A History of the Book Blurb, Every Author’s Best Friend

From a San Francisco Chronicle story by Barbara Lane headlined “A history of the book blurb, every author’s best friend”:

Blurb is such a wonderful word.

It conjures up exactly what it is: a belch of praise for a book, generally found on the dust jacket, to lure the reader to purchase it. I must admit to reading blurbs when deciding whether to buy a book, but I am swayed only by plaudits from publications I trust or authors I greatly admire.

A blurb from trade journal Kirkus Reviews for example, for which publishers pay and is often a rehash of the book’s plot, doesn’t work for me. Or one from writer Gary Shteyngart, who was formerly known, as Salon magazine put it, as a “blurb-addict.” In a 2014 open letter published in the New Yorker, he revealed that “the volume of requests has exceeded my abilities, and I will be throwing my ‘blurbing pen’ into the Hudson River.”

According to Merriam-Webster, the term “blurb” was coined in 1907 at an annual dinner of the American Booksellers Association by American humorist Gelett Burgess, one of the honored guests.

“It was a custom at these dinners for the guest authors to present to the assembled company souvenir copies of their latest books. Burgess prepared a mock jacket of his latest book featuring a doctored picture of a woman that he had lifted from a dental advertisement.

“The woman was dubbed ‘Miss Belinda Blurb,’ and she was shown in the picture as calling out a ‘blurb,’ indicated by the caption ‘Miss Belinda Blurb in the act of blurbing.’ Self-congratulatory text also adorned the jacket.”

But the practice might be older still. The New York Times reports that on reading the first edition of “Leaves of Grass” in  1855, Ralph Waldo Emerson, already widely esteemed, mailed the relatively unknown Walt Whitman a glowing note. The next year, one line of that letter – “I greet you at the beginning of a great career” — was printed on the spine of the book’s second edition.

Speaking of impressive blurbs, among the blurbers on the back of Samantha Power’s 2019 memoir, “The Education of an Idealist,” are Barack Obama, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Bryan Stevenson and Madeleine Albright. Not too shabby.

Oddly, some of the best-known reclusive writers, among them Thomas Pynchon and J.M. Coetzee, don’t hesitate to blurb.  Other famous authors often blurb their former students’ work, notably Joyce Carol Oates on Jonathan Safran Foer and Chinua Achebe on Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

Some of the most commonly used blurb phrases:

Laugh-out-loud funny (Really? In my long reading career, very few books have achieved this.)

Like x crossed with y (Don’t use this if the book being reviewed isn’t as good as either of the books mentioned.)

A page-turner (Literally applies to every book.)

A literary tour de force (Does using French words make you sound smarter?)

A roller-coaster ride (Meaning nauseating?)

In one of my favorite over-the-top blurbs ever, Frank McCourt once compared Mitch Albom’s “The Five People You Meet in Heaven” to “The Odyssey.”

I shudder to admit I’ve used some of these shopworn expressions in my reviews of books. After all, there are just so many words available. But it’s different when you have the room to expand upon your statements and provide backup evidence.

One of my favorite book titles, which sounds like a blurb and undoubtedly was meant ironically, is Dave Eggers’ memoir (with fictional elements), “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius.”

Are there any good blurbs?  I loved New York Times critic Dwight Garner’s blurb about Irish author Sally Rooney’s fiction: “In my experience when people who’ve read her meet they tend to peel off into corners to talk.”  And Harper’s blurb gracing Orhan Pamuk’s novel “Snow”:  “From the Golden Horn, with a wicked grin, the political novel makes a triumphant return.”

Here’s the blurb I want for my own novel (which has been sitting on the shelf for years due to my procrastination over the serious edit it needs):  “Undeniably worth the wait. Clearly a mature writer who delayed publication until every word was perfect.”

Barbara Lane can’t remember a time when she didn’t have her nose in a book. Her column appears every other Tuesday in Datebook.

Speak Your Mind

*