The anatomy of a blurb: A Globe Books investigation
We asked three authors with hotly anticipated spring titles to give a writer's-eye view of the 'ignoble' art of blurbing.
What kind of blurb is, for you, the most pleasurable to write? For friends? Former students?
Heather O'Neill, author of The Girl Who Was Saturday Night: Books that I like, obviously. I don't think I've ever written a blurb for a friend. I like to somehow stay objective.
Miriam Toews, author of All My Puny Sorrows: A person might see that I've blurbed a certain book and decide they want nothing to do with it! Like, if that reprobate Toews likes it, forget it! So, it's a crapshoot. But it feels good to be able to praise a book that I love or that has been written by a new writer. I know it sure meant a lot to me when I was starting out 85 years ago.
Steven Galloway, author of The Confabulist: I blurbed Joseph [Boyden]'s book. Is Joseph my friend? Absolutely. Am I nominally Joseph's employer? Yes. On the other hand, I read The Orenda and thought, "This is one of the best Canadian books I have ever read. How am I going to only say a few sentences of great things about it?"
How frequently do you blurb books? How often are you asked to do so?
H.O.: I do not blurb very often. I have no idea how often I'm asked. They always send requests to defunct e-mail addresses. I actually had a Gmail account that I forgot about that I recently discovered. It was horrifying: all these wonderful dates and propositions and invitations and friendships that I had missed. Anyways, there were a lot of requests for blurbs going there.
M.T.: Not very often. They cause me a lot of anxiety. I want to say something interesting but also relevant. They're not as easy as they look. The requests for blurbs seem to come in waves. I'm not sure what precipitates them. I think it must be excruciating for editors to draft those elaborate letters asking for a blurb and I know it's torturous for us writers to ask directly. But publishers encourage us to. Rock and a hard place.
S.G.: I probably blurb about 10 books a year. I'll do maybe five or six in Canada and two in the States and two in the UK. And often I ask them not to use the blurb in Canada just because I don't want to be a blurb whore. I probably get 20 or 30 requests a year. Usually I'm too busy, I say. I can't be reading 30 books a year for blurbing.
Which blurb for a book of yours is your favourite, and why? H.O.: I like Lisa Moore's blurb for my new book. It was all glowing and ecstatic, like a brand-new tattoo of a lover's name. And she sent it from India!
M.T.:For sentimental reasons, one from David Rakoff. "Miriam Toews writes like an angel." He was the kindest man in the biz.
S.G.:Coetzee. Not as a blurb. The blurb was not a great blurb. Just the idea that Coetzee read my book? That's pretty cool. He's a writer I admire immensely and am terrified of as a human being.
What cliché of blurbing do you try to avoid?
H.O.:Don't we want clichés in blurbing? Blurbs are so crazy and hyperbolic these days. You have to basically say that you finished the book and set your house on fire because you just wanted to live naked with this book in your arms until the end of time.
M.T.:I'm not fond of the word "redemptive."
S.G.:I try to stay clear of "shot through." I try not to have anything "imbued with." I actually keep a list of blurbs I have given because I am worried about parroting myself. I have my own superlatives … I realized one day as I was writing a blurb, this sounds really familiar and I think it's possible I had written it two years ago. I didn't actually send it. I rewrote it.
Would you like one day to see blurbing cease as a practice?
H.O.: I used to abhor the practice. It encourages cronyism and false friendships and fawning and going to lousy parties etc.… I used to think that was intolerable behaviour when I was in my 20s, but nowadays, I sort of like it all. Who are we other than our strange, ignoble antics? I'm going to make an effort to go to more bad parties and blurb more myself. They are like putting a neon sign above your little diner swearing that the moon is inside.
M.T.: Well, maybe, but certainly not with the same zeal I'd like to see hazing or Internet bullying cease as a practice.
S.G.: Yes. Because I'm not frankly convinced it does anything. The point of a blurb is an endorsement that it doesn't suck. One would hope that we could just trust the mechanisms of the publishing industry to vet that, could we not?