While reading up on Gary Shteyngart for my review of Super Sad True Love Story I realised that he writes blurbs so much he’s become notorious for it. A tumblr is dedicated to it. A short documentary has even been made about it.

 

He jokes that he’s blurbed everything that’s come across his desk – ‘I look for the following: Two covers, one spine, at least 40 pages, ISBN number, title, author’s name. Once those conditions are satisfied, I blurb. And I blurb hard’ – but I thought Super Sad True Love Story was great, I think Shteyngart’s a wonderful writer, so I trust his judgement. But can he really think all these books are as amazing as he makes out?

I pay a lot of attention to the blurbs written by other authors, the excerpts from newspapers and magazines not so much, but the author ones interest me. Most of the time a quote from, say, the New York Times is credited to the publication, not to an individual. And it’s much harder to get a feel for a critic’s personality, you have to know their writing well, and a certain degree of impartiality and objectivity is part of the job description. Whereas, authors’ likes and dislikes are all laid out for you in the types of book they write. When I read a book I feel like I get to know the person who wrote it.

If I admire the author that wrote the blurb I’m intrigued about the book itself (I noted that American Gods has a blurb from Michael Chabon after I’d read The Adventures of Kavalier & Clay: ‘Dark, fun and nourishing to the soul’. So, so true).

If I read a book and love it I’ll seek out the author who blurbed it (Neil Gaiman blurbed Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell: ‘Unquestionably the finest English novel of the fantastic written in the last seventy years’).

A little part of me read American Gods because of these two blurbs. Even though I am aware that the authors involved are Gaiman’s friends.

I’m put off a book if the writer that blurbed it wrote a book I couldn’t stand (even for books that sound good). A.D. Miller probably thought his own book was brilliant, how can I trust his judgement on others?

It also puts me off authors I’ve never read because they blurbed a book I didn’t enjoy. Emma Donoghue, I’m looking at you. Her blurb for State of Wonder: ‘Perfect from first page to last … This is her masterpiece.’ I dare to disagree. To be fair I probably was never going to read Room anyway.

Is all this trust in blurbs completely irrational?

If they’re doing the job nature intended, blurbs give you an idea of what type of book it is. Writers usually want authors of a similar type or genre to blurb for them. Like Jon Ronson blurbing for Will Storr – and you know what, having never heard of Storr but having read, and thoroughly enjoyed Ronson I had a good look at Storr’s new book, The Heretics, based purely on the Ronson blurb, and now I want to read it.

Maybe it’s all a ploy on the part of the blurber to get us to read something that’s similar to theirs but not nearly as good, thereby making their books look awesome by comparison.

I like to believe that author blurbing is something more than authors randomly pimping out their name. Sometimes it’s a favour to a friend that inspires them to blurb (others more cynical than I, like Salon‘s Laura Miller, would say it’s merely evidence of the cliquishness and insularity of publishing, because an author’s friend couldn’t possibly love their book on its own merits), plain old admiration or wanting to give new authors a chance by giving them some vicarious credibility. Shteyngart argues that it’s hard enough to get people to read literary fiction so why not be enthusiastic, why not help get people to actually read these books?

In reality blurbing probably is a mercenary business. It must be awkward and painful for new authors to be forced to solicit blurbs from famous authors just because those pesky readers are still silly enough to believe them. Maybe I should know better but, like some superstitions, getting a feel for a book based on blurbs is a habit I can’t let go of. Even if I do know all blurbing’s dirty little secrets.

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