Book secrets

Written a book? Now get a famous writer to blurb it

Finishing the manuscript might be the easiest part of getting published. What about the recommendation on the cover?

Up until the time I published a book, I was under the gentle delusion that writing was the most arduous part of the process. Months, nay years, of unvented frustration, despairing of plot dead ends and dull characters, lengthy bouts of creative blankness, and constant questioning.

Am I good enough?

Will I ever finish?

This, I’m beginning to see, is the easy bit.

Writing, after all, is a solitary endeavour, punctuated by advice, should you seek it, from a few close friends, family, a mentor, if you’re lucky. You and the page, battling it out. The complications begin at the end.

When your editor drops you that casual email asking if you have anyone in mind for an author quote. A blurb as it’s called in industry-speak, or, as I recently gleaned from a website named Absolute Write, a "puff".

To be honest, before being published, I don’t remember paying much attention to author quotes. In fact, I’ve probably never bought a book because it’s been labelled propitious by Pamuk, or revelatory by Rushdie. Mostly, I relied on the recommendation of friends, the tug of a lovely cover jacket, good ole familiar favourites, or an utterly, surprisingly, engrossing first page.

All that was set to change after I wrote my own.

Off it goes

I’d checked the typesetted manuscript, sent off my final edits, happy ‒ dare I say it? ‒ with my achievement.

Suddenly, all felt inadequate.

A book, joyous thing though it may be, if left unadorned, bereft of hefty hyperbole, will simply not do. Two down, and I’ve come to realise that the garnering of these mythical "puffs" is the most stressful of endeavours. To begin with, who to ask? Which author friends owe you a favour? To whom do you already owe a favour? What if they say no? What if they say yes, and then say no? Even worse, what if the quote is middlingly enthusiastic?

For if you've cast your eye over the cover of most books these days, the praise cannot just be warm, it must be combustibly generous. Incredible, profound, astounding, breathtaking, seminal ‒ often all in the same sentence. As Nathan Filer, author of The Shock of the Fall says in a piece for The Guardian, “Cover blurbs aren't reviews. They're advertisements. No space for balanced, nuanced positivity.” It must break your heart, move mountains, change your life, change the way you see the world.

It’s exhausting.

I’m not denying, of course, that some of the excitement in a publishers’ publicity department is generated by a genuine passion for the products. My concern is that authors may be "puffing" each others’ books from a sense of compulsion. Stephen King famously blurbed The Hunger Games: “Constant suspense… I couldn't stop reading.” Only to say in an interview five years later: "I read The Hunger Games and didn't feel an urge to go on.” Oops.

And authors are often curious creatures. Some may refuse to offer a quote for anywhere else apart from the front cover. Another will write one only if the book is published in the UK (thereby effectively flushing half a century of postcolonialism down the proverbial drain).

To be fair, I’ve also done my small share of turning down blurb requests ‒ for a book that I wasn't politically comfortable with, and some that didn't inspire much effusiveness. More often, though, I’ve refused for one straightforward reason, as I imagine, most authors do, poor souls. Because they’re simply too busy. There’s life to lead, and things to be done. Besides, it’s hard enough trying to garner constant adoration for your own work without pausing to peruse piles of other people’s manuscripts.

Yet if you don't do unto others, then who will do unto you?

Standard packaging

Perhaps the frightening thing is that we're at a point now where people generally don't take any notice of quotes, but the absence of them (or the presence of only one mild quote) will set alarm bells ringing. They have become such a standard part of the package, that not seeing them there raises a slight disquiet. Could they not get anyone ‒ anyone?‒ to dish out a couple of platitudes for the cover? Hmmm. Maybe there's something wrong with this book...

Or maybe it’s time to take a step back.

Is this a trend that’s helping anyone?

If something really is “epically brilliant”, does it have to be spelled out in this manner?

I find that if I’ve read something truly stirring, I’m usually left bereft of words. Feeling as though my own are inadequate. If I were asked to blurb my most beloved books, a line or two for 1984, Mrs Dalloway, East of Eden, Shadow Lines, I’d give them the highest praise of all ‒ I’d have absolutely nothing to say.

Janice Pariat is the author of a collection of short stories, Boats on Land, and a novel, Seahorse.

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