But anyway, this book. Here’s the thing about this book: it was lauded all over the place by other writers. The front and back covers of the book were crowded with blurbs praising the book’s wit, plot, and language use. Maybe that’s why I stuck with it for so long. Ultimately, I found pretty much nothing praiseworthy—or even read-worthy—about this book. The author’s attempts at wit fell embarrassingly short, and neither the characters nor the plot engaged me in the least. On top of that, the language was bland and uninspired. If I were Roger Ebert, I might write an entire book about it myself called, I Hated, Hated, Hated This Book.
But I’m not mentioning it to convince you to hate the book too. Like I said, I gave up halfway. Maybe the next two-hundred pages dazzle. I can’t, not having read the entire book, in good conscience write a review of the book here (or even tell you what book it is), but the experience did get me thinking about blurbs, those often overzealous little quotes used to market books.
How much can we trust blurbs?
When I found out my book was going to be published, I found out, also, that it would be up to me to track down a couple of choice blurbs for the back cover. I don’t know that I had ever really thought about it either way before that, but if I had, I probably would have guessed the publisher tracks down impressive blurbers for a new book. Maybe that is what happens at a major press, who knows? But at a small press, it’s the author’s responsibility to convince a couple of fellow authors to read, and write a useful quote about, the book.
I had no idea where to begin, so I read some online articles and blog posts about how to procure blurbs. The gist of my research was that you should compile a list of authors whose work you feel is similar to your own and contact them and just, you know, ask. You should aim high, I read, because nobody really cares about blurbs unless they recognize the author whose stamp of approval is being proffered. So I made a short list and painstakingly crafted letters that felt precariously close to fan mail. I explained to each author why I respected his or her work and why I felt my work had been influenced by that admiration. Then I described my book, noting its award, and offered to send a free copy if they were interested.
I didn’t hear back from a single one.
I’m still a little embarrassed about it.
Later, I received an email from the Editor-in-chief at Autumn House, reminding me they were waiting on these blurbs and telling me, because he knew this was my first book, that usually, you just ask previous professors or well-established friends.
I promptly asked my two fiction professors from UAF, whose work, I should point out, I do admire, whose names I’m more than proud to have on my book. Both are strong, honest people, ethical people, and I don’t believe either one of them would have agreed to blurb the book if they didn’t feel the book was any good. I know I can trust every word they said in their blurbs. It’s not that they would want to hurt my feelings, but I know they would be willing to rather than lying about the book.
But I don’t know that the same can be said of every author who has ever blurbed another author’s book. Part of that controversy I talked about last week deals with the issue of dishonestly promoting friends’ books. While I disagree with the idea that people should make public posts about how they dislike their friends’ books, I do agree that you shouldn’t claim to like something you don’t like. I also agree that people are probably doing just that—to be nice to their friends, or to maintain useful connections with the people in their network.
To be honest, this seems almost inevitable, since blurbs, as it turns out, are so often written by people who have some sort of personal connection to the author. If someone you know personally asks you for a blurb, it’s very, very difficult, I’m sure, to tell them you didn’t like their book and that you don’t feel comfortable blurbing it. That’s the right thing to do, of course, but it takes a very strong sort of person to stand up and do it.
Literature is subjective, of course, and it could be that the authors who blurbed the awful book I tried to read saw something in it that I just didn’t see. But I doubt it. It was that kind of bad that I think most discerning readers would recognize, and the truth is, I felt a little duped by all those authors with their shining, enthusiastic blurbs. Would I have bought the book without the blurbs? Maybe. Probably not, but maybe.
But it isn’t really the blurbers’ faults, even if they knowingly lied about the value of the book in their blurbs. The truth is, blurbs are just advertising tools. Just like I don’t believe the narrator in a toothpaste commercial who tells me using X brand of toothpaste will change my life, I shouldn’t put too much stock in blurbs.
Unless, of course, the blurb is by Nick Hornby. That guy’s never steered me wrong.