Being a writer comes bundled with numerous small humiliations, but one of the worst, in my experience, is approaching other writers for blurbs of my own books.
You know blurbs, those pithy little sentences that grace the backs (or sometimes the fronts) of books. They almost invariably come in this format:
This piece first ran in Printers Row Journal, delivered to Printers Row members with the Sunday
"Wildly overblown praise that compares the book in your hands to an enduring classic, only this is even better."
— Name of Author More Famous than Author of Book You're Holding (More Famous Author's Most Recent/Best Known Book)
Because very few actual readers put much stock in blurbs, the primary audience for blurbs tends to be people within the publishing house, as well as the buyers at the store level who decide which books they want to stock, and early reviewers of books like Kirkus and Publishers Weekly who are trying to figure out what books to pay attention to.
Blurbs are primarily about buzz. You know an author has arrived when he no longer needs blurbs and his back cover is instead a full-sized author photo.
If a famous name shows up in the blurb list, this is seen as a good sign that the book stands at least some chance of getting media attention, which may reach the eyes and ears of people who buy books. Prior to publication, a "good" blurb can instantly change the fortunes of a book inside a publishing house, shaking loose previously unavailable monies for PR or marketing.
Because blurbs are only worthwhile if the blurber is more well-known than the blurbee, when it comes time to seek blurbs prior to publication, the author often tries to call on even the remotest connection, playing a game of six degrees of separation, substituting Philip Roth for Kevin Bacon. If your childhood next-door neighbor's great-aunt's best friend styles Elizabeth Gilbert's hair, you're in business!
The second most humiliating part of asking for blurbs is the wait. It is a two-step process, first asking if the more famous and admired writer is amenable to receiving an advance copy of the novel. Then, if they are agreeable, you wait (and wait and wait) to see if a blurb is forthcoming.
Sending my not-yet-published book to writers I admired and asking them to respond in the form of three to five sentences of effusive praise made me want to claw my own skin off my body. When someone would reply with an honest-to-goodness blurb, the relief was like being pardoned from death row.
The most humiliating part of the blurb-seeking process is when the more famous and admired writer declines to blurb. In my case, two writers whose work I cherish (and have happily recommended in these pages) both declined to offer any printable praise. That felt like a small death.
Busy writers taking the time out to blurb are doing a definite mitzvah, which is why I'm not going to make too much fun of the overheated verbiage that shows up in blurbs. But surely there aren't dozens and dozens of "life changing," "un-put-down-able" and "instant classic" books released in a given year, as the blurbs would have us believe.
One of my kind blurbers compared my work favorably to both Walker Percy and
My advice? Skip the blurbs until after you've read the book. Don't let someone else's thoughts and feelings substitute for yours. Trust me on that. I'm the next Saul Bellow.
Biblioracle John Warner is the author of "Funny Man." Follow him on Twitter @Biblioracle.
The Biblioracle offers his recommendations
1. "Zazen" by Vanessa Veselka
2. "Studies in Classic American Literature" by D.H. Lawrence
3. "These Dreams of You" by Steve Erickson
4. "Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore" by Robin Sloan
5. "Dublinesque" by Enrique Vila-Matas
— Sean F., Brooklyn, N.Y.
For Sean, I'm recommending the amazing "The Book of Disquiet," by Fernando Pessoa. Pessoa famously wrote in more than 80 different heteronyms, full-fledged identities with their own histories and distinct styles. Pessoa worked in the days before blurbs, but he wouldn't have had to worry about them, since one of his heteronyms could always blurb another.
1. "The Angel's Game" by Carlos Ruiz Zafón
2. "The Hypnotist" by Lars Keppler
3. "Unwanted" by Kristina Ohlsson
4. "Treasure Island!!!" by Sara Levine
5. "Seating Arrangements" by Maggie Shipstead
— Helen F., Geneva
Helen looks like a reader who can handle something a little less conventional. For her, I recommend Tupelo Hassman's "Girlchild," written in a kind of elliptical style that soon becomes hypnotic.
1. "A Wilderness of Error" by Errol Morris
2. "How Should a Person Be?" by Sheila Heti
3. "Legend of a Suicide" by David Vann
4. "The Chronology of Water" by Lidia Yuknavitch
5. "Street of Crocodiles and Other Stories" by Bruno Schulz
— Heather F., Brooklyn, N.Y.