It’s a bit odd that blurbs don’t get the kind of attention book covers do. They don’t have the street cred that comes with smart people telling simple folks, “Don’t judge a book by its blurb”. And yet, if the cover is the eyes, the part that catches your fancy even for a moment in an effort to draw the reader into the closed chambers of the book, the blurb is the legs, well, at least the fishnet stockings, for perusal, the first entry into what the book’s about and the last call before a dive into a full-blown text-for-money transaction is made.
Take what I consider to be the finest blurb ever written. It comes at the back of Adverbs, a novel by Daniel Handler (the real name of Lemony Snicket):
“Hello. I am Daniel Handler, the author of this book. Did you know that authors often write the summaries that appear on their book’s dust jacket? You might want to think about that the next time you read something like, ‘A dazzling page-turner, this novel shows an internationally acclaimed storyteller at the height of his astonishing powers.’”
This is followed by a large paragraph giving bits and bobs of the story that lies inside the novel, followed by a small one where the authorial voice once again tells the back cover reader about how “It is not the nouns. The miracle is the adverbs, the way things are done.” The blurb then ends by announcing, “A dazzling page-turner, this novel shows an internationally acclaimed storyteller at the height of his astonishing powers.”
I presume that Handler played a large part in the making of the blurb of Adverbs. Usually, the editor working on the book asks the writer for a synopsis and biographical information that the blurb-maker—once a specialist in publishing houses, now increasingly whoever is editing the book—chisels into what hopefully is a final siren-like shape.
A bad blurb is essentially a boring one. Giving the story away, especially the end, as was the case with my first novel, is the apogee of a bad blurb. As to whether the blurb has to be “true” to the book, that’s secondary since the reader is unlikely to figure this out until it’s too late and he’s already been netted.
Gelett Burgess was someone who caught on to this primary function of the blurb being a meta-narrative of its own when he tweaked the usual summary on dust jackets and invented the term in 1907. The American humourist’s book(let) Are You a Bromide?—a great title by itself—chucked the summary and replaced it with a picture of a circa 1907 “babe” hollering out. Or as the revolutionary “blurb” puts it: “Miss Belinda Blurb in the act of blurbing”.
The “blurb” then goes on to holler, “Say! Ain’t this book a 90-HP, six-cylinder Seller?... WE expect to sell 350 copies of this great, grand book. It has gush and go to it, it has that Certain Something which makes you want to crawl through thirty miles of dense tropical jungle and bite somebody in the neck.” Now that’s pretty strong self-endorsement that may or may not work these days, unless one is delighted to find some irony buried in it.
There is something a bit too chest-thumping about blurbs. Till not too long ago most Bengali books, for instance, didn’t bother carrying summaries or endorsements of a book for the quick reference of a prospective reader. If you need to be hard-sold this book, don’t bother to read.
Those glory days for the purists are thankfully over. As the only real teaser to the book in a world where books have to compete not only with other books but also with other forms of entertainment (the movie DVD blurb still providing a function for those too lazy to look up the Internet and download a film for free), the blurb remains, more than the cover, the vanguard for books.
At its best, the blurb can be a wondrous work by itself, separate from the book whose trumpet it blows. Take my favourite blurb of the year, on Ned Beauman’s Booker longlisted novel The Teleportation Accident: “...a historical novel that doesn’t know what year it is; a noir novel that turns all the lights on; a romance novel that arrives drunk to dinner; a science fiction novel that can’t remember what ‘isotope’ means; a stunningly inventive, exceptionally funny, dangerously unsteady and (largely) coherent novel about sex, violence, space, time, and how the best way to deal with history is to ignore it.” Even if I don’t get to read Beauman’s book in a hurry, I’ve read something fab (for free).
Indrajit Hazra is a Delhi-based novelist and journalist. He is a consultant editor of Hindustan Times