Wednesday, April 11, 2012

The Fine Art of the Blurb


The Parnassus blog recently posted a piece entitled The Trouble with Blurbs. The writers lament the often sad state of the blurb.

The post begins with an example of a good blurb: “'This is just the book to give your sister—if she’s a loud, dirty, boozy girl.' Thus spake Dylan Thomas on Flann O’Brien’s novel, At Swim-Two-Birds. And they are fighting words, indeed—an author would be hard-pressed to find a better endorsement for her book-jacket."

Absolutely. I already want to read that book though I've never heard of it or Flann O'Brien. I suspect that even if I hadn't heard of Dylan Thomas I'd still want to read the book. 

That example, however, is not typical of blurbs being written lately, according to the members of the Parnassus staff who have noticed a trend in blurb-writing towards "the vague, the hyperbolic, the flat-out useless." 

Editors cite the too-often found use of bothersome words such as "luminous" and its variations. I'd like to add "transcendent" as an equally prevalent and annoying adjective.

The staff also slams the abundant citing of contrasts found in the collection being blurbed. That bothers me less than the use of phony words. For me, one of the marks of a strong collection is its ability to embrace opposites, but I agree that vague terms such as "dark, yet playful" should be replaced by more specific ones.

The staff's third beef: Too often, poetry collections are blurbed as “important,” “necessary,” or “urgently-needed.” Oh brother, I could not agree more. I am so sick of seeing collections described as "urgent" and / or "necessary." What the heck do those words even mean when applied to poetry?

I like blurbs that tell me something specific about the collection, something that will let me know if it's for me or not. I intensely dislike generic blurbs that could have been pasted onto the back of any number of books and give no evidence that the blurber even read the book being blurbed. 

I also dislike hyperbolic blurbs. For example, I had to guffaw a bit when I recently read a blurb for a first book of poetry. The blurber described the poet as "a major American voice." How could the poet of a first book already be major? I can't trust a blurb that overdoes it with the praise. 

Here's my own complaint: The blurb-hungry poet who asks half a dozen or more poets to write a blurb and then plasters them all over the back cover. This always strikes me as gluttonous and egomaniacal. It is also an imposition on the time of too many people, all of whom must spend several hours reading the manuscript and then writing the blurb. Unless, of course, they dip into their bag of generic blurbs.

4 comments :

  1. You have no idea how often my work gets described as urgently blurb-worthy of fuzzy hyperbole. What is a poet to do?

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  2. I've never been moved to buy or even read a book based on blurbs. For many of the reasons you say. When I was putting together my collection, I realized that musicians have it right. No blurbs on the back of the album, just more art.

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  3. At one time, back-of-the-book blurbs lured me in. But I've recently realized that most blurbs are indicative of literary 'friendships' rather than literary merit. Nothing wrong with that, but it has made me less likely to consider blurbs as a valuable tool. I think the commenter above (james brush) has the right idea; let's ditch the blurb process. More poems, less gush.

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  4. Yes, they often have to be viewed with suspicion. For my last book I used one real blurb, then excerpts from reviews of previous books. I was happy with that.

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