Blurbs: the good, the bad and the truly weird


 



There is a new book out called Blurb Your Enthusiasm, by Louise Willder, who writes blurbs for a living. It is a very entertaining book, looking at all aspects of this skill, full of examples – the good  the bad and the hilarious. She also explains that the word means something slightly different in the US and the UK.

I do recommend the book to all book-lovers (you know who you are) and it would make a great present for another bibliophile.

Blurbs are something I feel very strongly about: it is obvious that Louise takes her job very seriously, and she sounds good at it, and I kind of wish she wrote all the blurbs, because in my view there are a lot of really bad ones out there.

Her book has inspired me to make my own list of featured blurbs and cover copy.

 

1)     Muriel Spark, The Public Image.  

My comment in the blogpost was do not read the Penguin blurb before reading the book - as well as being idiotic, it has a major spoiler’. The blurb writer’s take on one of the characters is awe-inspiringly judgemental, and while I would never presume to know what Spark was thinking, I do not think the blurb writer (whom you would be 99% certain was male) was correct in his thoughts.


2)    And then there is The Driver’s Seat by the same author. This is from the back of a Penguin Modern Classic edition:

Lise leaves everything behind her, transforms herself into a laughing, garishly-dressed temptress and flies abroad on the holiday of a lifetime. But her search for adventure, sex and new experiences takes on a far darker significance…

If you have ever read it you will be baffled by this. The combination of the language of chicklit and romantic thriller is not, believe me, a fair description of the plot. Is it possible the writer had not read the book?

3)  I laid into a blurb for Kingsley Amis's The Folks That Live on The Hill  at length, despite enjoying the book:

 

The covers of modern editions  of  feature a very strange description of the book:

Harry Caldecote is the most charming man you'll ever meet, a convivial academic who devotes his life to others. He is on call when his alcoholic niece falls into strange hands, when his brother threatens to emulate Wordsworth, when his son's lesbian lodger is beaten up by her girlfriend. He endures misplaced seductions, swindles and aggressive dogs just to keep the peace at the King's pub in Shepherd's Hill.

(the next line is a pointless spoiler).

This is one of the worst descriptions of the book that I could imagine. The first line is complete rubbish: he is not charming to the reader (the only person in the book who considers him charming is the out-and-out vile Desiree, who is in the next line going to say he is completely ruthless). He is casually kind, but most certainly does not devote his life to others. He is not an academic.


Two of the three events in the next line are misdescribed, and by no stretch of the imagination is Harry ‘on call’. The third sentence is again complete rubbish. The paragraph would lead you to expect a quite different type of book.


4)    Mary Fitt – author bio on Three Sisters Flew Home. The most pretentious one I have ever read (against considerable opposition)

‘It was the vast and pleasant study of mankind that set my feet on the roads he had travelled and sent me to the places where he has resided…. And as Man is the measure of all things I have [studied] his philosophy, his poetry, the works of his hands – and his villainy.’

5)     Possibly my all-time favourite – it is cover copy, a quoted review, rather than a blurb writer’s version. The book is Len Deighton’s Funeral in Berlin, and someone wrote this, and someone else decided it would be great to have on the cover:

Next, big soft girls will read Len Deighton aloud in jazz workshops.

 

This is the surrounding paragraph from the review, and you can read the rest of my mystified blogpost (which does contain the words ‘pretentious jackass’) here. The book seems pretty much irrelevant.

 

The thriller is borrowing the props of the conventional “literary” novel…
No wonder a newspaper reviewer breathlessly declared that “the vitality of the modern thriller flows directly from the bloody realities of our embattled day”. Next, big soft girls will read Len Deighton aloud in jazz workshops. The real question is not whether the new thrillers are literature (the answer is no) but whether they really do tell anything about the latest symptom of fiction’s increasing inability to get to the terrifying matters of our time.

 

 

6)    Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier  I re-read my ancient copy of Rebecca, (and  blogged on it) ] and: is this the most terrible blurb or what? I am amusing myself by imagining the blurb culprit: Oxbridge EngLit grad, entry level in publishing, so male... ... he can't believe he has to do this, he who got a starred first and knew FR Leavis, but he will show us how clever he is. (I feel I know him)






 

Those are my worst blurbs – I feel my lovely readers will have more to add in the comments…  Bring them on.

Comments

  1. I can only offer this from the Sun, circa 1973, in the TV previews: Depressing saga of man who keeps his parents in two dustbins. (Not even a book.)

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    1. A whole other category. I remember a preview of a modern drama that sounded at least interesting, and then said 'it is written in blank verse' which was pretty much a finisher for me

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  2. I honestly don't believe, Moira, that I have ever read a book about blurbs. And, yet, they're such an important part of a book's presentation. This sounds witty as well as informative (which is an excelelnt way for a book to be!). Glad you enjoyed it.

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    1. Thanks Marogt - there was as gap in the market! And it is a most entertaining book

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  3. What about the curse of modern books which don't have a blurb at all - at least, not in the actual sense of telling you what the book is all about - but fill the back cover and inside jacket with gushing quotes about how good the book supposedly is? And then make you flip over half a dozen pages more of reviewers' quotes before you get to Chapter One. (How good the book really is, is usually in inverse proportion to the number of quotes.)

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    1. Yes, hard agree. And even worse, you often read various interesting-sounding review quotes - and then realize they were for a different book by the same author, so not really helping at all

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  4. The Ipcress File is compelling reading, but I think Len Deighton's most enthralling book by far was Funeral in Berlin. Deighton took it upon himself to counter both Ian Fleming and David Cornwell aka John Le Carr√© with what I call "raw espionage". It is rumoured that on the few occasions they met, near nuclear arguments ensued. They had a lot in common as spy fiction writers although paradoxically while on occasion Deighton arguably produced the most realistic stuff he had no direct experience of military intelligence. In that vein it is a shame more espionage thrillers aren't fact based. Courtesy of being factual extra dimensions are added. First, you can read about what’s in the novel in press cuttings and history books. Second, if even just marginally autobiographical, the author has the opportunity to convey his/her genuine hopes and fears as experienced in real life.

    An example of such a "real" thriller is Beyond Enkription, the first espionage novel or memoir in The Burlington Files series by Bill Fairclough (MI6 codename JJ) aka Edward Burlington who was one of Pemberton’s People in MI6. It's worth mentioning in this context because, coincidentally, some critics have likened its protagonist JJ to a "posh and sophisticated Harry Palmer" and the first novel in the series is indisputably noir, maybe even Deightonesque but unquestionably anti-Bond. It's worth checking out this enigmatic and elusive thriller. Not being a remake it may have eluded you! It’s a must for all spy illuminati so not being a remake I would be surprised if it had eluded you! For starters read this intriguing brief News Article dated 31 October 2022 in TheBurlingtonFiles website. It’s about Pemberton’s People and is truly gobsmacking.

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    1. My favourites were the three Bernard Samson trilogies, and Funeral in Berlin is not a favourite - but he was just a very good writer.

      Thanks for the additional information.

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  5. I (a man) have read Jane Eyre but don't see it as my duty to read either Rebecca or Gone with the Wind; on the other hand, I suspect that my wife is in the same case. As for The People Who Live on the Hill, my impression was that Amis discovered with The Old Devils a market for the old and lovable Amis when the market for young & snotty Amis was dwindling. Unfortunately The People [etc] didn't live up to The Old Devils.

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    1. Other than a programme of studies, no-one has to read anything! And I very much agree with you about the Amis - I thought Old Devils was a true return to form, but it was a one-off

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  6. This is fascinating, and I wonder if novelists these days have more say about what goes into blurbs. In fact I have mostly written my own, or collaborated with the PR people, sending drafts back and forth. Chrissie

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    1. Thanks Chrissie, that's interesting - I am always wondering whether authors have input in them. Not often by the look at things! You (and your readers) were lucky

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  7. This reminds me of a remark I read in an intro to "Pride & Prejudice"--maybe it could count as an extended blurb? It was by JB Priestley, to the effect that there are two kinds of women writers, the ones who write like Jane Austen and the ones who write like the Brontes. Even as a young teenager I was bowled over by this nonsense. Can you imagine him saying this about male writers, maybe with Dickens and Hemingway as examples?

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    1. Hackles rising on cue. It would make you not want to read JBP, that's for sure (although I actually like him....)

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  8. From this month's Mike Ripley column in Shots:

    I am also grateful, I suppose, to Brash Books for introducing me to Australian (I think) author Dawn Farnham – about whom more next month. Doing some basic research, I discovered an entry on her Facebook page which quotes a Glossary of Book Blurbs, defining their real meaning. I am not sure who created this glossary, but it is so good, I steal it with impunity:

    Enchanting – there’s a dog in it

    Heart-warming – a dog and a child

    Moving – child dies

    Heart-rending – dog dies

    Thoughtful – mind-numbingly tedious

    Haunting – set in the past

    Exotic – set abroad

    Audacious – set in the future

    Award-winning – set in India

    Perceptive – set in North London

    From the pen of a master – same old same old

    In the tradition of – shamelessly derivative

    Spare and taut – under-researched

    Richly detailed – over-researched

    Disturbing – author bonkers

    Stellar – author young and photogenic

    Classic – author hanging in there

    Vintage – author past it

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    1. Thanks Bill - that is absolutely hilarious and spot on! I think we all recognize most of that.

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  9. Christine Harding9 April 2023 at 16:40

    Love this post - I often wonder if blurb writers have actually read the books,

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    1. Exactly, it sounds so basic but you do have to wonder...

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