In Barbara Browning's charming, erudite, and often devastating metafictional novel The Gift, a writer named Barbara Andersen works on her “conceptual art project” (Anderson, like Browning, makes ukulele covers of various pieces of music and sends them to friends and strangers) and carries on an intense email correspondence with a musician in Germany—who may or may not be who he says he is. Browning dives into the strange world of book blurbs.
In my most recent novel, The Gift, my narrator, Barbara Andersen, describes a conceptual art piece by her friend, Tye Larkin Hayes, which extends over several days and includes several live performances. In the culminating one, the photographer who’s been documenting everything is choreographed into the piece, perching, for several minutes, on the lap of a distinguished older gentleman, Thomas von Frisch, who is perched on the lap of Larkin Hayes, who is perched on an awkward, narrow projection built into a wall. The narrator explains, “Tye often choreographs any documentation of his work, so the documentation is part of the work, not the other way around. So Tom sat on Tye, and the photographer sat on Tom, and it was very precarious and difficult and a little sexual.”
When I write a novel, I tend to have the same approach to blurbs: I’d rather think of them as part of the work, and I’d rather make explicit the economies within which they’re produced (financial, intellectual, affective, even libidinal). That is, if you ask people to think about it, they’re probably vaguely aware that writers agree to blurb books because they have some connection, either professional or personal, to the author – but the genre seems to demand a certain effacement of those connections, as though Famous Author X just happened to come across a delightful manuscript that somebody accidentally left in a Starbucks and was so taken with it he felt compelled to say something really nice about it. (I was actually going to give Famous Author X the name of Gary Shteyngart, but then Googled “gary shteyngart blurbs” and realized there’s a whole cottage industry, including a viral YouTube video and a dedicated Tumblr site, documenting Shteyngart’s prevalence on the blurb scene – which may indicate that I’m not the only one who thinks about this as conceptual art.)
Since my novels tend to blur the line between fiction and non-fiction, and because real people, including artists and writers, often appear in my narratives, I decided when I published my first novel only to ask for blurbs from people who actually appeared in the book, whether or not their depictions were factual or factitious. That way, I figured a reader could make a choice as to whether to read the blurbs as truthful or as, well, part of the work of fiction in their hands. I was working with a scrappy, daring little press, Two Dollar Radio, and amazingly, my editor Eric Obenauf agreed to go along with this proposition. For my first novel, it rendered Harry Mathews and DJ Spooky – I thought a match made in heaven (now that Harry’s gone, his presence both in and on that book is even more precious to me). We repeated the tactic on my next novel, and it rendered Karen Finley and Vaginal Crème Davis – ‘nuff said.
Last September, when it came time to consider the blurb question in regard to The Gift, I was working with a slightly bigger, though still daring and independent, press – Coffee House, under the fledgling feminist imprint of Emily Books, run by Emily Gould and Ruth Curry. I wasn’t so sure if this team was going to go for my weird blurb strategy. When the topic came up, I wrote to Coffee House: “I mention both Ling So Manège and Rambler Jinn Snee (the latter only by the title of his book, which indeed I gave to Yin Loadstar, as described in the ms; Manège appears fictionally at a dinner party of poets up at Bard). And I mention Rick Hussar, but I have a feeling Hussar, like my own mother, might find me irritatingly ‘saccharine.’ Amazon Trebek appears, and would possibly do it as she's been very supportive in the past. If you nix my conceptual game/joke, I will understand. I can't believe Eric put up with it in the past. Also, I would bag the policy myself if we could get either Hon. A. Tills or Eco el Jut to read it and say something nice. If you felt awkward approaching Snee, I would be more than willing myself to risk humiliation and rejection by sending him my cover of ‘Ne me quitte pas,’ which according to his book was the song that made him want to have a child, and saying, ‘You make a cameo appearance in my novel. I'd be so happy if you blurbed it.’ But no prob if you say, ‘Bad idea.’ Though it's a great cover. Sorry to be a handful.”
You may have surmised two things from that message. The first is that I scrambled the names of all those well-known authors into anagrams here just to avoid embarrassing them, and the second is that I had slightly broadened the parameters of my conceptual art project of blurb procurement by folding it into my other conceptual art project, the one at the heart of The Gift, which involves spamming innocent strangers with hand-crafted recordings of ukulele covers of sentimental songs. I actually sent two covers to the Hon. A. Tills, though he didn’t write me back. So in October, I broached the topic again, this time with Emily. I said, “I’ve been working on the blurb front. I sent what I thought were fairly charming emails with personalized ukulele cover songs to Rambler Jinn Snee and Hon. A. Tills. Snee sent a short message back saying thanks, but he's not doing any blurbs at all. Tills didn't write back yet, though it's just been 5 days. But, feeling a wee bit fragile, I'm wondering about this strategy.” In fact, Tills never wrote me back. I didn’t even bother making a cover for Eco el Jut.
And frankly, even if I hadn’t been asking for an enormous favor, who could blame anybody for not answering? People are busy, and we were all distracted by the calamitous political events that were unfolding. But, astonishingly, Emily and Ruth had ignored my anxiety about Rick Hussar and went ahead and made the ask on my behalf. And because she very generously agreed to read the book and ended up warmly endorsing it, I can now reproduce the email I wrote to Emily on November 28 without scrambling my blurber’s name: “Thank you so much for countering my premonition that Chris Kraus would find me simpering and sentimental! Go figure! xoxo” Chris Kraus is actually referenced a few times in my novel, because people in my narrator’s social sphere really love I Love Dick. (So do people in my social sphere. So do I.) Well, that was one good piece of news in a bleak season. The other was that my dear friend Def Mentor, or maybe I should call him Red Foment, also offered to blurb the book. And by Def Mentor or Red Foment, I mean, of course, Fred Moten, so, as I wrote Emily, I sort of felt I’d scored Wonder Woman and Captain America. Yow. Fred’s work is also referenced by my narrator in my novel, in relation to the People’s Library at Occupy Wall Street. She sticks her own obscure little postmodern novel into the fiction bin down at Zuccotti Park, even though she notes they’d probably be better served by reading Fred. That wasn’t false modesty on my narrator’s part – just the simple truth.
Well, so, I managed to stick to my conceptual art project and once again got a dream team. But feeling just a little greedy right before we went to press, I wrote Emily one more time about one of the characters in my book, who I thought could say something interesting about it. I said, “Surely nobody will go for this but. The character called Lun-Yu Wolf is, in reality, a really great conceptual poet. But she asked to maintain her anonymity in the novel. But I love the idea of asking her for a blurb. But attributing it to Lun-Yu Wolf. The character. I know, I know.”
Emily is sweet. She just politely ignored that message.