‘Blurb.’ It is not a very compelling word; it does not seem to signify text of importance. Indeed, the word came into common usage back in 1907 when it was popularised by humourist Frank Gelett Burgess, who used it as a dig at commercialising publishers: ‘To blurb,’ he wrote, ‘is to make a sound like a publisher.’
Because the purpose of back-cover copy of a book is to hook a reader’s interest – to serve as a key marketing – many dismiss this element of the book as not worthy of interest; derisible, even. George Orwell, in his essay ‘In Defence of the Novel’, defined them as ‘disgusting tripe’. But he was writing in a different time, before the explosion of marketing and consumerism. Today, I suppose, he may have characterised blurbs as ‘necessary evils’. And yet, are they evils at all? Or are these kinds of book descriptions in fact essential – even enjoyable – snippets of writing?
First, take the point of view of the author. Every author I know agrees that writing a précis of his or her book – the synopsis and the blurb – is arduous indeed. I am reminded of Thomas Hood’s much repeated axiom: ‘Easy reading is hard writing.’ One could argue, in fact, that blurb-writing is an art form in itself.
Take the blurb for my new novel Masquerade, for example:
A young writer becomes entangled in an illicit gypsy love affair, pulling her into a world of secrets, deception and dark desire.
Summer, 1976. Luz de Rueda returns to her beloved Spain and takes a job as the biographer of a famous artist. On her first day back in Cádiz, she encounters a bewitching, passionate young gypsy, Leandro, who immediately captures her heart, even though relationships with his kind are taboo. Haunted by this forbidden love, she meets her new employer, the sophisticated Andrés de Calderón. Reserved yet darkly compelling, he is totally different to Leandro but almost the gypsy’s double. Both men stir unfamiliar and exciting feelings in Luz, although mystery and danger surround them in ways she has still to discover.
Luz must decide what she truly desires as glistening Cádiz, with its enigmatic moon and whispering turquoise shores, seeps back into her blood. Why is she so drawn to the wild and magical sea gypsies? What is behind the old fortune-teller’s sinister warnings about ‘Gemini’? Through this maze of secrets and lies, will Luz finally find her happiness… or her ruin?
Masquerade is a story of forbidden love, truth and trust. Are appearances always deceptive?
In fewer than 200 words, I convey:
- The setting and era: Cádiz, Spain; 1976.
- The identities of the main characters, Luz, Andrés and Leandro, and a little about them (young, writer, passionate, sophisticated, reserved…).
- The core story: Luz is torn between two different men and must navigate mysterious and treacherous waters to uncover an important truth.
- The central themes: Gemini, gypsies, fortune telling, mystery, danger, freedom and disinhibition versus toeing the line.
- The romantic writing style, as in words like entangled, illicit, dark desire, bewitching, captures, forbidden love, compelling, enigmatic, whispering…
In sum, this short piece of writing gives a reader a good feel for the essence of the book. Not tripe at all, I would argue, but of crucial importance, and valued by readers who based their book choice on this little glimpse into the story.
Of course, in my own blurbs I make an effort to very honestly reflect the contents of the book, and I shy away from what David Foster Wallace called ‘blurbspeak’, ‘a very special subdialect of English that’s partly hyperbole, but it’s also phrases that sound really good and are very compelling in an advertorial sense, but if you think about them, they’re literally meaningless’. (For a fascinating look at how Wallace contributed to blurbs through his career, head to https://lareviewofbooks.org/essay/david-foster-wallace-and-blurbspeak.)
I am fortune to have a publisher who welcomes my input into areas of the book that are traditionally the publisher’s domain: cover and marketing copy. Many authors have little or no say. (This article makes for insightful, and quite painful reading, about some authors’ journeys with front and back cover art and text: http://www.theawl.com/2011/04/six-writers-tell-all-about-covers-and-blurbs.) I am delighted to be able to help shape my blurbs, because I think they are so powerful.
Take, for example, this blurb for Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights:
Wuthering Heights is a wild, passionate story of the intense and almost demonic love between Catherine Earnshaw and Heathcliff, a foundling adopted by Catherine’s father. After Mr Earnshaw’s death, Heathcliff is bullied and humiliated by Catherine’s brother Hindley and wrongly believing that his love for Catherine is not reciprocated, leaves Wuthering Heights, only to return years later as a wealthy and polished man. He proceeds to exact a terrible revenge for his former miseries.
The action of the story is chaotic and unremittingly violent, but the accomplished handling of a complex structure, the evocative descriptions of the lonely moorland setting and the poetic grandeur of vision combine to make this unique novel a masterpiece of English literature.[Wordsworth Editions, 1992]
Now have a look at this blurb, from a different publisher:
Wuthering Heights is a story of the dark and tumultuous love affair between Catherine Earnshaw and Heathcliff…Heathcliff, a young orphan, is adopted by Catherine Earnshaw’s father. Treated unkindly by her brother, Hindley, Heathcliff is at first protected by the elderly Mr Earnshaw. When the elder Earnshaw passes away, Heathcliff is hurt and betrayed by both brother and sister, and leaves…until the day he returns to exact his revenge. Emily Bronte’s demonic and brooding creation, Heathcliff, and the love-affair between him and Catherine, has fascinated and entranced readers for generations. It is a classic of gothic literature. [Simon & Schuster, 2014]
The similarities are interesting; and so are the differences. I find the phrase ‘The action of the story is chaotic and unremittingly violent’ quite off-putting in the first blurb, while ‘the love-affair between him and Catherine, has fascinated and entranced readers for generations’ engages me in the second. Do you react differently to these blurbs? Do you find blurbs persuasive in your choice to read a book? I would love to hear your thoughts.
Imagine a world in which books matter a great deal, but authors – their creators – do not. Imagine a world in which the author of the Next Best Thing is unknown; the words alone are what influence and inspire and transform.
In our modern era of celebrity culture, such a concept seems remote; crazy, even. We live in a people-centric world. And yet, one author is standing apart from the crowd.
I can’t tell you the author’s name; I do not know it. No one does.
I can’t tell you where the author lives, what her professional background is, what her inspirations for writing are. I do not know this about her. No one does.
All we readers have to go on is a pen name: Elena Ferrante.
Have you heard of Elena? Perhaps. More likely you have heard of her books, because this author tries to ensure that all of the focus is on the writing, not the writer. Her books are as follows:
- The Neapolitan novels: My Brilliant Friend,The Story of a New Name, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay and The Story of the Lost Child
- Troubling Love
- The Days of Abandonment
- The Lost Daughter
- The Beach at Night
These books, published in Italian from 1992 and subsequently translated and published worldwide, are widespread bestsellers that are critically acclaimed. According to the Paris Review, ‘It is now common to hear Ferrante called the most important Italian writer of her generation.’
And yet, the writer behind the Ferrante pen name wants none of the glory of such accolades. In a letter to her Italian publisher before her debut novel was published, she declared:
I believe that books, once they are written, have no need of their authors. If they have something to say, they will sooner or later find readers; if not, they won’t. … I do not intend to do anything … that might involve the public engagement of me personally. I’ve already done enough for this long story: I wrote it. If the book is worth anything, that should be sufficient.
In the letter, she wrote of ‘those mysterious volumes, both ancient and modern, that have no definite author but have had and continue to have an intense life of their own’. She closes her letter by suggesting that while her demand for complete privacy may be unconventional and difficult for her publisher, she will at least be ‘the least expensive author of the publishing house’.
I find Elena Ferrante’s approach fascinating, as do many authors, I think. On the one hand, all authors crave peace and quiet in which to write, and to put our ‘art’ first and foremost. Many authors have spoken out about their discomfort at being in the public eye. Veronica Roth, for example, author of the wildly popular Divergent series, wrote a blog post after the first book was published admitting she was struggling greatly with anxiety now that her work was under inspection. ‘Writing used to feel safe,’ she wrote, ‘because it was so private.’
But the desire for anonymity is not whole-hearted for the majority of authors, or even realistic. Take the issue of promotion. Ferrante is not ‘the least expensive author of the publishing house’. The publisher must promote her books in order to sell them; they simply have to do this without her assistance. And, in fact, her decision to be so private has become her marketing hook: her books are not authorless at all, they are written by ‘that lady whose identity is so famously unknown’.
Putting aside the business of publishing, however, I see another, more compelling reason for the visibility of the author. It comes down to authenticity. Take Veronica Roth once more as an example. When you know something of the author – that anxiety has been an issue for her – the narrative of the Divergent series has more depth, more meaning: it is all about conquering fear.
In my own writing, I am present. I am not my heroines; their stories are not my own. But I have lived in and travelled to the locations in which my novels are set, and I know that my own sense of places comes forth strongly in the novels. Would you enjoy my books so much if you knew nothing of me? Or does knowing a little about how and why I wrote each book help you connect better to the story and the characters and the meaning? Is knowing that I write my romance novels sitting on a terrace overlooking the Mediterranean ocean meaningful? I think it is: meaningful, important, genuine.
When we like a book, we are interested in the writer. And I think, most of all, we respect that writer, not only for the writer’s ingenuity and creativity and talent and intellect, but for their courage in allowing themselves to be vulnerable. Writing, as Roth said, is safe. Sharing that writing publicly, standing behind that writing and being known as the author, is not so safe; it forces vulnerability. But as Jan Denise has put it, ‘There is something about vulnerability that helps us to connect with people.’ And all writing that is shared, not burned on the fire, is designed to connect the creator’s vision to others. As John Donne wrote:
No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
This week, a review in the Telegraph caught my eye. It was of The Meaning of the Library: A Cultural History edited by Alice Crawford.
At once, the subject intrigued me – for what writer and bibliophile isn’t also a firm believer in the vision of Jorge Luis Borges: ‘I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library’? The book looks to be a fascinated exploration of the history of the library, but what stood out most to me in the review was the nod to the Alexandrian Library: perhaps the most famous library of all time, and one that has profoundly shaped the writer and reader I am today.
Growing up in my family, books were of the utmost importance. They were a source of comfort, of escapism, of education; a common language through which my large family communicated. Books were in our blood: my father published a history of my family; my grandmother, a famous Egyptian feminist, published poetry. My house was part home, part library. We could never have enough books. When the political situation became difficult in Egypt and families were forced to emigrate, my father would come home with boxes full of abandoned books: like lost children, we took them under our wing.
Books mattered to us, and so too did our heritage: our roots in the country. For those who live in ancient, historic cities like Alexandria, the past is never far away. Thus I grew up in a city that will ever be a beating heart for those who treasure books: the site of one the most significant libraries in the history of humanity.
The Ancient Library of Alexandria was founded by Ptolemy I Soter (c.367–c.283 BC), successor of Alexander the Great, to collect all the world’s knowledge (yes, all!). As Edith Hall argues inThe Meaning of the Library, it ‘was designed to preserve intact the memory of humankind’.
The library comprised a reading room, a dining room, meeting rooms, lecture halls, gardens and, of course, halls containing scroll after scroll after scroll (the books of the day). The exact number of books held at the library by the end of its days is unknown, but is estimated by historians to be as many as 400,000. These scrolls were laboriously copied by scribes from originals, in the relentless drive to fill the library with every single book in existence.
The library created the model by which all modern universities were built: indeed, it was more than an archive, a place to catalogue and safeguard all writing; it was a place of learning for scholars. As part of the wider ‘Musaeum of Alexandria’, the mothers and fathers of all scholarly disciplines trod the halls of the library, from Euclid and Archimedes to Herophilus and Erasistratus. Many scholars lived at the library with their families.
Over time, the Library of Alexandria became a vast, influential library that pharaohs were proud of show off. Then came the Roman conquest of Egypt. So goes the story, when Julius Caesar was besieged at Alexandria in 48 BC, he set his own ships on fire, and the flames spread to the library and destroyed it. Whether the fire completely or only partially destroyed the library is a fact lost in the annals of history. Certainly, though, the damage was extensive enough to create the long-lasting symbolism of fire at the library as the ultimate destruction of knowledge and culture.
Above the shelves in the library which bore the scrolls was inscribed: The place of the cure of the soul. When such a place is destroyed, then, there is doubtlessly an impact on the soul. And that impact echoes to this day.
In 2002, a vast new library was built in Alexandria near the site of the ancient one, to be a centre of cultural excellence. It does not attempt to collect every work every published, but it does hold so many works that it is already one of the largest libraries in the world, with shelf space for eight million books donated from collections around the world. Its design is quite beautiful, made of Aswan granite and inscribed with characters from 120 different human scripts.
When I return to Alexandria to visit family, I go to the library. I sit by the Mediterranean and gaze up at the modern edifice, and I think about what was once there. Sitting in that place, I feel so proud and inspired, and I understand why it is that I love books – why books are so important to me and my family; why I never go anywhere without a book in my handbag; why from such an early age my dream was to be an author and create these magical, transformational, wonderful items that are so treasured. The Ancient Library of Alexandria: gone, but never forgotten.
How thorough is your reading scope? Have you read all of the novels commonly held as being important, classic works of literature? Have you ticked off the list Great Expectations and Madame Bovary and Pride and Prejudice and Les Misèrables and The Great Gatsby and Nineteen Eighty-Four and The Hobbit and The Grapes of Wrath and The Odyssey and Ulysses and The Catcher in the Rye and Crime and Punishment?
I very much expect the answer is a resounding ‘No’. Unless you are an English professor or particularly interested in literary fiction, you have likely read some classics but there are sizeable gaps in your reading.
How does confessing to the gaps make you feel? Are you quite happy to say you have read no more than three, five, ten, twenty classic novels – or do you feel a little uncomfortable being questioned on the subject? If an English professor grilled you on your reading list, would you feel somehow that you should have read more classic works? Or, indeed, would you feel annoyed by the professor suggesting (in a superior, snobbish tone) that you really ought to have made it through Moby Dick and War and Peace?
Writers Sarah Galo and Elon Green set out to uncover the reasons behind works remaining unread in their recent Hazlitt article ‘From Steinbeck to Cervantes: Confessing Our Literary Gaps’. They were inspired to delve into the reading histories of a host of writers after influential American journalist, author and Atlantic editor Ta-Nehisi Coates revealed he had not read To Kill a Mocking Bird. This shocked his interviewer at Slate magazine, given that Coates’ recent book, Between the World and Me, is a passionate look at the exploitation and terrorisation of black Americans in American history. But Coates responded: ‘Why is that?… I am always surprised people are surprised that people haven’t read things.’ He reads what interests him to read: nothing else.
That is a strong and courageous stance for a figure in the public eye. But I wonder: why is the courage required? Why is it difficult for an intelligent, cultured reader to admit to gaps in their reading? It seems to me that not enough credence is given to the reasons for not reading classics. In the Hazlitt article, various reasons for literary gaps come forth:
Style: The authors of the article admit to avoiding Jane Austen for her ‘dryness of language’. Some of the classic works are hard reading compared to today’s style of writing: long books, long paragraphs, long sentences, complex syntax, complex vocabulary.
Aversion to aspects of the content: Galo and Green cite ‘fundamentalist Christianity’ as a reason for avoiding Harry Potter (it is of little surprise that a response to the article argues with this). Similarly, there are those readers who will always avoid Lolita for its depiction of a man’s romantic love for a twelve-year-old girl.
Education: Schooling plays a crucial role in introducing students to classic literature. Which works are taught – and how well they are taught – hugely affects engagement. I was lucky enough to be taught French literature by nuns who were very passionate about the books, which no doubt put me on the course to my French literature degree.
Discomfort/laziness: Green admits that ‘with each passing year [he is] simply less inclined to step out of his comfort zone’. The older we get, the more we know what we like, and we tend to repeat rather than push ourselves into new experiences. How much easier it is to buy a book from a tried-and-tested genre than to take a chance on something brand-new.
Mood: Author Renata Adler spoke of struggling to get through One Hundred Years of Solitude, so much so that she kept giving up on it – until one day she was ‘just in the mood’. I have always believed that the right books ‘find’ you at the right time; and then they have real power to move and challenge you.
Reluctance to be a sheep: Consider for a moment the Harry Potter phenomenon. When all the media are shouting about this new book series, does that make you want to rush out and grab a copy? Perhaps. Or it may make you feel the opposite; you may be averse to hype and prefer quieter reads.
Put off by others’ criticism: If your partner or best friend has read a book and condemned it, how likely are you to put time into reading it? What if they’ve given away the ending? Author Lesléa Newman said of The Well of Loneliness: ‘I know it’s a classic, but I hear it doesn’t end well and I just can’t bring myself to read it.’
Just not ‘getting it’: This is how Renata Adler described her inability to read Don Quixote. Nobody can feel an affinity with each and every book.
Sensitivity: Have you ever felt haunted or scarred by a book? The classics are so-termed because they are big, important, powerful works incorporating difficult subject matter. ‘Heavy reads’ is another way to describe them. But reading is a pleasurable pursuit and so, understandably, a resistance develops to reading something that is difficult, challenging – even, perhaps, depressing.
Feeling overwhelmed: The list of classics is very long (and very much in dispute). Where does one start?
There are plenty of compelling, reasonable explanations for literary gaps. And yet, those who think and dream and wish to be moved by writing and challenged by it will still seek to fill the gaps. The most sensible of them do so one carefully chosen book at a time.
I have challenged myself to read one new classic work each year. I read without pressure and with a great deal of consideration. I have found that it is a refreshing change to slow right down; it makes for very relaxing and rewarding reading. I am of a similar mind to CS Lewis, who said: ‘You can never get a cup of tea large enough or a book long enough to suit me.’
Will you read a classic book in the next year? Which one will you pick? I would love to hear about it.
It is a perfect example of the power of the internet: a self-publishing author has hit the headlines for her petition on Change.org for Amazon to change its review policy. Posted just two weeks ago, the petition has now been signed by more than 13,000 authors.
Here is the issue: once upon a time, anyone could post a review of a book on Amazon. Then came sock-puppetry, and Amazon introduced the rule that close friends and family of the author may not post reviews of their book. Fair enough. But what Amazon has failed to do is create a system that allows it to differentiate those close friends and family from the many other people who may want to post a review. The result is that lots of reviews by people not in the author’s immediate circle are being unfairly blocked or deleted on the grounds of abuse.
The author Jas Ward was moved to start the petition when one of her readers was unable to post an honest review of her book on the site. The reason: the reader had interacted with Ward online.
The Guardian, reporting on this story, explained:
If you interact with an author in any way online, beware: Amazon might decide that you’re “friends” and ban you from leaving a review of their latest book.
But Amazon refuses to explain how it determines relationships between readers and authors; its evidently flawed algorithm is a secret.
Jas Ward argues in her petition:
In the world where both Indie and Traditional authors are using all tools available to try to get their latest books out to the reader, it’s essential for the authors and their associates to use social media: IE: Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, etc.
With that being said, a reader is therefore going to have cookies and data when they see that interaction and very likely would have LIKED and/or followed the authors pages, profiles and other avenues being a fan of the author’s work. They are fans after all–they want to know what an author does and their current news and title releases.
Your current process of removing reviews that a reader has created to show their honest & sincere opinion on a book is not fair and cripples the review process more than assists.
What do you think of this issue? To my mind, Amazon is indeed the ‘Big Brother’ it is accused of being, and is censoring. It’s blocking all kinds of reviews in the effort to block a few, and thereby damaging authors’ careers and frustrating readers. In addition, these current two facts are entirely contradictory of the current Amazon policy:
- Someone who has no affiliation to you and has never read your book is free to post a review. That may mean an intentionally harmful, dishonest review. As Ward says in her petition:
In the days of the negative trend where those who wish an author harm are using reviews to hurt sales or the author’s confidence, this policy makes zero sense, as the individuals that are instructed or wish to harm are most likely NOT a fan and or follower and therefore would most likely NOT to have as many cookies, data tracks as a good, loyal fan would.
Ergo: those fraudulent reviews get through Amazon’s policy.
- Goodreads – which is an Amazon company – allows anyone to post any review/rating on any book. Again, that policy opens the door for those who aren’t playing fair or nicely to attempt to knock down a competitor.
Clearly, 13,000 authors (and counting) aren’t happy with Amazon on this issue. And neither are many happy about Amazon’s control of the book market. Author protest group Authors United is calling for signatures on a letter to the US Justice Department, declaring that:
In recent years, Amazon has used its dominance in ways that we believe harm the interests of America’s readers, impoverish the book industry as a whole, damage the careers of (and generate fear among) many authors, and impede the free flow of ideas in our society.
Amazon is a giant. In the US, it takes more than 75 per cent of online sales of physical books, more than 65 per cent of e-book sales, more than 40 per cent of sales of new books and about 85 per cent of e-book sales from self-published authors. Going up against such a giant seems to be a David and Goliath battle. But not if there is a whole army of Davids…
If you’d like to sign the petition to change the Amazon policy, you can find it at https://www.change.org/p/amazon-com-amazon-change-the-you-know-this-author-policy