In the same way that chain restaurants open test locations in Colorado Springs, Colo., because it is so average, I like to watch my mom interact with books in her native environment (Garcia Books in Santa Fe, N.Mex.,) to see what the enthusiastic but discerning reader is thinking. She’s part of a dying breed—people who actually enjoy and buy books that Oprah has never even mentioned.
Here’s what I’ve observed: my mom will buy a book by an unknown author if she likes the blurbs. While collecting this critical piece of data, my heart sank. I’m not generally resistant to hustling for my work, but I find the current system of getting, or in more cases, not getting, those Midas blurbs to be dehumanizing and in need of major reform.
Let’s be honest. Rare is the blurb that genuinely evolved from an established writer sitting down with the manuscript of a new writer (not a former student, best friend’s child, or shared agent’s new golden boy) and being inspired to offer a few words on the quality of the work. This is what my mom thinks happens. This is what the majority of the American book-buying public believes.
The reality is more like this: one of my young writer friends couldn’t get a single literary novelist to blurb (such an ugly verb) her new book, not because they read it and thought it undeserving, but because they didn’t recognize her name. It wasn’t until her supervisor at work asked one of his famous friends to do him a favor and offer a few words that she finally got a books-flying-off-the-shelf blurb. Good boss. Crappy system.
Another friend who writes nonfiction wrote, “I called Carol Gilligan, e-mailed her, sent up smoke signals, had her mugged, and got bupkus.” One newbie memoirist sent a bunch of her favorite authors chocolate for Valentine’s Day along with her manuscript. Augusten Burroughs’s agent finally wrote to her asking that she “stop sending the nearly-daily blurb requests. I think he [Burroughs] scarfed down the chocolate, but he’s not going to be able to give a quote.”
But you know what’s worse than scarfing down a hopeful young writer’s chocolates? It’s having a blanket policy against blurbing, but making no effort to change the system. Many veteran writers have responded to my green friends with “I don’t blurb,” which is equivalent to being a bazillionaire who doesn’t give away money because it’s too time-consuming and hard to figure out who deserves it.
Here is my plea to all of those very powerful, and I know, very busy, famous writers: it’s not young authors that you want to be rejecting—it’s the nepotistic, smarmy system of blurbing. The current state of affairs means you have a moral obligation, as part of the literary community, to give younger writers the time of day. If you don’t like their work, don’t offer an endorsement. But rejecting them wholesale because they’ve never fact-checked one of your manuscripts or been on a Little League team with your son is gross.
Let’s team up—the bestsellers and the first timers—and imagine a new system. Maybe each author informally agrees to read (at least in part) five new manuscripts a year by unknowns, thinking of it as their dues for succeeding in a difficult industry. Even better, maybe we throw a big party, get some whiskey company to sponsor it and do short readings from new manuscripts. Authors who’ve heard something special can follow up right then and there with their genuine praise. Everyone interacts face to face. Everyone gets a shot at the literary dream of having random readers like my mom find their book on a shelf, flip it over and say, “Wow, if Zadie Smith likes this, I’ve definitely got to pick it up.”
(Cue Lion King theme song, please.) Genuine blurbing could become a circle of life. Those newbies who got a big break from Malcolm Gladwell’s stamp of approval will grow up to be important people, and they will not only scarf the chocolates but write the blurbs, because they’ll remember that amazing night back in the ’10’s when the author they adored looked them in the eyes and said, “Good job, kid.”
|Courtney E. Martin is the author of Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters: How the Quest for Perfection Harms Young Women (Berkeley, Penguin) and grateful to all who have blurbed her. You can read more about her work at www.courtneyemartin.com.|