a while back I was browsing the new york times book review when my eyes landed on an advertisement for a non-fiction book that I’d recently read. the book had been given to me by a friend–who had read it and loved it–and was about people living in a country half a world away, most of them in abject poverty. (let me be clear: the following comments have little to do with the book or its author, as the book is well-written and engaging and the author is evidently talented and committed to her work.)
splashed across the advertisement were blurbs recommending the book, everything from “must read,” “as vivid as fiction,” “exquisite in every detail,” “an astonishing book,” to “comparison to Dickens is not unwarranted,” “a jaw-dropping achievement, an instant classic of narrative nonfiction,” “riveting,” and “a mind-blowing read.”
I repeat: this is a good book. however, my jaw did not drop while reading it, nor was my mind blown. and not once did I think (nor do I still) about comparing her writing to that of Charles Dickens. I wasn’t even riveted.
blurbs have become the thing to do. the publishing world has decided that these one- to fifty-word statements from reviewers, celebrities, people-in-the-know, and other authors are the way to sell a book. some books’ front pages are filled with them, and most back covers are adorned with them. it seems you can’t buy a book that hasn’t been read, loved, and blurbed about by somebody who’s somebody.
I find it tiresome. I find it doesn’t matter if a book receives a good review (and even in an overall negative review there are often a few good words that can be culled into a positive blurb), or is on the bestseller list, or is praised by another author. I may or may not like it, and it may or may not be well-written, have a compelling story line, or be witty and informative. it doesn’t matter to me at all what those blurbs say, because I know it’s all a game. and it seems to be the predominant game in today’s publishing world. I feel patronized: do publishers really think we can’t see through their ploy? don’t they understand that the blurb business has become bloated to the point where we readers can no longer trust a word of it? every book I pick up has been blurbed and praised, and much of what gets passed along is meaningless. “stellar,” “exquisite, clever, and tenderly recounted,” “extraordinary.” let me read the first chapter and then I’ll decide. for myself.
the book review is still a beautiful (though a subjective and highly personal) thing, especially when the reviewer is more interested in conveying his or her thoughts and reactions than impressing anyone with his or her use of language. what I find fault with is the current system of dissecting legitimate reviews and soliciting celebrities’ comments simply to plant meaningless “blurbs” on and inside published books. I am openly stating to the publishing world that the almighty blurb has lost its punch. the blurb has burgeoned into worthlessness.
last week’s new york times book review closed with an essay on literary prizes, written by amanda foreman. in it she states that goodreads.com lists over 6,000 prizes on its web site. nobels and pulitzers are still undeniably king, but what about those other 5998+? most of us like to win prizes, to have our work awarded an honor. recognition is a vital part of creation, as much as we often wish it weren’t. but like the blurb, the literary prize is slowly losing its meaning as the number given proliferates. I am not impressed to read that a book received a prize I’ve never heard of, given by an association I’m unfamiliar with; I’m simply aware that someone (likely an agent or publisher) submitted a manuscript to a committee in hopes of adding credentials to the book’s name. (I think it quite likely that most prize-winning books have numerous blurbs.)
I like to assess books by what I read between the first word of the prologue and the last of the epilogue, between the first word of chapter one and the final word before the end. I don’t care too much what anyone else has said about it, or if it has been on the bestseller list, or if it’s won a prize. the best books can stand in their own, old clothes, all by themselves. those of us who truly love books and truly love to read can see right through every single blurb and prize to the truth of a manuscript, and like the child in hans christian andersen’s tale, can tell when the “new clothes” are nothing but air.