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From the archives

The (Other) October Crisis

A new book revisits one of Canada’s most traumatic and telling moments

Model Behaviour

A Haida village as seen in a windy city

Liberal Interpretations

Making sense of Justin Trudeau and his party

The Logroller’s Waltz

“Trenchant!” “Transcendent!” A “riveting exploration” of the book-blurbing economy.

John Semley
In the summer of 2010 advance reading copies of the English translation of the Israeli author David Grossman’s acclaimed novel To the End of the Land began making the proverbial rounds. The publisher was hoping to secure pre-release blurbs—those words of lavish, unrestrained praise meant to suggest that, yes, this is a book worth buying. In this case, the de rigueur gushiness bubbled into sticky self-parody, thanks to a particularly effusive appraisal from the novelist Nicole Krauss:

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 the End of the Land is a book of this magnitude. David Grossman may be the most gifted writer I’ve ever read; gifted not just because of his imagination, his energy, his originality, but because he has access to the unutterable, because he can look inside a person and discover the unique essence of her humanity.

Hyperbole begat further hyperbole. The CBC called the evaluation “a book blurb for the ages.” The now-defunct gossip website Gawker was harsher, calling it “the most obsequious blurb to ever grace a book cover.” The Guardian held a contest encouraging readers to “outblurb” Krauss by offering their own appraisals of Dan Brown’s airport-fiction classic The Da Vinci Code. One particularly hilarious response: “By reading this book I was once again bathed in the warm [sic] of my mother’s effluvium and slid from the unforgiving crimson womb into a beautiful blue fluorescent world, and then slapped, shaken, and suckled to life by the teat of Brown’s literary genius.”

The Krauss blurb attracted attention rivalling that afforded to Grossman’s novel. And that was likely the point. There was a sense Krauss was leveraging the blurb to burnish her own reputation—as if the act of blurbing were itself a kind of writing assignment, designed to establish the overflowing generosity and ebullience of the reviewer. “It’s hard to take seriously,” observed Brian Bethune, a senior writer and books columnist at Maclean’s magazine. “That blurb sounds like it should be completed by the statement ‘and I have retired from writing.’”

Blurbing is a long-established form of “logrolling,” as Bethune puts it, the sometimes-sycophantic process by which different individuals promote one another’s efforts. It can be a matter of old-fashioned Canadian politeness (i.e., you do not want to annoy an author you may be plopped beside at a forthcoming literary gala) as much as shrewd careerism—both good politics and smart business, in other words. “It’s so small in Canada,” says Bethune. “One year you’re on the jury for the Governor General’s Award and your friend is up for the prize. And two years later it’s your book that’s nominated and that same friend is on the jury.”

The history of the lit-blurb is as marked by incipient enthusiasm as it is by skepticism at the sometimes out-and-out sycophancy. For George Orwell, the mutual admiration society of blurbers had a net negative effect on literary culture as a whole. In his 1936 essay “In Defence of the Novel,” Orwell maintained that “the novel is being shouted out of existence” in part because of “the disgusting tripe that is written by the blurb-reviewers.” He went on, mocking the hyperbole that has long been endemic among such blurbers: “Novels are being shot at you at the rate of fifteen a day, and every one of them an unforgettable masterpiece which you imperil your soul by missing. It must make it so difficult to choose a book at the library, and you must feel so guilty when you fail to shriek with delight … When all novels are thrust upon you as words of genius, it is quite natural to assume that all of them are tripe.”

Orwell recognized such enthusiasms as a kind of devalued currency, falsely inflating the perceived value of books and feeding a ballooning economy of the blurb. One may have expected a blurb-onomic slump after Dave Eggers’s A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius: the blurb-as-book-title, collapsing marketing and writing into some sly amalgam. But still, some 80 years after Orwell decried the whole enterprise, the bubble has yet to burst. Yet if every book is masterpiece, if any sufficiently blurbed debut can blast open those new dimensions of feelings raved about by Krauss, how can the average reader be expected to keep abreast of them all?

In the Canadian publishing ecosystem—or microcosm—such lavish blurbs pop up less regularly. Mark Medley, books editor of The Globe and Mail, recalls cases of prospective critics who hoped that writing and reviewing would catch the attention of publishers, and perhaps lead to a fruitful career as an author. But he does not notice much in the way of Krauss-level gushing. And when he does happen across such pointed, declarative enthusiasms, he tends to stand by them. “If someone’s going to call something ‘the best book of the year,’ who am I?” says Medley. “I’ve assigned them the book for a reason. I trust them. I’m not going to tamp down their enthusiasm.”

Orwell recognized such enthusiasms as a kind of devalued currency, falsely inflating the perceived value of books and feeding a ballooning economy of the blurb.

Occasionally a reader of books sections can happen across laudatory phrases tucked into a review that hew so closely to the rhythm of a blurb that it may be tempting to think they were planted there for later plucking for the book’s paperback edition. But this is likely sheer accident (or conspiratorial thinking on the part of said reader) rather than premeditation, in the view of Emily Keeler, a former books editor at the National Post, who now edits the Exploded Views imprint at Coach House Books. “I think most reviewers I worked with would pride themselves a bit on being too hard to cut down to a blurb,” says Keeler. “The few people I edited with phrases like that, I don’t know that they were aiming to be blurbed so much as they were getting trapped on the laziest path to writing a review.”

As a book columnist, I am inclined to agree with Keeler’s sentiment. I take a certain obstinate pride in being un-blurbable. Still, they manage. One of only two blurbs I have had published was extracted from a review of Anton Corbijn’s espionage thriller film A Most Wanted Man. (It contained two subclauses and an em-dash.) It is commonplace for publishers to generously—and whimsically—cull blurbs from reviews, cherry-picking key lines and phrases. “Someone may write, ‘This is a tremendous new book on the subject, if it was handled smartly.’ They’ll just ditch that last part,” says Bethune. Mark Medley at the Globe sees a similar trend. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve published a negative review of a book and see it hacked up—a word here, a word there—and see it slapped on the paperback, as if it came from a rave review.” (In a recent piece for The Walrus, writer Jason Guriel explained how his recent pan of a new Anne Carson book was spun into publicity, thanks to the handiwork of “some collagist” at publisher Random House.)

Then there is the thorny matter of pre-release blurbs. The late conservative pundit William F. Buckley once claimed that he was provided with templates for such coverage, although such chicanery is more difficult to account for these days. (If it were common, one would it expect that such malfeasant laziness would be expediently exposed online.) Today, it is more common for big-name novelists such as Lee Child or Stephen King to simply lend their names as a nod of approval to up-and-coming authors. In a 2008 edition of his old Entertainment Weekly column, King lamented the “hyperbolic ecstasies” of blurbing while simultaneously expressing the belief that such pithy enthusiasms prove more effective at marshalling potential audiences than, say, a long-form book review. King claimed he blurbed in order to repay a karmic debt, as his early books such as Carrie, Salem’s Lot and The Shining “were published before the art of blurbing had been perfected.” (Perhaps King should bone up on his Orwell?)

“Blurbs are like dog whistles for people in the know,” says Medley. “If you’re a debut writer and you have Stephen King and James Patterson blurbs, you’re announcing that you’re a commercial writer, and maybe they’ll turn your book into a movie.” In this sense, blurbs are—to use the parlance of online streaming services like Netflix and Spotify—the original recommendation algorithm. If you like Stephen King, you may like Nick Cutter, a.k.a. Craig Davidson, an author hailed by the Globe as “Canada’s new king of horror fiction.”

There is also a case to be made for writers who blurb to draw attention to important issues. Take one of Canada’s most prolific blurbers, the celebrated part-Métis novelist Joseph Boyden, whose words of praise have won attention for up-and-coming indigenous writers. “You don’t want to damn him,” says Maclean’s Bethune. “Because he has a cause. And it’s a high-level cause. He’s trying to drive awareness to Native issues.”

But, for most authors perusing advance review copies and offering pre-release buzz, the process can feel tiresome. “No one likes blurbs. No. One,” says Sarah Weinman, author, journalist and editor of the Library of America’s new two-volume set, Women Crime Writers: Four Suspense Novels of the 1940s and Women Crime Writers: Four Suspense Novels of the 1950s. “It’s anxiety provoking and time consuming and everyone is aware that the blurber and blurbee are probably connected via an editor, an agent, an MFA program or are friends, or some other combination.”

The exception to Weinman’s rule may be books section editors and booksellers. For editors, blurbs from writers who may not be household names help to distinguish titles amid the flow of hundreds of books that come in on a weekly basis. Likewise, for booksellers, these recommendations help give a sense of a title’s prospective audience, and how it may fare in the market.

As for readers, many have gone from looking at book jackets to the hobbyists online offering their own hyperbolic ecstasies on Amazon or Goodreads. Forget the hoary old book reviewers, with their exacting tastes and seven-dollar words! These reviews come gratis, courtesy of other consumers of literature. Consider Amazon’s top-ranked reviewer “iiiireader,” who has weighed in on some 4,680 Amazon titles, from mystery novels to Star Wars adult colouring books to a DVD of a Hallmark Channel movie called Murder, She Baked: A Chocolate Chip Murder Mystery (“As I have not read the books in the series, I cannot say whether or not the movie stays true to the book,” iiiireader notes in her review). On her blog iiiireader clarifies that she is not being paid by Amazon or affiliates for her impressive body of free work. “I am not receiving any form of compensation,” she writes. “I enjoy the hobby and want to help others make informed purchase decisions.”

Existing outside the culture of professional logrolling and favour swapping—also endemic on social media websites like Twitter, where critics and reviewers fawn over one another in a nauseating game of sycophantic one-upmanship—user reviews offer a revision of the recommendation algorithm analogy. Instead of, “You may like this if you like that,” user reviews offer a more intimate formulation: “You may like this if you are like me.” Such blurbs make those ecstasies and enthusiasms less professional and more immediate, even personal. They encourage readers to connect on the level of shared taste, stopping just short of the opportunity to look inside a person and perhaps even discover the unique essence of his or her humanity.

John Semley lives and works in Toronto. He is the author of a book of criticism, Hater: The Virtues of Utter Disagreeability, coming this fall from Penguin.