say, `I'll give a new author a leg up.'"

Karmatz-Rudy says that to land a blurb, you must "tailor each request letter to each person and use any connection you can think of."

Lipman agrees. "Here's my advice to editors," she says. "Personal cover letters flatter the author."

A standard generic request tells her that the editor really can't be bothered to do the job right.

Blurbs from respected authors help get booksellers excited and help energize publicists, Karmatz-Rudy says. "People take notice because they know how hard it is to get certain people to blurb."

Lynn Goldberg, founder and CEO of Goldberg McDuffie Communications Inc., a New York City public-relations firm that works with publishers and authors, says they try "very, very strongly to get writers who truly like another's work to write blurbs."

It's important to match them in terms of substance and style, Goldberg says. "We're always trying to envelop our projects in royal robes.

"If it's a first novel, we do a LexisNexis search to find reviewers who liked similar books."

What can be off-putting to readers, she says, is when the blurb comes from a celebrity who has little credibility as a judge of good writing.

Goldberg knows the ins and outs of getting the marketing machinery up and running.

"First the book must be sold in-house, before you can sell it outside," she points out. "You sell it in to the stores and sell it out through the media or directly to readers via the Internet."

One bookseller who says she's rarely influenced by book blurbs is Roxanne Coady, owner of R.J. Julia Booksellers in Madison.

"I don't find them very useful, but customers do," especially if the blurber "is a huge name," Coady says.

"I think they need to tell more about what the book can do for the reader and less about plot."

Reading Between Lines

While blurbs can serve a legitimate purpose, readers sometimes need a skeptical eye.

Penguin UK, for example, used a quote from a letter by Charlotte Stoker for its 1993 edition of the 1897 classic "Dracula":

"No book since Mrs. Shelley's Frankenstein, or indeed any other at all has come near to yours in originality, or terror - Poe is nowhere...," the enthusiastic letter writer told the author.

Charlotte, of course, was Bram Stoker's own mum.

John Freeman of New York, who frequently reviews books for The Courant and other newspapers, says that while blurbs can show how well connected an author or publisher is, the process often is altogether too cozy.

Authors are often indebted to each other for their livelihood, he says.

"Writers attend MFA programs together, become friends and then tap their friends for teaching assignments. When their books finally make it into print, they can ask one another for blurbs, for an agent, for publishing contacts.

"Three out of four blurbs can usually be labeled as suspect, or even blatant logrolling, " Freeman says. (Spy magazine, you may recall, ran a snarky column called "Logrolling in Our Time" that outed authors engaged in mutual back-scratching via gushy blurbs.)

"Thomas Pynchon, for example, has blurbed books by several writers represented by his wife, agent Melanie Jackson; Jay McInerney blurbed his classmate Robert O'Connor's novel `Buffalo Soldiers,'" Freeman says. "Almost every back jacket flap contains blurbs by writers from the same publishing house. Find a back flap where all three or four blurbs come from house authors, and something begins to smell a little fishy."

One way to detect such connections is to check names of those the author thanks in his dedication or acknowledgments against those who provided the blurbs. Another is to do an Internet search on the blurbers to see if they, like the blurbee, all write for the same publishing house.

Almond, who teaches writing at Boston College, says he would not hesitate to blurb a book if a student of his managed to publish. "You can be effusive about any literary book that gets published," he says.

Freeman says an insincere blurb can be spotted by the way it is written. Ask yoursel, "What exactly is this saying?" he suggests.

A good blurb, he says, should "be a travel agent" that tells you you're going somewhere "unlike any other place you've ever been."

He cites as a fine example what Jonathan Lethem wrote about "House of Leaves" by Mark Z. Danielewski:

"This demonically brilliant book is impossible to ignore, put down, or persuasively conclude reading. In fact, when you purchase your copy, you may reach a certain page and find me there, reduced in size like Vincent Price in `The Fly,' still trapped in the web of its malicious, beautiful pages."

Stewart O'Nan says his favorite interpret-it-any-way-you-like blurb reads: "No praise is too high for this book."

Readers must remember, says Almond, that blurbs are "the collision of promospeak with a writer's advocacy for art. Promotion keeps moving the product, while what artists say moves people."

Or readers can follow O'Nan's advice when choosing a book:

"I ignore the blurbs and what the author did last time. I want to read this particular book," he says.

"As Ezra Pound said, `Go to the work.'"
Copyright 2004, Hartford Courant

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