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.

3 thoughts on “Foreword and Onward

  1. I gave up on blurbs the day I read some book ad in The New Yorker years ago in which the blurb-er said something like: While I was reading this book, I dug my fingernails in my arm and scratched myself with pleasure.

    That was it.

  2. I love the idea of using intros/forewards and the like for novels and story collections. It’s interesting you suggest this because this is exactly what happens with translations – most translations use the “stamp of approval” of a well-known author or academic to foster interest in the general population. It would be fantastic to see this happening for literature as well, not just because it would help banish those awful and often empty blurbs, but because it might influence the role of mentoring in American Lit in a postive way.

  3. Sad but true: I rarely pay attention to blurbs by authors. I only give credence to blurbs from media outlets, preferably the pre-pubs. Usually, blurbs come from friends of the author or folks reeled in by the editor/agent. Why do I care what a friend or associate thinks of the book? I want an unbiased opinion.

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