Beyond the Blurb: On Critics and Criticism. Published by Cow Eye Press

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Niall Harrison

Does a serious reader really make a decision to read or not to read based on blurbs and "review excerpts"?

Probably not, although I can think of a couple of possible exceptions--e.g. if you like Arthur C. Clarke's work, and know that he almost never blurbs books, then his praise on Kim Stanley Robinson's Red Mars might catch your eye.

But ... what proportion of the book-buying population do you think are "serious readers"? My sense is that it's usually not a big enough proportion to ensure the success of j. random book. A lot of people buying books are going to be doing it casually, quickly, just looking for something like the things they like, in which case Stephen King's blurb might make the difference between a sale or not. So I think Asher has a point that willfully eschewing such things is a risky strategy. I find it bizarre that he then decided the book wasn't worth reviewing, though.

Kevin Holtsberry

I think there is a sort of middle ground. Yes, judging a book by its cover flap and blurbs is a risky business. But yes, I do on occasion use these things to decide if I want to buy a book or not. Particularly in non-fiction, blurbs can be a signal of whether I might like it or not. With fiction, a well written book flap can pique my interest and convince me to buy. I might buy in spite of a the cover material or buy it without considering the cover material, but at times it is a factor.

IMHO, like most things in life, these aspects of books are useful tools but come with their own pitfalls and weaknesses.

Rodney Welch

Don't you think, though, that a great many decisions we make in life are based on advice or opinions from people we respect?

Most of my book-reading decisions are based on reviews, opinions from people I like, or just odd quirks of taste.

I think if it's a typical trade paperback book, and I know absolutely nothing about the book, review excerpts and blurbs are definitely preferable to nothing.

I occasionally review new paperbacks, and I'll admit: a few genuine-sounding bursts of raw enthusiasm from writers or critics I respect may well alert my interest.

Of course, it could have the opposite effect. If, say, David Foster Wallace and David Eggers and Don DeLillo and Sven Birkerts all like the same book, then I may well think "Oh, it's one of those things."

Anyway, a blank cover suggests no one had anything good to say about it. And I wouldn't dismiss the "book package" altogether -- especially if it looks like it came from a vanity press that just publishes any old thing.

In the competition for a reader's interest, there are only so many marketing variables a writer has at his disposal, and it's probably worth it to make as much of them as you can.

Having said that, I personally have no use for plot descriptions or author bios. Where the author lives, where he was educated, he resides in Manhattan with his wife, Sasha, "This is his first novel," etc. Who bloody cares.

Jonathan Mayhew

I bought and read Edmund White's "Forgetting Elena," in my view one of the great novels of its period, because it had a blurb by John Ashbery on the back. I would have had no reason to even pick up the book without having some point of contact with an author I already knew and admired.

LIttle did I know then that Ashbery writes blurbs by the hundreds for some questionable authors. Maybe that was before he became so profligate? My point is that sometimes the paratext can have a serendipitous effect. I had never heard of White at the time. Nor did I know that he would never write anything quite as good as "Forgetting Elena" again.

Now of course I approach these things more cynically. But a blurb from Harry Mathews would tell me at least that I should open a book to see what the first few paragraphs sound like. It would identify the book as being in the realm of possibility for me.

Levi Asher

Daniel -- I understand your points, and I do want to mention that, after rudely dismissing this author's book on account of packaging, I put up the follow-up post you're responding to as a way of explaining my original reaction. I don't like being dismissive to writers, but as a reviewer I am a proxy for other potential readers, and I believe all book readers are (and must be) highly selective about what they will spend time on.

I think my experience with this book was typical of the experience many readers would have. I was slightly intrigued by the first few pages, but I had no idea in the world where the book was going and I wasn't intrigued enough to devote the time to find out. Given this fact, are you saying it would have been better if I hadn't written about the book at all? Or are you saying that by making myself available as a book review I have some responsibility to actually finish every book I receive even when I decide I don't want to? My decision was to write an honest paragraph explaining how I reacted to this book as a reader. Sure, in an ideal world I'd have time to read every book I see, even when the packaging turns me off. But I don't have time, and neither do other readers, and so I thought the best thing I could do was tell the author why.

Dan Green

"are you saying it would have been better if I hadn't written about the book at all"

If you read a few pages and it wasn't for you, then, yeah, I guess I would have remained silent about it. I really don't think a critique of the packaging is a good alernative.

My larger point is about using jacket copy as a way of choosing books to read in the first place, although I acknowledge that, as Jonathan puts it, "sometimes the paratext can have a serendipitous effect." But I wouldn't rely on serendipity.

Jonathan Mayhew

Another point: the absence of a paratext, or a very minimalistic paratext, is itself informational. It tells me that the book is being marketed in a more "purist" way. That could be attractive to a certain kind of reader too. When I get a review copy that doesn't have a lot of jacket copy, I find it refreshing, as a change of pace at the very least. So a "zero-degree" approach might be savvier than one might think in some contexts of alternative and small-press publishing. The book is in effect telling me: "I don't need no steenking blurb from John Ashbery."

Rodney Welch

Funny Jonathan should mention "Forgetting Elena," since it was on my mind too, but for different reasons. The book also received a blurb from Vladimir Nabokov, who not only never blurbed anything, ever, but was also very selective about the blurbs for his own books; he personally saw to it that a comment from Saul Bellow -- whom Nabokov regarded as a "miserable mediocrity" -- was stricken from one book jacket. Because of my respect for Nabokov, I read White's book not once but twice, because I hated it the first time and figured if Nabokov liked it then I was surely missing something. Unfortunately I surely missed it the second time as well. Still, I have that one blurb to thank for the experience.

Levi Asher

Dan, you wrote: "My larger point is about using jacket copy as a way of choosing books to read in the first place".

Well, I always have done this, simply because it's a quick way to get a sense of what a book has to offer. In the case we're discussing, the book was self-published, so I didn't have the publisher's reputation to recommend the book. Nothing about the title or the cover art or the front pages offered a clue what the book contained, and the first few pages were well-written but did not introduce any suspenseful plot elements or clear indications of where the book was going. I felt no motivation to continue, but a well-chosen blurb on the back cover might have given me that motivation.

I'm not looking for log-rollin' review excerpts of hyperbole about how great the book is. I don't respond well to hype either -- in fact, I can't stand the endless recitations of awards and (dubious) honors that often clutter up an "About the Author" blurb. But when I'm looking at an unknown book by an unknown author, I just want a simple description of what the book contains. I still think this is a reasonable expectation, and an important one.

Anyway, Dan, I'm glad you wrote about this and I hope this discussion is helpful in getting other small/indie publishers to think about what approach to take regarding jacket copy. My guess is that many of them don't think about it at all, and that's just not smart.

Joshua Cohen

By the by, the book Mr. Asher was commenting on on his blog is James Chapman's Stet. It's a masterpiece, a wolf in sheep's (and blurbless) clothing. About a Russian filmmaker criticized into silence, it's really the hidden, gloriously exaggerated biography of art in America, as told from, and by, the other side.


I absolutely agree. I never, ever buy/borrow a book without scanning through a couple of pages. Mostly to gauge the language. There are a lot of gems that don't have fantabulous reviews and vice versa(e.g. the da vinci code).

Timothy Francis Sullivan

I've actually found that, in some cases, and given many of qualifications mentioned above, blurbs are a better measure of whether or not I will like a book than a quick read of the first five to ten pages, especially since I find that the success or failure of many novels rests on their last third. I also find that I can't purify my mind in such a way as to eliminate the cues and prejudices that affect the way I experience the reading of a novel except by measuring pleasure and absorption. Between pleasure/absorption and blurbs that induce me to buy a book, I feel there's some sort of reasonably reliable correlation.

Robert Nagle

I cannot tell you funny I found the anecdote about Barth and Martone. (PS, Barth never did this to our workshop--that bastard!).

You don't have to praise a book (or even read it) to give a semi-accurate description of what kind of book it will be. I find blurbs tremendously useful, but also keywords. Also, I like amazon reviews; you can generally tell by the quality of the commenters whether you might go for the book in question.

Bookstores should invent a device that should display reviews (both on amazon and elsewhere) about a book if you scan its ISBN number. In bookstores people are pretty much helpless and dependent on these meta-clues. That's why I buy books from bookstores so rarely.

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