A Few Words On Behalf [Updated]

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2023-05-12 17:00:00-04:00 No comments

ADDENDUM: I was informed that John Scalzi himself read this, and has discussed it here. I'm not removing this post, because I want it to stand as a record of my thought. There's no point in trying to scrub this stuff as the internet is forever, just learn from it. It was not a good idea for me to be that careless with names, and I apologize for my thoughtlessness. The original post is located below the cut. I also have a follow-up here. And also here, where I go into some more detail.

I just read this article about the practice of blurbing in the book industry — Fool's Gold, at Public Books. I've talked before about how I dislike the practice of blurbing, and I say this as someone who has penned a couple of them in my time (for books in the IT trade, not fiction). I don't like them on other people's books, and I don't like them on my own books, either. I don't think they do a thing for sales, certainly not at my level, and I think they promote a culture of dishonest relations between creators. Not in the sense that it's dishonest for us to support each others' work, but in that we should not just resort to another of the marketing tactics used by people with orders of magnitude bigger an audience — and, again, one that as far as I can tell doesn't make any difference in the first place.

My own view on this is likely to be distorted by my sense of how the sausage is made. I know all too well most blurbs are not reflections of quality or taste on anyone's part. If I pick up a book and see quotes on the cover from Neil Gaiman or John Scalzi or whoever, that doesn't tell me anything about how good the book is, but how efficient the promotional machine for it is. Good authors can have terrible tastes, and may be more than willing to stump for people they know aren't very good but who serve as handy vehicles for continuing their own self-promotion. If Gaiman's name is on a blurb for a book, that name tends to subsume everything else about it — at least until the person being blurbed becomes a name unto themselves, and becomes a blurbsman in turn.

The above-linked article goes into some detail about how the way the culture of blurbing has metastasized outwards into critical culture generally — how the way most people talk about books, even when sincerely enthusiastic, tends to take on the flavor of the marketing copy fed to them as one of their first points of contact with it. Maybe we are asking too much of people for them to analyze instead of exhort; books have it hard enough as it is. But doing this makes it harder to talk about what's actually special about any given book in the first place. For one, those things don't tend to fit into a couple of adjectives. For another, they tend to be about the whole experience of reading it, the negative as well as the positive.

Blurbing obscures too many of the peculiar pleasures of books — the whole reasons they're worth reading and sharing in the first place. I have trouble recommending some of my favorite books to people because they are written in very spare, direct, unadorned language, and that is by design — they are not about juicy sentences you can sink your teeth into (something I've long felt uneasy about), but about a story that takes time to make its points, and sometimes those stories need to be experienced end-to-end to be appreciated. You can't stuff such things into a few ad-copy adjectives. And the habit of doing so reduces all books to a Lake Wobegon level of appreciation, where they are somehow all above-average. (This is not the same as enjoying a book for exactly what it is, but a kind of grade inflation of appreciation.)

If I have never picked up a book because of a blurb, it's because I've also never picked up a book because it was nominated for, or won, a major book award, or because it was a bestseller, or anything else that's become the sine qua non of publisher hype. It's because there was something about it that was personally appealing, and where a book's marketing was of service, it was in making clear to me the substance of that appeal — in conveying something of the sense of what the book is about and how it is about it. Not in trying to convince me I should like this book because this other person liked it, too. And maybe that's just the standard tactic when most reading these days seems to be done in chatty groups rather than individually, where publishing is a razor-margin business with most of the money coming from cross-licensing rather than regular sales, and where most books bear a depressing resemblance to each other because that's often the only way to get them out there at all.