On Blurbs & Blurbing
*UPDATE*: Oh yeah, and the biggest reason I don’t blurb books… I just don’t get around to them. I have ARCs of books that I have heard are awesome still sitting around, looking at me with puppy dog eyes. ‘Why, Brent?’ they ask. ‘Why?’
Blurbs are a mess of the personal, the professional, and the commercial. Readers see that an author whom they trust loves a book, and they think, “Hey, I respect her, I bet I’ll really enjoy that book she thinks is great!” Professionals see a chance to help out a friend or a newbie and want to pay it forward to help someone succeed in a career with a high attrition rate. Publishers and publicists see another selling point.
I don’t blurb often. Much of my reading is a fun/work blend these days. I might read a book about Jean Lafitte for fun, but also to see if he’s got a justified reputation as an honorable pirate or not, and then (if he was honorable), figure just how would one go about being an honorable pirate? Or I read about special operations soldiers to get a handle on psyche of elite warriors. Fun, but work, too. I read books about the original Assassins—not nearly as fun as you’d think. Or I read books about slavery in the ancient world, or about race and slavery in the Mediterranean Sea basin. (Not fun at all.) Or I’ll read a couple Sookie Stackhouse books to understand their huge success—and yep, I see why they’ve done so well. (Not my kind of fun, but fun!)
Some of my former joy at reading fantasy has dimmed. It’s simply too hard to take off the analyst’s glasses: ah nice turn here, odd anachronism not to eliminate here, man this chapter is gritty just because gritty is in, isn’t it? Ah, here’s your politics showing here, great visual, nice building of a badass character, let me think how you did that…
Added to this, of course, is that I mostly get sent debut novels. These frequently put me in a bind. I can see why the novel got published. I can see that the novelist may well become quite skilled, and I know what it is to hope someone will give me a chance. I want these novelists to survive so they can write the great novels they’re clearly capable of writing. But if I didn’t love their book, I don’t want to tell people who trust me that I did.
Of course, fantasy being my work now, I also have strong opinions about what I like and don’t like–stuff that has little to do with its quality, but are simply preferences. I don’t like sermons in my fiction, even if I agree with them. A book that deals with the environment or capitalism or whatever as an integral part of the plot is fine: five page lectures that feel like they were rejected from yesterday’s op-ed page? Yawn. To many other readers, those elements are neutral or (if they agree with the viewpoint), even a bonus. Good for them. Reasonable people can have differences of opinion and taste. Even great books have things about them that I don’t think work, or that I think could be done better.
A novel is a blend of choices and execution, and I often like one but not the other. (A subtle distinction, sometimes.) I’m sure there’s stuff in my own work that gets similar eye rolls. I’m even guilty of some of the things I now dislike—I was once going to call for a moratorium on names with apostrophes. Please, can we not have any more N’ns’nse names? Then I realized when I return to Night Angel, I’ll definitely have returning characters and items with apostrophes. Doh!
The blend of the personal and professional is part of what makes my Goodreads page look barren. If I read a book and think it’s meh, I feel some compassion. Either it’s a new writer who hasn’t honed their craft yet, or a good or great writer turned in something that was sub-par for reasons I don’t know. In the first case, I won’t help that writer by raving dishonestly, but I also don’t want to poke holes in the boat of someone who’s just hope to float, either. Thus, I keep my 3- and 2-star reviews to myself. (The 1-stars I just quit reading. I feel no compulsion to finish something that I’ve decided isn’t worth my time.)
The only time I break this rule is when the author is so successful they couldn’t care what I say. Thus, I wrote a serious critique of an Anne Rice book.
When I DO write a blurb, I also put on my marketer’s hat. Maybe it’s the first novel I’ve seen that uses an outcast blue kobold as its main point of view character. (And man, it just nails that blue kobold experience!) I KNOW that others are going to comment on that. Praising that is just adding my voice to the echo chamber. So, if there was something else as praiseworthy—and usually an excellent novel doesn’t only do one thing well—then I’ll praise that so that the blurbs aren’t all about the same thing. I’ll even add something in the longer form of the blurb about the blue kobold experience (just in case this novel got stiffed on blurbs for whatever reason). That’s why sometimes you’ll an author quoted twice, or a brief pull quote taken for the front cover, and the full paragraph from which it was taken inside or on the back cover. Marketing.
Yes, I do work hard on blurbs. (See: Why I Blurb Infrequently)
Tuesday and Wednesday, I’ll be posting briefly on two books I’ve read recently that I CAN blurb freely.
(Also, new poll at right!)