Jeanne Matthews is the author of the Dinah Pelerin international mysteries published by Poisoned Pen Press. Like her amateur sleuth, Jeanne was born with a serious wanderlust. Originally from Georgia, she enjoys traveling the world and learning about other cultures and customs, which she incorporates into her novels. She currently lives in Renton, Washington with her husband who is a law professor. Where the Bones Are Buried, the fifth book in the series, is in bookstores now . You can learn more about Jeanne’s books at http://www.jeannematthews.com.
This piece was originally published on the Poisoned Pen Press blog in February 2014.
The first blurb appeared in 1907 on the jacket of Gelett Burgess’ book ARE YOU A BROMIDE? It featured a picture of a refined looking lady named Miss Belinda Blurb, one hand cupped around her mouth as if shouting, “Say! Ain’t this book a 90 H.P., six-cylinder Seller? When you’ve read this masterpiece, you’ll know what a BOOK is.”
The fictitious Miss Blurb heaped a bouquet of flamboyant and aromatic verbal orchids on the said masterpiece. “It has gush and go to it, it has that Certain Something which makes you want to crawl through thirty miles of dense tropical jungle and bite somebody in the neck. It has 42-carat THRILLS in it. It fairly BURBLES. This Book is the Proud Purple Penultimate.”
But the penultimate is not the ULTIMATE. There has been a considerable amount of linguistic inflation since 1907. I recently ran across a prouder, purpler and more extreme panegyric from 2010. The novelist Nicole Krauss blurbed David Grossman’s novel TO THE END OF THE LAND thusly: “Very rarely, a few times in a lifetime, you open a book and when you close it again nothing can ever be the same. Walls have been pulled down, barriers broken, a dimension of feeling, of existence itself, has opened in you that was not there before. [To read this book] is to have yourself taken apart, undone, touched at the place of your own essence.”
Getting touched at the place of your essence sounds simultaneously titillating and scary, possibly inciting the desire to crawl through sixty miles of jungle and bite a whole caboodle of necks. In response to what Stephen King refers to as the “hyperbolic ecstasy” of the modern blurber, The Guardian newspaper launched a satirical competition inviting readers to blurb Dan Brown’s THE DA VINCI CODE, the winning entry to be chosen on the basis of its grandiloquence, pomposity, and extravagant affectation.
Exaggerated and untrustworthy as some dust-jacket testimonials might be, publishers and authors regard them as necessary to successful marketing and many readers are swayed, or at least intrigued, by blurbs. The recommendations and reviews of certain respected publications and well-known writers not only boost sales, they boost the author’s ego, as well. It’s human nature to lap up the elixir of literary appreciation, and who wants to second-guess the sincerity of someone who raves over one’s transcendent prose and gripping plot? But I confess that I feel queasy about approaching another writer to ask that he or she blurb one of my books. It’s considered bad taste to blow one’s own horn, but it feels a bit unseemly to ask another person to blow it for me by proxy. Most established writers are gracious and willing to help up-and-comers by writing a bylined blurb for placement on the cover of a new book. Others are overwhelmed by requests for their stamp of approval and must decline. A few sticklers refuse to blurb on ethical grounds.
Gary Shteyngart claims that he is a prolific blurber and will never admit to disliking a book because writing one is so hard. I can definitely agree with that. But the repeat blurber runs the risk of falling in love with a signature phrase. Blurbs by Frank McCourt can be recognized even without his byline. “So wondrous and wise you’ll want to claw yourself with pleasure,” he says of one book. Of another, “Open to any page…and you’ll claw yourself with pleasure.” And again, “In language that makes you want to claw yourself with pleasure, he powerfully evokes the stink of the present and the poignancy of the past.”
It’s surprising that more writers haven’t followed Dave Eggers’ self-satirizing example and turned the book title, itself, into a blurb, as he did in his (seriously good) memoir, A HEARTBREAKING WORK OF STAGGERING GENIUS. Of course, Eggers got quite a few additional blurbs. “An exhilarating debut” that “redefines both family and narrative for the twenty-first century.”
Alan Levinovitz (http://www.themillions.com/author/alan-levinovitz) has written a history of the blurb, declaring it a genre unto itself. I think obituaries are a related genre, a sort of extended life blurb, too late unfortunately for the deceased to enjoy. Miss Belinda Blurb has bequeathed to writers some even higher-octane spin-offs – the blap and the blover. The blap is that multi-page compilation of 90 H.P., 42-carat tributes that follows the cover, and the blover is a shiny inner cover so dense with praise for the magnum opus that you will want to claw yourself with pleasure.
I like to think that my Dinah Pelerin mysteries have some gush and go to them. But I hereby disclaim all responsibility for injuries sustained from clawing, collapsing walls, or damage to the place of one’s essence while engaged in the act of reading them.