I’ve Wrote 5,000 Blurbs For Books – And Yes, Sometimes They Lie
Almost as long as there have been books, they have been promoted by their authors and their publishers. The word “blurb” appeared relatively late in literary history, coined in a 1907 advertisement by American author Frank Gelett Burgess. He proudly declares, “Yes, it’s a BLURB!” All other publishers hire them. Why shouldn’t we?” and features an image of an enthusiastic-looking woman, “Miss Belinda Blurb jamming”. She’s definitely blurry, describing Burgess’s book, Are You a Bromide? , like making you “want to crawl through 30 miles of dense tropical jungle and bite someone in the neck. Did I miss a tip this whole time by not describing the physical feats a book will compel readers to endure – dancing on hot knives or submitting to a controlled explosion?
It’s easy and fun to poke fun at the clichés and the hyperbolic language often used to describe books, whether it’s Bridget Jones launching Kafka’s Motorbike with the slogan “the greatest book of our time”, or Edmund Blackadder’s magnum opus Edmund: A Butler’s Tale: “The giant roller coaster of a steamy 400-chapter novel. A searing indictment of domestic servitude. I also wonder, though, if most of the time we’re all in on the joke, and that’s okay.
As someone who spends most of my days working with and caring about words, and occasionally pounding them into submission (which the otherwise somewhat cheesy nickname “wordsmith” accurately conveys), I think writing is, well, fun. Ultimately, we want to tell a story to the reader. DJ Taylor states, “Of all the minor literary arts, none is so delicate as the production of dust jacket copies.” A lot of thought, care and attention goes into creating a book, how it looks and how we describe it. Maybe sometimes we can truly judge a book by its cover.
I am intrigued by this tension between content and packaging, between object and description of the object, between seriousness and frivolity. I obsessively read blurbs, not only on books, but also on advertisements, posters, DVDs, catalogs, and even packages of sandwiches, trying to figure out what’s going on and if it’s working. Who writes them? How do they decide what to say? Why do Netflix movie descriptions never look like the movie you just saw?
At one level, a blurb is just a folder, a thrift store. It’s such a stupid word, after all. When I told a class of five-year-olds what a blurb was, they thought it was the funniest thing they’d ever heard and laughed at their little ones. “bug stains” on the carpet. But the presentation texts also tell us a lot about the language. They require conciseness and concentration. Words have to work very hard. As TS Eliot said, “Anyone involved in publishing knows how difficult writing an artistic blurb is.” According to Cecil Day-Lewis, the sonnet, the detective story and the blurb are all the most perfect crystallization of the literary form.
I’ve become obsessed with certain questions while writing blurbs, and my new book is my attempt to answer them, building on the lessons I’ve learned as a blurb writer. , a blurbologist, a blurbist or a Belinda. How do the things we see first – headline, tagline, quotes, opening line, cover design – work together to make us want to pick it up again? Has the way we use words to sell books changed over time? When did the first blurb appear? Is it still okay to swear or give the end? (Spoiler: yes.) And finally, what do the blurbs say about us?
This is the outer story of the books. I never thought I was able to write more than 100 words after all these years of scrambling, but it turns out playing with lots of words is even more enjoyable than just a few.
TEASERS: Can you guess the book from the blurb?
1 It’s an ordinary Thursday noon for Arthur Dent until his house is demolished. Earth follows soon after, and his best friend has just announced that he is an alien. Now they rush into space with nothing but their towels and an innocuous-looking book that reads DON’T PANIC. The weekend has only just begun…
2 A dazzling, urban satire of modern relationships? An ironic and tragic insight into the demise of the nuclear family? Or the confused ramblings of a pissed off thirty-something?
3 Under the influence of their charismatic teacher, a group of smart and eccentric misfits discover a way of life far removed from the monotonous existence of their contemporaries. But when they push beyond the bounds of normal morality, their lives are changed when they discover how hard it can be to truly live and how easy it is to kill.
4 On the hottest day of the summer of 1935, 13-year-old Briony Tallis sees her sister Cecilia diving into the fountain in the garden of their country house. Robbie Turner watches it too. At the end of this day, the lives of all three will have been changed forever, as Briony will commit a crime for which she will spend the rest of her life trying to redeem herself.
5 As night falls, a man caught in a snowstorm is forced to take refuge in a strange and sinister house. There, he will come to learn the story of a woman forced to choose between her husband and the dangerous man she loved from a young age. How his choice led to betrayal and terrible revenge – one that still plagues the present.
1 The Traveler’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams 2 The Diary of Bridget Jones by Helen Fielding 3 The Secret History of Donna Tartt 4 The Atonement by Ian McEwan 5 Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë
Extract from Blurb Your Enthusiasm by Louise Willder (Oneworld, £14.99), out September 1