More on blurbing

Aha! I stumbled across professional backup for my bludgeoning of book blurbs nowdays! (take that alliteration!)

“This Book Will Change Your Life”
The reckless art of book blurbing
By Andre Mayer May 2, 2006
Used to be, the most compelling words of any given book were found between the covers. But lately, I find myself increasingly distracted by the words on the jacket. If you pick up Adverbs, the latest work of fiction by Daniel Handler, you’ll find this fanatical rave from Dave Eggers: “Adverbs describes adolescence, friendship, and love with such freshness and power that you feel drunk and beaten up, but still want to leave your own world and enter the one Handler’s created. Anyone who lives to read gorgeous writing will want to lick this book and sleep with it between their legs.”
Reading Adverbs, I felt no such impulse. But perhaps that’s a personal shortcoming — maybe I don’t feel books as intensely as Eggers. At any rate, he exercises creative licence the way most of us exercise our lungs. The linchpin of the
McSweeney’s publishing empire and the author of three books, Eggers may be the leading advocate of literary hijinks. Take his bestselling 2000 book A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. Part memoir, part fictionalization of real events and part annotated text on what meaning the reader should derive from it all, Eggers’s opus was the work of a militant postmodernist. That weird sensibility has begun to inform Eggers’s (many) blurbs.
Noelle Zitzer, managing editor at HarperCollins Canada (which published Adverbs), admits that publishers never know what an author will say about a given book. “Although I guess with Dave Eggers, you can pretty much count on it being unconventional,” she says. “It’s useful, because it makes [readers] stop in their tracks and listen to what he has to say.”
Eggers’s approach to blurbing is novel; the slightly absurd tone is not. Every newly published book heaves with hyperbolic quotations — and the language is getting more and more preposterous.
Take this example from the paperback cover of British author Nicola Barker’s last novel,
Clear. According to the London Spectator, “The brilliance of Barker’s style is beyond perfection.” Now, I haven’t read Clear, but I’d venture to say that at best, it’s perfection. “Beyond perfection” is like that old sports adage about “giving 110 per cent”: it’s patently illogical. Like so many critics nowadays, it seems the person who reviewed Clear was so euphoric, they momentarily lost their mind.
The blurb is a longstanding practice in publishing — nowadays, it’s jarring to find a book that isn’t garnished with adoring verbiage. While there’s no empirical proof that blurbs help sell books, no publisher would dare print a book without one.
Blurbs for a book’s first printing are usually submitted by other authors; for subsequent editions (like the paperback version), these quotes are typically supplemented with excerpts from reviews in newspapers and magazines. Along with high-profile reviews (preferably positive) and book tours, blurbs are part and parcel of marketing any title. Craig Pyette, associate editor at Random House of Canada, says the importance of a blurb lies not so much in the praise as in the person giving it.
Author and blurb-writer Dave Eggers. Courtesy Random House Canada.“It’s lovely to have nice words about your book on your book’s cover, but the real value is the comparison value,” says Pyette. “The idea is for a shopper to see a blurb from a certain author whom they’re familiar with, and say, ‘My favourite author likes this book, so I’ll like it, too.’” Pyette points to one of the books he edited, Kenneth J. Harvey’s
Inside; while the Newfoundland writer’s novel got great notices, Pyette says the real coup was extracting kudos from Irish author John Banville, the recent winner of the Man Booker Prize (for The Sea).
The word “blurb” dates back to the early 20th century. When writer/illustrator Gelett Burgess published his comic treatise Are You a Bromide? in 1906, it was common practice for book jackets to include an image of a damsel (distressed or otherwise). Burgess was evidently
something of a card. At a trade association dinner the following year, he and his publisher cooked up a new cover that depicted a woman named “Belinda Blurb” delivering a hilariously over-the-top testimonial. The stunt was meant to satirize the art of book promotion; ironically, it may have put it into overdrive.
Zitzer admits that she’s come across blurbs that had “a tone of ecstasy that I found hard to swallow.” No doubt some books deserve ecstatic praise. A problem arises, however, when every book is touted as “brilliant.”
Why so much hyperbole? There are a number of discernible reasons. For one, a review is more than a critical assessment; it’s a literary riff meant to entertain readers. That’s why reviews — and blurbs — frequently end up being as lyrical (read: purple) as the book under scrutiny. Furthermore, while authors work alone, they often band together. It’s not surprising that Jonathan Franzen thought Jeffrey Eugenides’s Middlesex was “a weird, wonderful novel that will sweep you off your feet.” After all, they’re buds. (That said, friends shouldn’t let friends resort to hoary clichés.)
A 10-year veteran of the publishing industry, Zitzer says blurbs for non-fiction books are on the whole more restrained, less fanciful. “The non-fiction quotes do tend to be more content-driven,” she says. “The nature of fiction makes it difficult to blurb in a way that is as rich in content as it would be with a non-fiction book.”
More than half a century ago, George Orwell ranted about this phenomenon. Piqued by “the disgusting tripe that is written by blurb reviewers,” Orwell reasoned that “when all novels are thrust upon you as works of genius, it is quite natural to assume that all of them are tripe.”
His grievance was more recently taken up by novelist Heidi Julavits in the first issue (March 2003) of literary mag The Believer (which is published by McSweeney’s). In an essay-slash-manifesto entitled “
Rejoice! Believe! Be Strong and Read Hard,” Julavits — who also edits the magazine — bemoaned “a publishing world prone to over-exaggeration and generalization of a hysterical sort.”
Julavits’s argument is rousing, but it’s debatable whether her good friend Dave Eggers is redressing the problem. The mandate of the McSweeney’s/Believer bloc is to transcend snarky criticism and reclaim sincerity. The problem is, Eggers’s blurbs border on farce. In a blurb for Sean Wilsey’s 2005 memoir
Oh the Glory of It All, Eggers wrote, “I read plenty of true-life-story sorts of books by people I’ve met, and this is the number one most intriguing, most hilarious, most jaw dropping, most reckless and brilliant and insane.” So much for restraint.
In the same blurb, Eggers declares, “At one point I had to burn the second half of [the book] so I didn’t distract myself from my own dumb deadlines.” This says less about Wilsey than about Eggers, whose blurbs are beginning to form a bizarre narrative of their own. I imagine taking a tour of Eggers’s San Francisco domicile and finding his violated, slightly sticky copy of Adverbs under his duvet and the non-incinerated half of Oh the Glory of It All teetering on a shelf. It’s an amusing reverie. But isn’t the point of a blurb to kindle interest in the book — and not the blurber?
Andre Mayer writes about the arts for

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