Judging a Book by its (Back) Cover

I’ve been taught to trust blurbs about as far as I can throw them, which is roughly about as far as I can throw a book, which is not very far, because I am quite weak, my muscles haveing been described as sauce-like. In fact, the word blurb seems related, if only alliteratively, to the word blog – maybe both should be regarded with about the same amount of seriousness.

"Long ago," writes writer Stephen Dubner in his "Freakonomics" blog, "I used to think [blurbs] mattered a lot. Then I changed my mind, thinking that blurbs don’t signal much about the quality of the book, but at least they signal something about the quality of the author’s friends or acquaintances who were willing to blurb the book." He goes on to describe a situation where a book’s editor offered to write a blurb for Dubner, and simply attach his name to it, for his convenience. (The link goes to that article.)

Rob Walker, who writes for the Times Magazine, states in an addendum to the "Freakonomics" piece that "the real audience for blurbs isn’t really consumers at all – it’s bookstore and particularly chain bookstore buyers" who want the imprimatur or well-known artists to hopefully help sell the name of lesser-known artists.

Fair enough, but I still don’t like the idea that I’m buying my books from people who stock their shelves based on anything but a novel’s actual merit. (Go used or go home, baby.)

Despite the apparently widespread knowledge that blurbs are basically useless, they appear on the back of every book, and I can’t for the life of me ignore them. Sometimes they’ll even dissuade me from buying a novel.

There are books that rely on their blurbs: Anything by James Frey, at this point.

Books that self-consciously make fun of the blurbing tradition (from Dave Eggers’ A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius):

"This is a blurb. It conveys no information about the book whatsoever, no useful account of its contents, nor any serious comment as to its qualities. Authors like getting blurbs because they indicate that the author is an amiable and well-connected fellow; other authors like giving blurbs because it’s free advertising for their own work. Editors and publicists like blurbs because blurbs help legitimize their own generally rather timid publishing decisions. You, the reader, are not exactly ill-served by this process – it is, at worst, a harmless display of vanity and insecurity – but if you’re looking for a reason to buy and read this book, you’re better off relying on the advice of other readers whose taste you share, or what minimal sense of the writing herein you can glean by standing here and skimming through the pages." – Jim Lewis

And books for which blurbs are superfluous:

"Nabokov writes prose the only way it should be written, that is, ecstatically" – this quote, that is, John Updike’s, is affixed to the back of every Vintage Paperback edition of Nabokov’s books.

Hot New Authors are often tapped, it seems, to blurb books by Slightly Less Hot New Authors. In the last couple years, I’ve been seeing current NYTimes darling Gary Shteyngart’s name on the back of what seems like every contemporary novel. Shteyngart’s own work (The Russian Debutantes Handbook, Absurdistan) might be described as ‘exuberant,’ and his blurbs, likewise, are notable for their exclamation points. The guy practically redefines hyperbole. What’s interesting is, it seems he’s wholly unaccountable for his opinions – what’s most important is getting Shteyn’s name on that back cover, not what he says. While emphatic, his blurbs are also generic. And some of the books he blurbs are actually kind of mediocre (according to other critics, not just me).

Just a couple examples (I don’t want to name the actual books, because some of them are in fact good):

"[ ] can’t write a boring sentence, and the English language is the richer for it."

"[ ] has written a novel that is – sentence by sentence, idea for idea – peerlessly brilliant. Here is a supreme, mature novelist at the height of his powers. Take me to the hospital. My jaw has dropped."

So I was delighted to find that someone shares my opinion.

"I finished Sam Lipsyte’s Home Land which Gary Shteyngart calls ‘genius,’ " writes Stephen Schenkenberg, who edits St Louis Magazine. "Um, maybe a bit much. I really liked Shteyngart’s first novel — even bought it for my cousin in the X-mas gift swap — and he was very funny and lively and smart on ‘Fresh Air’; but how you can call Lipsyte’s book ‘genius’ is beyond me."

(Finding corroboration about irksome blurbers is hard to do!)

Completely ripping off Mr. Schenkenberg, and also in homage to him, here’s a little activity. I’ve got some blurbs, with links to the actual books. See if you can guess which book each blurb describes. Wheeee!

"One is never far from a phrase that feels so acute and so true that it seems to be expressing an essential truth of the soul hewn out of primordial psychological matter."
the London Times

"A page-turner in the most expansive sense of the word: Its gripping plot pushes readers forward…[ ] is a reader’s writer, with sentences so cozy they’ll wrap you up and kiss you goodnight." – The Chicago Tribune

And finally, one book, two quotes:

"One of the few books I have been able to read in recent years." – William Burroughs

"A terrifying and marvelous book." – Roald Dahl