Category Archives: Bill Morris

Foreword and Onward

In a funny and thoughtful piece in the Millions, Bill Morris wonders who actually finds blurbs useful. Not booksellers: The one Morris speaks to is skeptical. Not readers: Colum McCann figures most people “see through the bullshit factor.” And certainly not the writers asked to do the blurbing: McCann despairs of being snowed under by all the blurb requests he receives, and the more profligate blurbers tend to get a bad reputation.

Like Morris, my introduction to the disingenuous world of blurbing was “Logrolling in Our Time,” a recurring feature in Spy magazine that exposed how incestuous the publishing industry could be.* That’s not to say that all the blurbing was insincere. Of course Graham Greene and Paul Theroux would say nice things about the other’s books; it’s no surprise that John Cheever and John Updike would high-five each other. But even if there were honest members of these mutual admiration societies, their blurbing could often be so fulsome and overheated—I’m looking at you, Philip Caputo—that the praise they delivered could easily be ignored.

So, a proposal: If blurbs have a “bullshit factor” problem but are necessary to keep the publishing industry functioning for lesser-known authors, perhaps authors should write fewer blurbs and more introductions for new books they truly admire. Forewords, prefaces, introductions, afterwords, and other commentaries are usually reserved for literary museum pieces like reissues an anthologies. But they needn’t be exclusive to such works. Last year I came across a couple of books that I became a little more interested in precisely because a writer I respected took a moment to write not a dozen words but a couple hundred praising it. In a preface to Belle Boggs‘ debut story collection, Mattaponi Queen, Percival Everett writes: “I don’t like it when writers try to compensate for lack of story and ideas by ladling on adjectives and useless descriptions of things that need no description. I don’t like work that fails to address the complexities of language and the whole business of making meaning.” Hey, me neither—and you neither too, hopefully. And introducing Mark SaFranko‘s Hating Olivia, Dan Fante writes: “Here the scenes between Max and his lady love are open heart surgery done with an ax. If you’re a Henry Miller or Bukowski fan then Hating Olivia is fresh meat.”

Everett and Fante aren’t bringing any more intellectual heft to their praise than the average blurb does, it’s true—I had to go back to the books to recall what it is they had to say, which turned out to be not very much. But the fact that their praise ran longer than a sentence was meaningful to me—I likely wouldn’t have read Boggs’ book at all were it not for Everett’s benison. Requests that writers submit not just blurbs but two-page introductions might only make McCann’s life worse. But it might also be freeing: Instead of feeling obligated to say nice things about every young writer around, a writer can pick his or her spots, submit their praise only when it’s actually warranted, and avoid any accusation of being dishonest. After all, Morris’ article about the book he was asked to blurb is much more interesting—and made the book in question seem much more interesting—than the blurb he wound up writing.

* There’s a bit of irony in the fact that Kurt Andersen, a Spy cofounder, was once one of the most unavoidable blurbers around.

Links: Stuffing

If you survived Thanksgiving intact, you can appreciate why the holiday gets so much traction in fiction: “It’s a perfect plot and setting device to get a family together and expose the gap between the myth of American family and the reality.”

The latest issue of Conjunctions has a city theme. Stephen O’Connor‘s fine breakup story, “‘Til There Was You,” isn’t online, but a pair of typically funny-and-sour brief stories by Etgar Keret are. The journal’s website also recently published a brief story by Barney Rosset about a Chicago dive bar in 1948.

Jay Parini, author of The Passages of H.M., on Herman Melville‘s bisexuality.

News to me: “The John F. Kennedy Presidential Library in Boston contains the world’s largest collection of Ernest Hemingway material.” (It’s true.)

Cynthia Ozick‘s Foreign Bodies, her tussle with Henry JamesThe Ambassadors, “is the most readable of her six novels, and perhaps the best thing Ozick has ever written,” writes D.G. Myers. More at his blog.

Talking to David Foster Wallace in 1998.

William Styron
‘s daughter explains the voting tally for the 1952 Pulitzer Prize in fiction:

Bill Morris uses his correspondence with another writer as a launchpad for discussing writing longhand, on typewriters, and on keyboards, and whether it makes a difference in the final product.

Stephen Burt
on what a review can do for a book: “[It can] cause others to pay attention to it. Cause others to be interested in it. Describe it accurately. Do justice to it. Indicate what, if anything, makes the book stand out, seem original or memorable, or, indeed, accurate, or [what makes it] sound good. Describe the book as a work of art rather than as simply a representation. Say, and I’m going to misquote the philosopher Arthur Danto here, what is in the book that is not reducible to its content. Cause others to talk about the book. Indicate what about the book is deeply flawed so that artists and readers with interests similar to the author of the book will do better next time. Engage in a public dialogue with the author herself about her new book and her prior books and, perhaps, her next book. Indicate, as in the case of James Wood and hysterical realism, what is, for good or for ill, and it often is for ill, typical or representative about a book, either of kinds of books, or of the age, or the culture that the book comes from. Differentiate the book from other books that seem similar. Indicate that the books has some kind of internal variety or is divided within itself in a way that other readers of the book, [if it] is widely reviewed, haven’t noticed. Bring, and this is my very favorite thing to try to do as a reviewer, bring to the attention of other readers a book, an author, or a work, that doesn’t seem to have been noticed at all, and that deserves attention.” (Follow the link for audio of the Minneapolis event where Burt, my colleague on the NBCC board, spoke these wise words.)

Mark Twain‘s autobiography suggests that “What he loathed, apparently, was dealing with the plain, old, not-necessarily-funny truth about himself,” writes Judith Shulevitz. (Also: If you buy the book, you’re doing your bit for Michigan’s manufacturing economy.)

My review of Andrew Wingfield‘s short story collection, Right of Way is in this week’s Washington City Paper. The book is the fiction winner of an annual contest held by the D.C.-area literary nonprofit Washington Writers’ Publishing House; residents of the Del Ray neighborhood of Alexandria and fans of Winesburg, Ohio are encouraged to investigate.