Monday, May 31, 2010

Rant: A Reader’s Guide to Blurbs

Not long ago I was reading a highly-touted crime novel. I hated it. Hated the characters. Hated the plot. Especially hated the writing. The cover art was no great shakes. Even the paper it was printed on began to get on my wick.

When I finally pulled the ripcord, I turned to the ending to see if it was as bad as I had it figured. (It wasn’t. It was worse.) Then I flipped to the back cover to scan the names of the authors who had blurbed it. And put every last one of them on notice. Several had written books I’d enjoyed; seeing their names on the back of this one made me wonder what they were thinking. At least one author whose books never really appealed to me is now that much farther away from my to-be-read pile.

An outsized reaction? Maybe. It’s not every day that I loathe a book so intently that I question the judgment of anyone who expresses vaguely positive thoughts about it. Still, it got me thinking about blurbs.

I speak as a reader. A fairly serious one. I know that blurbs are a necessary evil. I am well aware that they are not always to be taken at face value, that some measure of logrolling is involved. There are equations at play here to which I am not privy. At her blog, Christa Faust has a great post about the difficulties of coming up with something appropriate to say when you genuinely love a book.

I have never bought a book because of blurbs, but they do have influence. If a favorite author likes another’s work enough to recommend it, the scales have shifted slightly in its favor. And, as I’ve recently learned, if I violently disagree with that favorite author, I will remember it.

There is a short list of writers whose name on the front of a book means I’m guaranteed to read it while their name on the back is meaningless, because they blurb everything. They even wax rhapsodic on the Chinese takeout menus left by my mailbox. (Chang’s brings a ferocious energy to the plate, serving up an experience that will linger in your mind as it does in your colon. Chow mein that is bold, rare and true.)

It has to be difficult, soliciting publishable praise from your peers. It’s no doubt equally tough to give it. Blurbing is a chance for authors to promote themselves as well as another, to build their own brands. But it’s worth bearing in mind that these opportunities can also backfire.