Here’s what I don’t like: book blurbs. Actually, book marketing language on the whole frustrates me often.
Someone in the comments of a recent post mentioned that they never wanted to hear the words “tour de force” again describe a book. I see your tour de force, commenter, and I raise you a riveting, a gripping, an astounding, and a poignant. You can only use words so many times before they come marketing cliches, meaningless and empty and soulless–you might as well slap Patrick Bateman with his off-white (sorry, eggshell? bone?) business cards and his dead killer’s eyes on the back of your book instead, as far as I’m concerned. As far as those tired phrases move me.
Most blurbs I find to be worth less than the cost of the ink that they’re printed with. “Magnificent!” “The best book I’ve come across in a long time!” “Magic!” “Evocative!” “Hilarious!” These words would mean a lot more to me if I didn’t already know that these blurbs were favors curried author to author–and that, next month, or next year, these writers writing blurbs would receive gushing blurbs for their own books from that same author that they blurbed before. (Also, I’m going to get hella sick of the word “blurb” here in short order.) A blurb means nothing to me–it’s the literary equivalent of fishing for compliments.
If one has to ask for a blurb, we all know the result is a pretty lie; even if the blurber enjoyed the book, even if they mean every word they said, it’s still dressed in a lie, couched in glittery marketing language designed not to portray an honest opinion but to entice, to seduce. Blurbs are the pick-up lines of the literary world; blurbs are the high heels and the stockings and the fire-engine lipstick, the perfectly gelled hair and the fancy cologne. Sometimes, you take them home, and sometimes you gravely reconsider your choices in the light of day. (You’ve been there, right? Right? Oh, please tell me I’m not the only person who’s had morning-after horror.) Picking up a book based on a cheezy line leads to a lot more remorse than I have time to feel, considering the teetering, high-rising nature of my TBR pile.
Every now and then, you get a blurb that makes you sit up and pay attention. Personalities that hand out praise sparingly never fail to persuade me to read a book, provided I’ve actually caught the blurb before I’ve started reading it; more often than not, I’m halfway through a book before I even bother to glance at the back cover. In the case of a book I read recently, Blood, Bones & Butter by Gabrielle Hamilton, I didn’t see the blurbs until after I’d fully completed the book–a shame, really, because those blurbs would have been persuasive, coming from Anthony Bourdain and Mario Batali. They gave it high, honest praise–but I found the book on my own, intrigued not by the hype surrounding it but by the book itself. I didn’t need the blurb.
Another thing that irritates me is reading the copy that’s supposed to tell you what the hell the book is about and not being able to make sense of it. Some people might say that what the book is about isn’t as important as how it’s written; I tend to politely disagree, as I judge whether or not I will jibe with an author by what the book is supposed to be about. If someone wrote about about a man who was, I dunno, very similar to Glenn Beck, and the guy turned out to be the awesomest awesome superhero and the best person forever and saves the day and the universe, there’s a decent chance that I’m not going to enjoy reading this book because I’m going to be too busy grinding my teeth and wishing that the protagonist falls down a hole and dies. I’m also probably not going to mesh with the author at all as far as worldview, morals, ethics, or even aesthetics, and those things do affect whether I will enjoy a book, regardless of how well it’s written. So, when I come across copy that reads like this:
Book takes the reader on a wild journey through the perils of the post-modern world as juxtaposed with the thrills of being and nothingness in the urban jungle, making us question exactly where we’re going, and where we’ve been, against the backdrop of war and violence and also Skittles. Can you taste the rainbow?
I click away as fast as I can, because I just read this:
Some not-very-well-defined characters follow an ill-advised, murky plot looking for some vague answers to the meaning of life, and also, overuse of candy and rainbow symbolism.
I know that book publishers have their own special secret codes that allow them to navigate the enthusiastic seas of book marketing, but publishers, did you know that we have translated your codes into our own codes? Examples:
- “hilarious” = “trying too hard to be funny”
- “witty” = “funny only to pretentious people who think they’re smarter than they really are”, or “everyone says this is funny but the stick shoved up my ass prevents me from laughing very much”
- “complex”, “genius”, “multi-layered” = “unreadable and/or dense”
- “I was obsessed” = “This is a popular author and I want to seem popular too”
- “sprawling”, “on a grand scale”, “magnum opus” = “really fucking long”
- “beautiful”, “gorgeous” = “uses too many adjectives” and/or “I think the author is hot”
- “well-researched” = “boring because there’s no story”
You know what I, as a reader, would like the best? If the author wrote the book summary. Then I could find out two things simultaneously: what the author thinks the book is about, and also, if the author can succinctly communicate an idea. If the author passes these two tests, I will read the book, no question. Words like “dazzling” and “brilliant” and “breathtaking” just make me suspicious.
Because I believe in doing good work for the community, I’m going to offer my services to you for free, publishers. If you send me books, I will blurb them. Good blurbs, too. People would totally believe my blurbs because I will always be honest about the work. “This book was so terrible that I wanted to wipe my ass with it and set it on fire.” “I loved this book so much that I forced my husband to read it. He didn’t want to, but I restrained him and read it out loud to him.” “I laughed so hard I actually peed myself a little bit. Luckily, I was already on the toilet.” Your book sales will skyrocket if you use my blurbs.
All I ask is that you put my link on your books because, you know, nothing’s ever really free. Oh, and I would like for you to put “most awesome and attractive book blogger in the history of forever” after my name, too, so people know who I am. And you’re not allowed to change it at the last second to “crazy girl” or “mild alcoholic” or “sad, delusional person who came into our offices and cried for three hours and begged us to let her do a blurb, and how could we possibly say no? It was the only way she would unchain herself and go away”. I’m onto you, publishers.
Self-published authors, you can have me blurb your books, too. But for individuals, I don’t work cheap–I require at least minimum wage (that’s in ‘merican currency) and you have to listen to all of my suggestions about how your book could be better, even if I’m drunk when I write them. Even if I lie and say I was drinking fancy cocktails with friends and lost track of how many I drank, but really I was drinking cheap whiskey out of the bottle while lying in my bathtub, surrounded by cats. Those are the terms.
Ahem, but I digress.
What do you look for when you buy books? Do you read the blurbs at all, and do they have any sway in your decision? Are there any blurby words you think we should retire, because if you read them again you might lose your mind? Give me your blurb rage in the comments!