Good Blurbs, Bad Blurbs


by Timothy Liu

Shall we talk about blurbs? Is it crass to critique a well-meant compliment? Perhaps. But a corrective may be in order. Many poets, poet-editors, and poet-critics gush to a disingenuous fault. Cocktail chatter can provide ample evidence. Such flattery (and flatulent excess) we have even come to expect. But when such utterances find their way to the back of book jackets, time to take stock, even risk a little rudeness. Here I feel emboldened by book reviewers like William Logan. Or Michael Robbins, another maverick poet-critic seemingly fearless about what his candor might cost him. I’d like to propose a new critical genre: blurb reviews. Anyone game?

Of course every writer must safeguard the writing life, but unlike our aforementioned rebels, what a vigilance some writers pay to safeguard their own reputations and careers, major trade publishers and the Ivy Leagues needing to be protected from infiltration and corruption at all costs. Guard those gates! But these are fungible variables. Six courses as an adjunct shuffling from one community college to the next or publication in an obscure venue that does not pay but is venerated and patronized by a coterie one devotedly courts can no less engender the dissembling I am speaking of.

If we depend on genuine critiques to atone for the disingenuous (a ritual cutting-to-the-bone that might expiate an entire tribe), who then is worthy to perform the rite? And where does kindness fit into this picture? What if I love your first book but hate everything you have published since? Do I gush over the former and keep my mouth shut on the rest (even when directly asked) especially if you are in a position to further my own career (publications, reviews, grants, prizes, reading or teaching gigs)? Scratch my back and I scratch yours, but not too harshly . . . or lavishly.

You might ask: Don’t we all expect a little excess? No harm done! With blurbs often clocking in at under a hundred words, some may wonder if there’s much room for anything substantial, but what’s brevity if not the soul of wit? Even so, many poorly-written blurbs resort to a liberal sprinkling of quotations, often a sign that the blurb writer hasn’t much to really say. Regardless, since most blurbs are written by poets (who are more often more “established” than the poet being blurbed though many post-Boomers seem to eschew authoritarian proclamations in favor of peer shout outs), why not hold poets accountable for their (mis)use of language, however well-intentioned? Blurb inflation can get tiresome. Behind the overt message of “Buy this book!” is the more covert “Please buy into this disingenuous literary economy that I need for my very own survival.” Of course, poets who have arrived at a certain venerated station might have the luxury to dispense with blurbs altogether.

I have nothing against blurbs per se; I just wish I could believe more of what I read. Herewith is a stark example of excessive exuberance:

“The courage of this book is that it looks away from nothing; the miracle is that wherever it looks it finds poetry. If it were mine to invent the poet to complete the century of William Carlos Williams and Wallace Stevens, I would create Mark Doty just as he is . . .”—Philip Levine on My Alexandria

It’s one thing to champion a book but quite another to bookend High Modernism with “the poet to complete the century.” I mean really, what was Levine thinking? Here’s another example of wild indulgence:

“This is a brilliant, un-erasable book. It begins with the descent of the soul into flesh, which is also the descent into the catastrophic, tormenting history of family and nation. Kim does not turn away from the history but takes it into herself, making poems that give it indelible voice. The poems as a whole surprise not only by their ambition and ferocity but by their delicacy, their sudden reserves of stillness and contemplation. If there is justice, the future will look back on this book as a major event.”—Frank Bidart on Notes from the Divided Country

It’s one thing to be wowed by a book, but to clairvoyantly speak for literary posterity? I would argue that no one is well-served by hyperbolic endorsements; couldn’t someone have suggested that the final sentence be cut? Nothing wrong with saying that this book was “a major event for me,” but to invoke “justice” for the “future”? Not! Contrast that blurb with the following one which also employs the term, “a major event”:

“Given that there are two kinds of readers in English, those who are passionate fans of the poetry of Linh Dinh and those who have yet to read his writing, All Around What Empties Out is a major event, too long overdue. These are works without waste, with the direct sense of humor and, throughout, an underlying feel for the pain of living that calls to mind Kathy Acker as much as Kafka. Linh Dinh looks at the world with the clearest eyes imaginable, a walking example of the role of the real at the heart of the surreal.”—Ron Silliman

Yes, the opening sentence makes an outrageous claim (sooner or later, everyone will bow down to the genius of Linh Dinh!), but this playful tone (missing in the Bidart or in the Levine) quickly segues into specific praises rather than generalized prophetic utterances. No surprise that less hubris often leads to more substance. Strong blurb writers direct our attention to the writing under consideration without eschewing their own stylistic fingerprints (which we want all over the covers of our forthcoming books! which is why we are careful who to ask/plead for certain endorsements, imprimaturs!). Consider the following two blurbs for Ai’s debut volume, Cruelty:

“All woman—all human—all vital.  Alive with the arteries of life.”—Anne Sexton

“She is the most talented young person I know.”—Galway Kinnell

Cruelty was published in 1973. Anne Sexton committed suicide in 1974. In Sexton’s blurb, one can’t help but hear an additional echo of Plath’s “the blood jet is poetry.” It matters not only what a blurb actually says but who said it and when. Kinnell’s landmark The Book of Nightmares was published in 1971. Riding high on his fame, like Sexton, they both dispense with commenting on Ai’s poetry and focus on Ai herself.

Do all roads lead to self-aggrandizement, however veiled when mediated by others? (Rimbaud: Je est un autre!). It is well known that the poet Bill Knott has taken on the publishing industry by self-publishing Xeroxed editions of his own books end-papered with self-effacing criticisms culled from actual reviews:

“Bill Knott’s ancient, academic ramblings are part of what’s wrong with poetry today. Ignore the old bastard.”—Collin Kelley

“Bill Knott bores me to tears.”—Curtis Faville

“Bill Knott should be beaten with a flail.”—Tomaz Salamun

“Bill Knott’s poems are so naïve that the question of their poetic quality hardly arises . . . Mr. Knott practices a dead language.”—Denis Donoghue

Again, it’s hard to miss something playful going on here. When was the last time anyone enjoyed this much farcical self-flagellation by turning moribund marketing conventions onto bewildered heads? If only more of us had the guts to expose the hegemonic system of self-promotion for what it is while laughing our ways to the poorhouse.

Poets who have written memorable blurbs for my own books have not only helped boost my self-esteem but braced me up for whatever (lack of) attention each book would ultimately receive. Of course I too have had to turn down various blurb requests from time to time. Still, when judging last year’s Norma Farber First Book Award, I couldn’t help but feel shocked by how many of the seventy books were blurbed by the same poet(s) in a single year alone. I had to wonder: Can’t so-and-so just say no? Who ends up being promoted more, the blurb writer or the book being blurbed? In a market economy, doesn’t oversaturation invite devaluation? Such a mechanism can be witnessed when writing Guggenheim recommendations: the more people one recommends, the less valuable some of the recs become; indeed, one is asked to rank the applicants from first to last. How much is too much of a good thing?

For full disclosure, let me say I have written about a dozen blurbs myself over the years for friends, former students, even strangers who’ve been kind enough to trouble me with their solicitations. Here is the complete list of full-length poetry books I have endorsed:

Stephanie Brown: Domestic Interior
Tenaya Darlington: Madame Deluxe
Christopher Davis: The Patriot
Steve Fellner: Blind Date with Cavafy
Kate Hanson Foster: Mid Drift
David Groff: Clay
Jeremy Halinen: What Other Choice
Celeste Guzman Mendoza: Beneath the Halo
Lance Phillips: Cur aliquid vidi
Boyer Rickel: remanence
Roberto Tejada: Full Foreground
Sarah Wetzel: Bathsheba Transatlantic

Feel free to judge the blurbs for yourselves to see if I have kept blurb inflation down to a minimum! Sure, it can be hard to believe what people have to say, let alone “serial blurbists.” I would wager the more fulsome the adulation, the more suspect the enterprise. For my own tastes, I relish ambiguous praises with a strong backhand: “a quintessential first book”; “a book that only you could’ve written”; “looks like you’ve done it again” (Britney, anyone?); “there’s never been a book quite like this before.” The rich and famous already have a platform. Blurbs are superfluous for sales attention. All celebrities have to do is show up! At a recent “event” for James Franco at the Strand Bookstore in New York City, he didn’t even bother to read a single piece from his new book. Buying the book itself was the price of admission for each screaming fan, myself included! As an antidote to this current state of affairs, let me close with a few choice blurbs from the past that fulfill their function to whet our appetites without compromising a sense of reality:

“Just possibly, Frank Bidart has achieved, in his first book, exactly what all young poets would like to: he has discovered and brought together a set of images, emotionally disturbing, apparently disparate, but in combination having the uncanny power of illuminating the poet’s personal history and History itself, literary life and plain Life, at the same time.”—Elizabeth Bishop on Golden State

“Linda Gregg’s Too Bright To See is the most promising (and already accomplished) book of poetry I have read in years. An always observant eye, a disciplined musical sense, the true craftsman’s knowledge of her material—these are rare and precious gifts in a time of slack writing and lax perception. I read what she writes and I say, ‘This poet has seen these things.’”—William Arrowsmith

“I hesitate to introduce any such term as ‘meditation’ or ‘reflection,’ because this work is not apart from its thinking and/or composition, so to speak—and that, among other things, constitutes its exceptional value. I find the whole work to be a deeply engaging preoccupation with, and articulation of, what life might be said, factually, to be. But not as a defined subject, nor even a defining one—but as one being one. That is an heroic undertaking, or rather, a place in which to work/write/live. Its formal authority is as brilliant as any I know.”—Robert Creeley on Leslie Scalapino’s New Time.

“Jonathan Stalling’s Sinophonic opera, occupying ‘the darkness between’ Chinese and English, is a beautiful and haunting composition in which too seemingly alien languages interact, collide, call each other into question, and create a sound landscape unique among contemporary poems. Its ‘Yingelishi’ texture (fusing English words, Chinese calligraphy, and instrumental accompaniment) produces an entirely new experience for the reader, pointing the way to what a truly global poetry might look like.”—Marjorie Perloff on Yingelishi