Tuesday, August 23, 2022

Truth in Blurbing


Terry here. We are discussing blurbs, those tantalizing bits of recommendations on the cover of a book. Authors feel like they need them; and authors are asked to write them. Here’s my take on the reality of blurbs. 

 Early on in my writing career I made the mistake of eagerly saying I’d be happy to write a recommendation in the form of a "blurb" for someone’s book, and then found myself stuck when I really disliked the book. I mean REALLY disliked it. 

I ended up writing a half-hearted blurb, but I was never happy about it. And I worried each time I was asked to provide a recommendation that the same thing would happen.

Finally a well-known author told me sternly that I should never blurb a book I couldn’t recommend. He said the reply should be, “I’m sorry, I won’t be able to blurb the book. You want a blurb from someone who is really enthusiastic.” So I devised the brilliant idea of saying, “I’m very busy, but I’ll try to get to it.” Then, I’ll read a bit of the book, and if it truly is not for me, I will say that my time pressures simply don’t allow it. That worked fine until one author said, “Oh, you didn’t like it, huh?” 

Once or twice I’ve been asked to blurb a book that I couldn’t figure out why I had been asked, since the books I write were nothing like the book in question. I wondered why the author thought that my recommendation would hold any weight with a prospective reader. In one case, I told the author that their book would be much better off with another author I knew, and I connected the two authors. It was a marriage made in “mayhem” heaven, since they both wrote hard-boiled books. 

It would seem that you could always find something to like in a book—the characters, the plot, the setting, good pacing, beautiful sentences. Alas, I have found this isn’t always true. I was once asked to write a blurb for an author I liked personally, but when I read the book I was stymied. I really could find nothing to appreciate and felt like I couldn’t recommend the book to people. I fudged by writing a smooth, short synopsis of the book, as in, “This book explores how a cop discovers whodunnit by following all the clues.” 

 I’m sure some people really read blurbs and decide whether they should read a book based on the recommendations of other authors or reviewers. But when I read some blurbs, I have to laugh because they are truly generic. 

Here are a few real blurbs, with proposed translations. Next time you read a blurb and wonder what it actually means, here is my take on what it means. 

The characters are fascinating. Translation: The perpetrator was smart, and the detective was an idiot. 

The plot is ingenious Translation: I couldn’t figure out what the heck was going on.

Dynamic! Translation: I really couldn’t figure out what the heck was going on.

Lyrical descriptions. Translation: The book is SO slow. 

Beautiful setting. Translation: It reads like a travelogue and nothing much happens.

A real page turner. Translation: There’s absolutely no depth to the characters.

Classic. Translation: Old-fashioned, passe, full of clich├ęs. 

An astonishing novel. Translation: It’s astonishing that anyone would publish this.

Easy to follow plotting: Translation: Will put you to sleep. 

I couldn’t put it down: Translation: Because if I put it down, I’d never pick it up again. 

Well-researched. Translation: Too many picky details. 

Cinematic! Translation: Let’s hope a screen-writer can make something out of this mess. 

Hard-edged but sympathetic hero. Translation: The hero is a psychopath, but he loves his dog. 

 Authors: Next time you are asked to blurb a book, I suggest that you go for “truth-in-blurbing” and use the translations above.


Cherie O'Boyle said...

As university faculty we had a whole list of phrases to be used in difficult-to-write letters of reference, starting with "I cannot recommend this student highly enough."

Terry said...

Cherie, that's perfect!

Lesa said...

Blurbs! I taught a Readers' Advisory class today for library staff and we talked about covers and blurbs. One of the students said he read one of the best books he ever read, The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon, because the cover appealed to him, and when he flipped it over Stephen King had blurbed it. He said, well I like Stephen King so I'll try it. Appeal for him was the illustration on the book cover & the blurb.

Terry said...

Good to know, Lesa. I have made it my goal always to be honest in my blurbs (my comic take on them above notwithstanding). I never blurb a book I haven't read in its entirety and whatever I say about the book is true!