04 May 2006

The Short Version

An article on Radio Canada's website describes the practice of book blurbs—you know, those little two-second soundbites that tell you nothing about the contents, but instead act as some sort of "celebrity endorsement" for the package—for whatever value of "celebrity" one gets for various books. This is particularly annoying in fiction, and often outrageous in category fiction. For example, one author of whose work I am fond had blurbs from David Drake, Elizabeth Haydon, and "Robert Jordan" on her first two novels… and her writing could not have been farther in style and content (not to mention quality for two of those three) from the writing of those three authors. And this from a publisher that is unusually good about matching blurbs to books. And, too often, it's about the package and not the contents; but that will have to wait a couple of paragraphs.

In any event, Andre Meyer's article notes:

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.

"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 British author John Banville, the recent winner of the Man Booker Prize (for The Sea).

"'This Book Will Change Your Life:' The Reckless Art of Book Blurbing" (02 May 2006).

This raises an interesting question, though: What if that "favorite author" writes books not comparable to the one in question? Isn't that approach a hazy combination of false and mistargetted advertising? To continue from that example above, I find it difficult to imagine someone who doesn't actually know a particular one of the blurbers (that blurber's taste is incomparably better than his/her writing), but does like that blurber's writing, also being satisfied with the book being blurbed. It's sort of like having a blurb from John McTiernan appear on a reissue of Rainer Werner Fassbinder's Berlin Alexanderplatz.

Of course, by complaining like this I'm merely following in the footsteps of one of my literary idols. Perhaps I'm expecting far too much when I expect marketing dorks who haven't even read the book in question to select blurbs and blurbers—especially given the lack of detail ordinarily found in blurbs.

[Members of the public] want some kind of guide to the books they are asked to read, and they want some kind of evaluation. But as soon as values are mentioned, standards collapse. For if one says—and nearly every reviewer says this kind of thing at least once a week—that King Lear is a good play and The Four Just Men is a good thriller, what meaning is there in the word "good"?

George Orwell, "Confessions of a Book Reviewer" (1946).

Then, on the other hand, more disturbing inferences about the whole Viswanathan plagiarism affair are working their way into the press. The New York Observer—a publication not known for subtle interpretations—noted:

"You just got the sense that if you came up with an idea, there wasn't much incentive for you to bring this idea into the fold and let it become a potential product," said Ryan Nerz, a former Alloy editor and author who recently published Eat This Book: A Year of Gorging and Glory on the Competitive Eating Circuit, sans Alloy, with St. Martin's. "You'd research it, flesh it out, turn it into a proposal, then the company itself would take it and pitch it. At that point—unless they absolutely thought you were the best person for it—you rarely would be attached on as the author."

Sheelah Kolhatkar, "Viswanathan-athon: Plagiarizing Writer Fell in Weird Alloy" (08 May 2006 cover date). That this process sounds so much like the blurbing process is both illuminating and disturbing. That even the Observer noticed is more so.