Thursday, April 19, 2012

Buy a blurb, tuppence a word

"These blurb requests grow so very tiresome."
Have you ever picked up a newly released hardback—especially a first novel— and wondered how the fortunate writer got such laudatory squibs on the back cover? I've often been struck by the "coincidence" that many of the blurbers are published by the same company as the book in question. One also notes with amusement the artistry with which some of these master wordcrafters deploy a handful of anodyne generalities. Not that I don't feel for them: I wouldn't be surprised if someday I found a Nabokovian word game in a blurb adding up to "buyer beware."! In a humorous blog posting in the New Yorker called "Blurb Your Enthusiasm," Adam Mansbach performs a spot-on skewering of this shopworn practice. Bottom line: blurb cadgers must pay the piper!
You are under twenty-five. (+$100)
This is your first book. (+$100)
This is your first book in a decade. (+$150)…
We got drunk together at a literary festival once, but I could tell you were thinking the whole time about how now you could ask me for a blurb. (+$75) … Your bio contains a list of wacky jobs you’ve held and/or states that you “divide your time” between two cities, countries, or continents. (+$300) The front matter of your book contains a family tree and/or a map. (+$200) …You have attached the entire manuscript as a Word document and encouraged me to “track changes.” (+$500) You have an M.F.A. (+$100) …You acknowledge that the process of asking for blurbs is demeaning, and that blurbs will have no more impact on the sales or reviews of your book than the “note on the type” your designer will insist on including. (-$300) I asked you for a blurb once and you turned me down. (+$1,000)
The House of Mirth in "Valspeak" was my favorite of a recent set of literary makeovers by Flavorwire in slang:
Mrs. Trenor sat up with an exclamation. “OMG Lily! Percy? Are you telling me you’ve actually, you know, done it?”
Miss Bart smiled. “As if! I only mean that Gryce and I are like, getting pretty tight.”
“Um, oh my god.” Mrs. Trenor stared at her. “You know, all the girls say he makes eight hundred thousand bucks a year – and he spends like nothing, except on his totally boring books. I mean, who reads books? And I totally heard, don’t ask me from who, that his mother has heart disease, and is so gonna leave him way more. Watch out, girl!”
Miss Bart continued to smile. “Well I wouldn’t, like, tell him his books were totally boring. Duh!”
“As if! I know you know how to talk to guys. I’m just saying, he’s like pretty shy, and kind of easily shocked, and, you know — ”
“Ugh! Oh my god! Just say it, Judy. Everyone thinks I’m a total gold digger?”
“Oh my god, I don’t mean it like that. Whatever! He’d, like, never believe that trashy gossip,” said Mrs. Trenor. “But you know when we throw our bitchin’ parties, they can get kinda, like, wild – OMG BTW I have to tell Jack and Gus about this – and if he thought you were like, what his mother would call like a total slut, ugh you know what I mean. Don’t wear that tight red dress to dinner, even though it makes you look like a total Betty, and so don’t smoke in front of him.”
James (left) and Wharton
Of course, Edith Wharton was a master prose stylist, as was her great friend Henry James. Even in "translation," this passage hints at the explorations of women's sexuality—and its repression/expression in a world of constrained gender roles—that pervaded both her life and her fiction.
Besides blurbs, reviews, and recommendations from friends, literary awards are another way we hapless readers find primo reading matter.  Finalists this year for the nearly $50,000 Orange Prize for Fiction (which "celebrates excellence, originality and accessibility in women’s writing from throughout the world") will be announced May 30 in London. This year's shortlist:
Half Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan
The Forgotten Waltz by Anne Enright
Painter of Silence by Georgina Harding   
The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller
Foreign Bodies by Cynthia Ozick
State of Wonder by Ann Patchett
Ann Patchett
We're quite familiar with Ozick's brilliant mind and with the "wonders" of Patchett's prose, but we're excited in particular to engage with Miller's retelling of Homer's poem.
As Mary Doria Russell wrote in the Washington Post:
"Song of Achilles" provides that back story, an exegesis that draws the personal and the intimate out of Homer's virile action adventure. Miller searched ancient Greek texts for every mention of Patroclus. She found an exile and an outcast and created for us a lonely, isolated child with a streak of appealing sadness. He catches the eye of the golden boy Achilles and grows up beside him, becoming not simply companion and friend, but dearer to Achilles than all the world.
Gradually, "The Song of Achilles" becomes a quiet love story, one so moving that I was reluctant to move on to the war and Homer's tale of perverted honor and stubborn pride. But Miller segues into that more public story with grace. Her battle scenes are tense and exciting as the young, half-divine Achilles comes into his own: Aristos Achaion, greatest of Greeks. By the end of the story, she has matured her characters by another 10 years of warfare. It's beautifully done.


  1. Thanks for the expose!! I've always been curious about where these glowing "reviews' came from. I figured it was those with friends in high places. Alas, I guess everyone has a price!!

  2. well, I'm sure some of them don't have to have their arms twisted, but it's got to be an uncomfortable situation when you have a lot of "friends" and acquaintances who are writers!

  3. Hey, speaking of awards, any comments on the decision not to award the Pulitzer Prize in fiction this year ?

    1. I was going to get into that, but thought I had gone on at length a bit too much .... that's the problem with having to agree. The Booker Prize, which the English Press reports on at length, has often been awarded to a book of lesser merit just because everyone had to bargain and some wouldn't budge on their top favorites. The vagaries of the process year to year makes a fascinating chronicle. It also depends on who is on the panel, who is the chair, who has been shortlisted many times and has not won (like the Oscars), etc. etc.


  5. I am so happy to hear that Ms. Miller has chosen to highlight the poignant relationship between Patroclus and Achilles. There are so many facets to the Iliad that are not part of the fighting, like the complex feelings of Helen to her lover Paris, and her husband Meneleus. It is proof of the greatness of the work that segments can be opened up, revealing deeper layers within.