Re: RARA-AVIS: Re: Blurbs (Ignore That Sucking Sound)

From: Allan Guthrie (
Date: 13 Jun 2009

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    ----- Original Message ----- From: "Kevin Burton Smith" <>
    > The book's still not my cup of puke, but at least your comments put a
    > little meat on the bones of the discussion. And I'd rather have
    > someone honestly disagree with me rather than dishonestly suck up to me.

    I'm no reviewer or critic, although I did try for a while. It was just too hard and I was very bad at it. If I like something and I say so, it's implicit that the statement is issued with a parenthetical coda that says my taste is unusual, not everyone being partial to the extreme and/or the surreal/absurd and/or disturbing or weird or whatever, and I don't expect anyone else to agree with me. It's just my opinion. I'm currently reading Alfred Jarry, for instance, who is the sort of writer I'm fairly sure you'd rip to pieces for his vulgarity, childishness, lack of realism, etc, (all undeniably true) but who nonetheless had a massive impact on many aspects of 20th century literature, and beyond, and I find great fun to read. Jarry may well be considered a vat of crap by many critics, but without him, there would be no theatre of the absurd, or even worse, no Monty Python (speaking of the vulgar, the childish, and the unrealistic). Reading your review of The Disassembled Man, it seems that much of what you found tedious (the protagonist's lack of control over his body, for instance), I found amusing, and much of what you felt was bad writing, I regarded as character-specific voice. One of the huge positives for me was that the book had a strong voice: rough and colloquial and unapologetic and as vulgar as Lou Ford or whoever it is in Savage Night who talks about the vagina farm (only a little more crudely than that).

    > Do we really have to treat new novelists with kid gloves? If they're
    > not going to be reviewed (or blurbed) honestly, why bother reviewing
    > (or blurbing) them at all?

    I think most novelists who've published a few books find it hard to read their own debuts. We're aware that we improve over time (or we should do), so it's hard not to bring that to the table when you're reading a debut by someone else and make allowances for it. If we all waited till we'd mastered the craft, we'd never publish anything. So I can certainly give an honest blurb without expecting perfection.

    > At what point in your career was it okay for someone to give a book of
    > yours an honest review? Second book? Third? Or do you feel you've
    > reached that point yet?

    A friend of mine once got a very negative review for a book that most people
    (incuding other reviewers) thought was pretty good. He decided he'd ask why, and was informed that there was too much drinking and the reviewer really didn't like that. I'm not sure what the value of that kind of honest review might be. When it comes to humour, we're in similar territory. Reviewers will tell us a book isn't funny, so it failed because it didn't make them smile. Which is honest, but again not very helpful. A few examples of what the reviewer does find funny might be enlightening. Humour is notoriously subjective, which is why it's such a hard sell for publishers. And also why it's hard to review, of course. The line you quoted from the Flexer book about the protagonist's nervous fart -- I thought that was perfect comic timing that also sold me on him -- his weaknesses were all manifested physically, which worked for me and didn't for you. You thought the fart was vulgar and unnecessary and made you dislike the protagonist and possibly contributed to you deciding that the author was insensitive. Again, you didn't like the protagonist urinating on a tyre to cool it down, cause people don't do that. I thought it showed the protagonist's character in an effective and peculiarly demonstrative way, and the fact that people don't do that was exactly the point the author was making: only a lunatic would take a leak on a tyre to cool it down.

    > But let's face it -- judging from his writing, I don't think Flexer is
    > overly sensitive. And in fact, both he and his publisher seemed fine
    > with my review, at least according to recent correspondence. "Brutal
    > but honest. Thanks." was the gist of it.

    You can't judge someone's sensitivity by how they write a work of fiction from the character-specific point of view of a psycho. All you can judge is the sensitivity of the fictional psycho. Anyway, I'm sure you know that. I do believe there are some pretty sensitive psychos around, mind you. Still, a very professional response from Flexer.

    > And I really don't care whether a blurb was from a successful writer
    > or not -- only if it's honest or not. And whether it says something.
    > Some blurbs are so wishy-washy it's hard to tell what they mean. A
    > pointed, accurate, honest blurb from an unknown would impress me more
    > than some vaguely-worded mealy-mouthed thumbs-up from some big shot.
    > Or even a medium shot.
    > It comes down to writing for me, I guess. Not the sig line.

    I think it was Ed Gorman who mentioned that a book without blurbs looks pretty bare. That's exactly right, and while you can fill some of that space for a sophomore effort with reviews for the debut (hopefully), a blurb is pretty much the best you can do for the first book. And of course it should come down to the writing. In an ideal world, all book jackets would be uniformly white except for the title and even the author's name would be absent, and then it really would be down to the writing. But the book has to get sold first before someone reads it. So how it looks matters -- nice cover design, good jacket copy, attractive author photo, good pull quotes, author blurbs, they all help sell the book. And in the current climate, publishers are looking to get all the help they can.



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