‘Audacious, Gripping and Unforgettable’: The Art of Blurbing

Is blurbing (authors praising the work of other authors in exuberant one-liners for the covers of their books) a transparent back-scratching exercise, a necessary evil, or a literary art-form? And can praise solicited for promotional purposes be trusted? Thuy On, books editor of the Big Issue, takes a look.

‘A beautifully written, darkly funny coming-of-age story…’; ‘audacious, gripping and unforgettable’; ‘a tour de force of investigative journalism’. Aside from the tumble of complimentary adjectives, what do these quotations have in common? They’ve all been lifted from the dust jackets of miscellaneous books, both fiction and non-fiction. If you’re in the market for something new to read, as well as making snap judgements from glossy covers regarding the contents within, chances are you’d flip the book over and scan the carefully chosen sales pitch, designed to woo the reader into believing the humble work in your hand is a piece of staggering genius. This is the primary function of the blurb, which could also include excerpts from the book, quotes from reviewers of the author’s previous works, a summary of the plot or argument, biographical details about the author, or all of the above.

The very first blurb is accredited to American humorist Gelett Burgess (1866-1951) with the publication of his book Are you a Bromide? in 1907. It was the custom of publishers to present copies of stand-out releases to booksellers attending the annual trade dinner. Burgess’s canny publisher handed out slightly different limited editions of the book. As was common practice of the day, a damsel was pictured on the cover, this time with accompanying text that claimed ‘YES, this is a BLURB’, and ‘Miss Belinda Blurb in the act of Blurbing’. Somehow the name stuck and blurbs are now standard promotional teasers. Most debut or mid-range authors would kill for a good blurb from their peers, particularly from those already established in their writerly careers. A back or front cover quote by a Miles Franklin-winning author heralding ‘a searing new talent’ is worth serious literary cred. But whether blurbs from highly-respected names can actually boost sales is a moot point. More likely it’s a number of factors that contribute to the purchase of a book: the blurb plays its part, along with word-of-mouth recommendations, media reviews, and come-hither cover art.

There are some who consider blurbing to be a real literary artform. Gary Shteyngart, author of Super Sad True Love Story, Absurdistan and The Russian Debutante’s Handbook, has a tumblr account ‘of promiscuous praise’ that records his prolific endorsements — more than 100 snappy little blurbs so far. (‘Literary horror just found a new master. Profound, and profoundly terrifying’; ‘Suck it, Proust. This book about stuff is much better than those things you wrote’; ‘A brainy, bright, laughter-through-tears, can’t-stop-reading-until-it’s-over kind of novel. Fatherless daughters, mother-smothered sons, appealing ex-wives, mouthy high school drop-outs — damn, this book’s got something for everyone!’). He’s even blurbed his own blurbs: ‘Gary Shteyngart’s blurbs are touching, funny and true. This is a blurber to watch.’ His propensity for Twitteresque reviews is explored in a 15-minute documentary called Shteyngart’s Blurbs which features various authors (from Edmund White to Molly Ringwald) whose books were enthusiastically received by Shteyngart as well as book critics bemused by his reputation as a ‘blurb whore’. Although at times hyperventilating praise seems like a parody of the whole practice, in the short film Shteyngart explains how he regards his hobby as a form of encouragement to lure reluctant readers: ‘I’m trying to get people to read good, serious literary fiction … No hyperbole can be hyperbolic enough because very few people want to read this stuff.’ No doubt there’s also a small matter of ego as well; it would be gratifying for Shteyngart to have his name on other people’s books; to draw attention to himself while graciously complimenting others.

Shteyngart Blurbs

Above: Shteyngart Blurbs.

Nonetheless rapacious readers can soon become immune to the allure of well-placed advertising copy. There is after all, so many times you can read the words ‘masterly, lyrical, and gripping’ before it all becomes a mulch of meaningless praise. Some books, particularly satirical ones, gleefully trade on fake, high-falutin’ commendations from unlikely sources to create a buzz. Bored of the Rings (1969) for instance by Henry N. Beard and Douglas C. Kenney, (with renamed characters called Dildo, Arrowroot and Goddam), apparently has a thumbs up from the Harvard Daily News: ‘Never have I laughed so hard at any other book …. unquestionably a comic masterpiece as well as a brilliant parody…’

But more seriously, there are also cases of wilful blurb fraud. In mid-2013, a Russian publishing company tried to sell Tsvet Boli Krasny (Red is the Color of Pain) as a Swedish detective novel in the tradition of Stieg Larsson by plastering the book with blurbs from non-existent Swedish publishers. The difficult-to-police realm of cyberspace is also rife for abuse. Bestselling crime author R.J. Ellory for instance, was caught out writing self-aggrandizing Amazon reviews for his own works while trashing his competitors’ books. This act of penning anonymous online appraisals of one’s work is called ‘sock-puppeting’. Orlando Figes, a leading historian was also found guilty of being a sock-puppeteer and lauding his own books on Amazon while decrying the work of his rivals.

Fraud notwithstanding, blurbs remain an integral part of the whole publishing package. But whether readers choose to believe that a book ‘is an accomplished gem; its prose as crisp and sparkling as its northern setting’* is ultimately up to them.

* Geraldine Brooks blurbling on the cover of Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites.