‘Tis the blurb season. . .but then when is it not? Each book accepted for publication sets off a chain of editors and authors asking other authors to please read an advance copy, and, if they feel so inclined, offer a few words of support. A “comment,” or “a promotional quote,” is we’re being tasteful about the whole process. A “blurb” if we’re being crass.
I’ve quite a number of requests right now, and I’m doing my best to honor each of them because I know what it’s like to be on the asking end, hoping beyond hope that those I approach will say yes. The whole process makes me feel like I did when I was a teenager and I’d make a phone call to a girl, asking her for a date. Do teenage boys even do that anymore? Not having children myself, I rely on my students for such info, and I seem to recall that these days, teenagers tend to gather as a group, thereby eliminating the character-building experience of making that call, often having to get by the girl’s mother, or more terrifying yet, her father, before talking to the girl herself, hoping for a yes, dreading a no, or, as happened to me once, hearing the girl say, “Well. . .I can’t, you see. Friday night? No, Friday night is out of the question. I’m helping my mother can tomato juice that night.” Home economics aside, I knew a brush off when I heard one.
Ever wonder, as I have, where the word, “blurb,” comes from? It seems that an American humorist, Galett Burgess, published his book, Are You a Bromide? in 1907. The custom of the time was for the publisher to print the picture of a damsel–“languishing, heroic, or coquettish” [perhaps while canning tomato juice !]–on the cover of every novel. I’ve garnished all this information from the web site, Wordorigins.org. It seems that for Are You a Bromide, Burgess provided a picture of a particularly buxom woman and labeled her Miss Blinda Blurb. Later, the term came to identify not only drawings of buxom women, but also extravagant testimonials.
One of my teachers in the early 1980s, when I was an MFA student at the University of Arkansas, was William Harrison, who is perhaps best known for the title story of his collection, Roller Ball Murder. That futuristic story became the impetus for the movie (from Bill Harrison’s screenplay adaptation), Rollerball, starring James Caan, John Houseman, and Maud Adams. The movie was remade in 2002 with Chris Klein, LL Cool J, and Rebecca Romijn. One of the stories in that same Harrison collection is “The Blurb King,” a story narrated by Harry Neal who is expert at the art of the blurb. In fact, he owns and runs the Neal Blurb Service. Said service uses a computer to provide “Bigger Names and Better Blurbs.” Noting how the “Quality Lit game” relied on everyone agreeing to blurb everyone else (“Norm Mailer liked Jimmy Baldwin who adored Ken Kesey who dug Susie Sontag. Et cetera.), Harry Neal creates “The Cornucopia of Blurb,” which allows all people, no matter how famous or unknown, to be blurbed: “Mickey Mantle blurbs Frankie Avalon who blurbs Elmo Roper who blurbs Ed Sullivan who blurbs Herbert Marcuse who blurbs Bobo Rockefeller who blurbs the H.R. Block Corporation.” Harry Neal even creates Blurb Buttons for people to wear. If someone gets endorsed, he or she can wear that blurb (“HERE’S A NEATSIE-POO ACTOR!–Rex Reed). The idea catches on like wildfire and soon there are cottage industries setting up shop, such as THE VERMONT BLURBERS CONFERENCE: A summer Writing Program with the Accent on Leisure Hours and featuring a staff of Editors, Children’s Authors, & Old Professors. LEARN THE ART OF THE BLURB IN OUR WORKSHOP SESSIONS! UCLA even starts the MFA Program in Creative Blurbs.
In this business, where who knows whom can be so beneficial, it’s good to be able to smile at ourselves, as Bill Harrison clearly is in “The Blurb King.” Of course, once a writer really makes it, there’s no need for blurbs. The name and the reputation is sufficient. In the early stages of a career (or in mid-career, for that matter) having such well known writers speak for your book can help generate the buzz that the publisher is hoping for, the noise in the industry that here comes a book and a writer to be noticed. May we all, then, as we make our journey, remember what it was like when we were first starting out. Like making that phone call, heart in your throat, hoping the girl you wanted said yes and didn’t tell you instead that she was sorry but there was tomato juice in her future and it just had to be canned.