| This Weeks Column:
A FEW WORDS ABOUT BLURBS
... a MobyLives guest column
by Steve Almond
8 September 2003 In early August, the Wall Street Journal published a frontpage feature about blurbs. I am not, generally speaking, a reader of the Journal (as I find it to be a tool of the Republican party) but a friend mailed me the article, as she knew I'd been struggling with the whole issue of blurbing.
I was shocked to read the opening paragraphs, which were about a mystery writer named Mat Johnson, whose first novel won much acclaim owing, by his own admission, to a blurb from Walter Mosley. The story notes that Johnson, because of his newfound fame, usually says no to blurb requests. "The best way to turn down a request, [Johnson] adds, is to not return calls. People eventually get the hint."
I am going to assume that the Journal misquoted Johnson, as I can not figure otherwise why he would allow himself to be portrayed as so hypocritical and inconsiderate. Nor can I figure out why the other authors mentioned in the piece would so blithely trumpet their refusal to provide blurbs.
It's true enough that the entire blurb milieu is nepotistic and queasily promotional, a fat, slowmoving target for the various critical wags of our age. But it's equally true that blurbs are one of the few dependable ways publishers can draw attention to a particular book. Blurbs themselves might be hyperbolic, even suspect, but they are essentially a forum to champion literature and as such deserve something kinder than scorn.
One of my least favorite experiences as a writer, therefore, is listening to other writers whine about being asked to give a blurb. (As with most of my indictments, I am guilty of this crime myself.) What annoys me about these complaints is not just the unacknowledged narcissism Poor me! How to bear such popularity? but the basic ingratitude.
Listen: when someone asks you to blurb a book they are paying you a huge compliment. At the very least they are saying to you: "I believe your name will help me sell books." But more than likely they are asking you because they know and admire your work. These are not people to be shit upon.
What's more, the general derision heaped on blurbs and blurbing has the effect of making writers particularly lessestablished writers feel like jerks for even asking. I recently received an email from a woman who wanted me to take a look at her first novel. To read this note, you would have thought she was asking me to examine her stool sample. Such was her sense of shame.
But this is absurd! Why should she feel ashamed?
The Journal piece struck me as so ridiculously wrongheaded, that I wanted to set down a few more charitable rules, when it comes to asking for, and giving out, blurbs.
For the blurbees:
1. If at all possible, write to the blurber directly.
The bottom line is that you're asking for a big favor. And you should have the stones to ask directly no matter how awkward it might feel. Some people will tell you it's best to have an agent or editor run interference. They, after all, might have more influence with a particular writer. I'm sure this is true in some cases. But I'd hate to feel that another author lauded my book for any reason other than his or her actually liking my work. Also: blurbers are more likely to be kind to another writer, who, like them, is a miserable wretch living at the economic and creative fringes of proper society.
2. Appeal to the blurber's vanity.
The aforementioned miserable wretchdom is the resting state of most writers. They feel putupon and disregarded, usually for good reason. So if you're going to put yet more upon them, you should at least give them some regard along the way. If you haven't, read some of their work. And don't bullshit. You're asking these folks to read (and publicly endorse) your work.
3. Show gratitude.
Make sure they get a bound copy. Include a note. Send gifts. And so on.
4. Don't ask unless you're sure.
I was hit up for a blurb recently by another writer, who was publishing a novel with a big fancy house. It was obvious to me that they were putting major money into her book. And it was equally obvious that getting a blurb from someone like me that is, a scrub made no sense at all. So I asked this woman, politely, to check with her editor, who promptly (and wisely) put the kibosh on the plan.
5. Be understanding.
Chances are, if someone can't blurb you, it's nothing personal. More often than not, it's not because they didn't like your work, but because they don't have the time to read your work. Or because they, like all writers, have a given set of friends/former students/enablers that they feel dutybound (and even eager) to blurb. They may also have an editor, or an agent, breathing down their neck, pressuring them to expend their finite supply of blurbcred on writers of their choosing. All you can reasonably ask of a blurber is that they deal with you straight.
Which brings us to the first rule for blurbers:
1. Never, ever jerk a blurbee around.
My publisher was, at one time, frantic to get a certain writer to blurb my collection. The writer, though, refused to give me a yes or no. Instead, she played an elaborate (and sadistic) game of cat and mouse. Three months after my initial request, she finally said no, leaving me a week to secure my final blurb. My beef with this woman isn't that she didn't give me a blurb that is her call, entirely but that she gave me false hope, and messed with my schedule.
2. Don't be a tease.
If you get sent a manuscript and you know you're not going to blurb it, deliver the bad news as quickly and gently as possible. Most writers feel guilty about saying no (I know I do) so they delay giving an answer. (Paging Mr. Johnson!) This only makes matters worse. And for God's sake, don't agree to look at a book unless there's a decent chance you'll blurb it.
3. Find a way to say no nicely.
There's no earthly reason to be mean to another writer, particularly one who has come to you in supplication. They are not asking for a critique, after all. So, even if you read the book and didn't love it, don't make that the issue.
4. Keep your envy in check.
Another friend of mine recently turned out what I consider to be a brilliant first book. His publisher asked a more established writer in the same genre for a blurb. This established writer didn't just say no. He sent a letter insulting my friend's work. Why would a writer do this? Why else? Because he was threatened. And rather than admit this to himself, he lashed out the source of his envy. This is pathetic. But it does happen.
5. Don't be a blurbwhore.
Part of the reason people are so skeptical about blurbs is because they sense the insincerity of the genre. And the reason for this, I would posit, is that too many writers agree to blurb books they don't love, for emotional and/or professional reasons. The bottom line is that you should believe your own blurbs. The chance to endorse another writer's work is a tremendous honor, one that is degraded by ulteriority.
In the end, it's all about karma. The blurbee is eventually going to be the blurber, and vice versa. Try to keep this in mind. This is not to say that writers should feel entitled to receive a blurb, or obligated to bestow one. Only that they should act with the respect and grace they hope to be afforded.
Steve Almond is the author of the short story collection, "My Life in Heavy Metal." He also runs the website StevenAlmond.com.
©2003 Steve Almond
Previous column;THE COSTS OF COSTCO ... Bostonarea independent bookseller Tim Huggins discusses the effects giant shoppersclub stores have on bookselling in general, and it's not a happy discussion.
Write to Moby
Letters policy: All letters must be signed. Also, please say where youre writing from — either an affiliation or hometown.
All material not otherwise attributed ©2002 Dennis Loy Johnson.