Notes on reading

The curious case of the misleading blurb

Leaves of Grass cover

As far as I know, no-one has ever had a complaint about a book blurb upheld by the Advertising Standards Authority. When the cover of a thriller states that its contents will make your heart pound and your knuckles white, when the cover of a rom-com promises that the scenes within will prompt tears and laughter, we, sophisticated readers that we are, know these promises are not meant to be taken too literally. Still, there’s an expectation that the blurb will tell us something about the book, however partial or exaggerated.

So when I picked up a new-ish crime novel (first published in paperback in 2021) recently in Waterstones and read the front, back, and inside covers (Penguin was laying it on thick), I thought, ‘Hmmm, sounds interesting, might be worth a punt as a holiday read’. The publisher’s description was enticing enough, but it was the quotes from reviews and other authors that lured me in.

This book was, according to the words of the Wall Street Journal blazoned on its covers, ‘One of the most innovative mysteries in recent memory’. Something called Shots magazine thought it was ‘Brilliantly conceived,,,I didn’t see that coming’. The Literary Review found it, apparently, ‘Ingenious’. (Though I have to say, I’m always suspicious of those single-word quotes — what did the rest of the phrase or sentence say and why was it truncated?)

There was a host of other names bigging up the book, only one of which I knew, though the rest were obviously other authors. One exclaimed, ‘When did you last read a genuinely original thriller? The wait is over’. Another promised, ‘One of the most creative detective novels of the year…if not of all time’. It would have been a crime not to buy such a book, I told myself.

Oh, what a let-down. It read like a book written by an AI, an AI still learning on the job, an AI that mightn’t even pass the Turing test, full of clunky similes and borrowings from Agatha Christie. At the heart of it was a supposed ‘mathematical structure of murder mysteries’. This formula was what the putative originality of the novel hinged on. It turned out to be a damp squib. But I only have myself to blame. I’m old enough that I shouldn’t be falling for this kind of bullshit any more.

The consensus is that the first blurb was a puff for Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, written by his friend Ralph Waldo Emerson. In a letter to Whitman, Emerson had written, ‘I greet you at the beginning of a great career’. Whitman liked this turn of phrase so much that he had it stamped in gold on the spine of the second edition. The tradition of author friends lavishing praise on the work of one another is a long one.

Back in 2001, the on-line magazine Slate noted some hilarious examples of Frank McCourt’s (of Angela’s Ashes fame) contributions to the blurb industry. McCourt, when dishing out praise for friends and acquaintances, was especially fond of claiming that the work in question would compel the reader to ‘claw yourself with pleasure’.

A few years later NPR spoke to a chap named Gary Shteyngart, who samples rather than reads the books he’s been asked to write blurbs for. ‘I’ll look at a first sentence, I’ll look at the cover and it just comes to me. Reading randomly from a book is also very helpful. Sometimes I try to read further — but you know, how far can you get?’ Once this perusal is done, Shteyngart doesn’t hold back: ‘I’ve compared people to Shakespeare, Tolstoy or whatever. I’ll do anything.’ According to Wikipedia, ‘Much of his work is satirical.’

Still, we book buyers all fall for this racket sometimes. The last book I bought in Waterstones was on the recommendation of a staff member, who engaged me in conversation when I picked up a copy of Olga Tokarczuk’s The Books of Jacob. He told me it was masterpiece, one of the best novels he’d read in a long while. He was a walking, talking blurb. So I bought the book, carried away by his enthusiasm. Afterwards, I saw that the cover blurb included a commendation from the Nobel Committee for Literature. This time, surely, I won’t be disappointed?