Critical Mass

Of Blurbatology


“If you recant a blurb,” asked Ron Hogan at GalleyCat last week, “does anybody really care?” My impression so far is, not really.

If there is nothing else to learn from the case of Houston Baker’s dust-jacket encomium for Michael Eric Dyson—and there isn’t—then at least this much is clear: If you are going to blurb a book you haven’t actually paid much attention to, the important thing is to be consistent. Don’t even look at the book again. If for some reason you happen to see it, don’t read it. And if, perchance, you do read the book and realize it’s terrible, just keep this belated realization to yourself. That’s only being fair to everyone.

But in the meantime, Henry Farrell at Crooked Timber has started a thread inspired by some of the blurbs for War and Decision—the new book by strategic genius Doug Feith about how necessary and well-thought-through the Iraq war was, all appearances to the contrary. The jacket features various luminaries using superlatives such as “controversial” and “readable,” as well as “not nearly as delusional as you might suppose.”

Okay, I made that last one up—but it’s more an exaggeration of the general drift than something spun out of thin air. “And these were the blurbs they chose to promote the book,” as Henry points out.

But the Crooked Timber item is less a matter of discussing War and Decision than it is a pretext for encouraging readers to nominate other great moments in the history of dubious endorsements. A few are obviously snippets from reviews, rather than blurbs. The highlights:

“Although written many years ago, Lady Chatterrley’s Lover has just been reissued by Grove Press, and this fictional account of the day-by-day life of an English gamekeeper is still of considerable interest to outdoor-minded readers, as it contains many passages on pheasant-raising, the apprehending of poachers, ways to control vermin, and other chores and duties of the professional gamekeeper. Unfortunately, one is obliged to wade through many pages of extraneous material in order to discover and savour these sidelights on the management of a Midland shooting estate, and in this reviewer’s opinion this book cannot take the place of J. R. Miller’s Practical Gamekeeping.”—Ed Zern

“I have been stunned and baffled by Roger Lewis’s vast biography of the stunningly baffling Anthony Burgess.”—Jan Morris, author of The Meaning of Nowhere

On a volume about Social Security: “This is the type of book that, once you put it down, you will not be able to pick it up again.”

“The covers of this book are too far apart.”—from a review by Ambrose Bierce.

And finally, The Irish Times on Iain Banks’ The Wasp Factory: “It is a sick, sick world when the confidence and investment of an astute firm of publishers is justified by a work of unparallelled depravity. There is no denying the bizarre fertility of the author’s imagination: his brilliant dialogue, his cruel humour, his repellent inventiveness. The majority of the literate public, however, will be relieved that only reviewers are obliged to look at any of it.”

As Henry Farrell then says: “How could you possibly, possibly refuse to buy a book with a blurb like that?”