Blurb Matters: A Quiet Manifesto

Image: an urban telephone pole on which someone has painted a smiley face and the words "You are the best".
Positive Affirmation” by the justified sinner is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

Today’s post is by author Beth Kephart.

Say he wants a blurb, he wants it bad. He’ll give you less than a week to read a rushed PDF,  and the thing is, you hardly know him. Decades before, maybe, and as a favor to his editor, you wrote a boosting paragraph after his first book launched, but you’re pretty sure that doesn’t mean you’re friends.

Still, his need is urgent—you feel the pulse of desperation beneath the skin of his email. You say yes when you shouldn’t. You claw at your schedule, make reading time. You’re only a few grudging chapters in when you know the trouble you’re in. The blurb-seeker’s book is self-absorbed, self-pitying, self-aggrandizing, without beauty, and to protect your own name, to defend your own ethos, you must step aside. You must let the author know, and soon. You must write the kindest possible declination, and swallowing hard, you do.

Maybe this is hypothetical. Maybe it is true. But let’s continue on. Let’s say your no is not well received. Let’s say you become—increasingly—the object of the blurb-seeker’s ire. Let’s say the whole affair becomes so preposterous—your refusal to engage escalating his anger, his anger escalating into threats—that when you finally shut his emails down and step away, you’re left wondering what this thing is anyway, this thing we call the blurb?

A blurb is an advert, a puff, a commendation, a gloss, according to various dictionary definitions. Or, in the words of Rachel Donadio, writing years ago for The New York Times, blurbs “represent a tangled mass of friendships, rivalries, favors traded and debts repaid, not always in good faith.” Indeed. But how are we to manage them? What place are they to have in our literary lives? Is a blurb an obligation? An apprehension? A price? A prize?

I have, over the course of my writing life, done a lousy job of taking a definitive stance on blurbs. I have been inconsistent and hypocritical, grateful and suspicious, honored and unsure, careful and compromised. I have blurbed books I’ve loved for people I’ve loved and been humbled by the pleasure. I have said no when I should have said yes (I am so sorry). I’ve written blurbs for books I didn’t fully understand, and I’ve written blurbs that were elbowed out of use on account of the blurbs proffered by writers more sexy and glam than I am (but then why was I asked in the first place?). I have died a thousand deaths asking for blurbs for books of my own, then opened emails from dear friends saying, Please, ask me for a blurb. Then received the kindest blurb. Then stood in my office and looked all around—incapable of locating just the right words to express my gratitude.

I have been fazed by the giving and fazed by the taking, and I have been—equally—shamed.

Blurbs may be, as Donadio suggested, a kind of commerce, a means of exchange. But perhaps those who seek blurbs and those who write them might be helped, in this enterprise, by a shifted perspective. What if we began to view blurbs not as a branding or a boast, a quantifiable need, a checklist check, a ploy, but as a kind of offering to the writer during that particularly vulnerable, pre-launch time when the critics and the general public have not yet had their say. What if, in other words, we thought of the blurb as a means of returning the book to its maker, of yielding, to the author, that essential and unquantifiable sense that her work has been valued and seen, her story held in the mind of another, her words lifted from the page?

If we were to reposition blurbs in this way—as affirmations as opposed to marketing tools, as possibilities instead of prerequisites—wouldn’t that also shift the way we traffic in the thing? Wouldn’t we winnow the list of prospective blurbers to those whose readerly companionship we genuinely seek—because of who they are, which is different from the fame they are perceived to have achieved? Wouldn’t we turn down the noise on our chase? Wouldn’t we stop trying so hard to appease the marketing appointees? Wouldn’t we see each blurb as a gift and not a means? And wouldn’t we see each potential blurber not as an instrument or machine, but as a human being quietly engaged in a conversation that will have enduring meaning.

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