Archives for posts with tag: A.D. Miller

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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SnowdropsNicholas is a thirty-eight year old English lawyer working in Moscow in the mid-noughties. After a chance encounter he gets caught up in the lives of young, sexy Masha, her sister Katya, and their elderly aunt Tatiana Vladimirovna. Nick falls in love (lust really) with Masha but it becomes clear that the sisters have other motives, involving him in their corruption and deceit. Meanwhile, Nick is also working on a business deal for a menacing man known only as the Cossack.

I was disappointed with Snowdrops, especially given its place on the Man Booker shortlist last year. If you still want to read it yourself then maybe don’t read this first, there are spoilers ahead. Snowdrops is billed as a literary psychological drama, not a crime novel but Miller puts such an emphasis on crime and corruption but then didn’t really deliver. The novel opens with the discovery of a dead body, a murder victim, after the snow has thawed, a ‘snowdrop’. In his retelling of his life in Russia Nick links his memory of the body to the shameful reason he left Moscow. I thought the opening felt risky and dangerous but the plot did little to support my first impression.

The whole time you’re reading you know that Masha and Katya are not who they seem, that Nick is becoming embroiled in their scheme. Miller drops hints in an effort to keep the tension up but what happens ends up being far less dramatic when you can see it from the start. Even if the plot warranted the ominous tone, Miller leads the reader to every conclusion and revelation forcibly, like you’re a child, heavy-handedly hinting at the morally reprehensible acts Nick will commit. Right after they all visit the apartment outside the city the aunt, Tatiana, is swapping for her own, Nick writes, ‘I hadn’t done anything to be ashamed of, had I? Anything you could hold against me? Not really. Not yet.’ It felt like Miller was screaming at me, ‘But he definitely does do something to be ashamed of! And it has to do with selling Tatiana’s apartment!’ Snowdrops tries to portray a moral grey area, a place and time where regular guys can be seduced and beguiled by the promise of debauchery, power and money (I’m not buying that it had anything to do with love). But there was no subtlety in the portrayal.

Nick’s story takes the form of a confessional. Several years later he is writing a letter to his fiancée, coming clean about what happened to him in Russia. Nick is trying so hard to make his fiancée believe that as events unfolded nothing was as it seemed, only in hindsight could he finally see clearly. Unfortunately in his retelling, with the benefit of hindsight, everything is exactly as it seems – the helpless victims really turn out to be helpless victims, the con-artists really are just con-artists. Nick has neatly sorted everything out for the reader. I wanted more ambiguity. I wanted to doubt everything I thought I knew. But the whole time I never had cause to doubt that Masha was definitely a calculating bitch and Nicholas was so stupid (and shallow) to fall for it. First person narrative looking back at past events can be a great way of giving a story insight and understanding, but Nick hasn’t learned anything except to stay away from Russia.

I get that Snowdrops isn’t supposed to exactly be a thriller. So maybe I shouldn’t judge it for not being thrilling enough. But then again, don’t try to be thrilling and fail. It was all kind of shallow, by the end I didn’t understand Nick any better, and I can judge it for that. And Miller’s Russia seemed fairly stereotypical. It isn’t all bad though, it’s well-paced enough that I kept reading, hoping for something more, but it ultimately fell flat. I just really wish Miller would’ve delved deeper into the characters’ psychology.