27 August 2016

Book Blurbing

First on Scroll

Rumour has it that when Robert Frost was once asked, ‘What’s your poem about?’, he replied, ‘Read it.’ Not everyone has the luxury of being Robert Frost, though. By which I mean that books need blurbs. And I also mean that writing a blurb is hard. I realize how abominable that sounds, considering that someone has actually written a whole book, which, yes, for the record, is far harder than writing that paragraph – or those two or three or four paragraphs – on the back of that book (or on the book’s webpage on your favourite e-commerce book retailer) which helps you decide whether to read/buy it. Still, someone wrote the blurb, someone put those words together, those exact words in that exact combination, and they struggled with it.

I write blurbs regularly. Here are some of the thoughts running through my head as I write them. Is this really a ‘brave’ piece of writing? Am I overselling this? Am I underselling it? Which of these two things is the greater crime? Is there a more original way to say ‘original’? Am I resorting to clichés when I use words like ‘unputdownable’? What adds drama? Do I even need to add drama? Isn’t that just pandering? Is subtlety important? Am I being too subtle? Too direct? Too needy? Not needy enough? How do you blurb a romance without using words like ‘love’ and ‘destiny’? How do you blurb crime fiction without saying ‘page-turner’ and ‘whodunnit’ and ‘cliffhanger’ and ‘edge of your seat’? Do people even read on seats any more, much less their edges? Is that literary reference too obscure? Too obvious? And how, just how, do you find new ways of saying ‘evocative’ every goddamn time?

It’s the Tinder profile of the literary world. You want to seem sexy but not easy; smart but not nerdy; intriguing but not misleading; cute but not silly. You want to sound precise but you don’t want to give too much away. You want to sound clever, but not pretentious. And remember, just remember, the next adorable profile is just one left-swipe away.

And every time I stare at a judgementally blank word document, knowing that I know everything there is to know about a book, every hyphen, every lovingly placed comma, every piece of dialogue that almost did not make it to the final draft, I still have absolutely no clue how to compress all of that knowledge, that intimate knowledge gained over months of editing and typesetting and proofreading and late-night phone calls about writers’ blocks and wavering and self-doubt, into the 150 to 350 words that can be nicely accommodated on the back cover of the book (or, in the case of a hardcover, the front flap).

I have a trick to it, though. You know that feeling when you’ve just listened to a great song and you want to poke the hapless individual next to you and tell them to listen to it too? I know someone – who may or may not be me – who once plunged their headphones into the ears of the person next to them on the metro with the words, ‘Dude, you’ve got to listen to this song.’ That’s exactly the spirit that gets me through blurb writing. I’m invariably dying to share this gorgeous book with everyone I know, I want to screech from rooftops about it, and I channel that energy into the blurb. It’s the good kind of showing off. Okay, there’s no good kind of showing off, but you know what I mean.

It isn’t formula, nothing beautiful ever is. It’s not a pickup line. Or maybe it is, but it’s the perfect pickup line for the moment, it’s the one you need, once you know whether you’re taking that drunk boy at the bar home for the night or taking that nice gentleman from the café to a quiet dinner on the beachside; it’s the craft of knowing what you need to do to get the one-night stand and what you need to do to get the long afternoon spent curled up with a blanket or a cat or a cup of coffee. Not that one’s any better than the other – but the charm of it, the craft of it, lies in getting the one you want, not settling for one because the other fake-numbered you or ghosted you or whatever the heck it is they’re calling it these days.
But, at the end of the day, (Isn’t that a terrible cliché? Don’t ever say ‘at the end of the day’ in a blurb.), don’t forget that all of this is only packaging, it’s the carton, not the milk, it’s the hat, the toupee, the push-up bra, the rolled-up sock in the pants. Finally, it’s the book itself that will tell the real story. Remember what Robert Frost said. 

21 May 2016

Why You Don't Read as Much as You Used To

First on Scroll.

This is the thing, though. It’s not the churn of the twenty-four-hour news cycle that has dismembered that style of reading you were once so good at: the solid uninterrupted chunk, the afternoon in the park, the sleepless night (those sleepless nights, they were secretly the best). And no, I’m not going to be pedantic about WhatsApp and Twitter and Facebook and Instagram and Tinder and, dare I say it, cat videos. And I won’t say your attention span has shortened or that your self-interest has lengthened or that the only way to deliver a story to you (I won’t say ‘content’, I hate that word) is through a listicle punctuated with memes and gifs (although, let’s face it, we all know you devotedly read every single listicle about Harry Potter). No, it’s not the Internet, it’s not the brevity of the microtext, and anyway, your attention span is fine, I know you also read The Order of the Phoenix in one sitting, and god knows it wasn’t all that pacey. No, the thing that has broken the unbrokenness of your former reading style is the volume, the expanse, it’s the needle in the goddamn haystack.

It all begins innocuously enough. There’s a long-form piece someone linked to (you’ve always liked the pieces this person links to): it’s one of those thoughtful essays, about the the waterways of some European nation, the soda taxes in a Latin American country, that sort of thing, the kind of writing that contextualizes a familiar pain even as it is set in an unfamiliar landscape. It’s framed in just the sort of language and rhetoric that engages you. It’s a seventy-minute read, the webpage helpfully informs you. That feels doable.

Only, it cites other pieces by linking to them. And you don’t feel like you’re being completely thorough unless you open each of these links in separate tabs, just to make sure you have all the background you really need in order to understand all the points this piece is making. And besides, this one’s only seventy minutes, and you’re used to reading for hours together.

Then, halfway through, the piece mentions the name of a book. It sounds clever and fun, and you feel like you’ve heard the name before. You should probably read the book. But maybe you should read a review first, you know, just to be certain. Sure enough, there’s a glowing review in a magazine you trust (and there aren’t that many that you trust these days, trust being such a strong word and all). But here’s the bigger question: is this a reviewer you should trust?

Maybe you should read a few reviews that the reviewer has written in the past, of books that you’ve read, just to see if your tastes clash. Oh, good. They don’t. Isn’t it wonderful that this reviewer too found that memoir self-indulgent even if poetically written, or that this reviewer too did not like the sequel to that other book that you both loved? Maybe you should reread that other book just to see if it’s as good as you remember it being.

But wait. There’s this book – you know, the one referenced in that article you paused at the thirty-five-minute mark, yeah, that one. Should you buy it? Maybe you should read two more reviews of the book, just to get a sense of what other reviewers think. Okay, mostly good things. Enough now. It’s time to take the plunge. And look, you can order it directly to your electronic reader.

So you do, guiltily glancing at the half-read long-form piece, the fourteen open tabs and that other book you started reading late last night when you couldn’t fall asleep. But this book! What a glorious opening paragraph. You settle right in. You read.

And I know you, you’d never leave anything undone. At some point, you’ll return to that article (your browser will have kept the page scrolled down to that exact point where you stopped), and you’ll quickly skim through those open tabs and you’ll read at least three of them, and you’ll buy a few more books that reviewer liked, and maybe a few that she didn’t like, just to see, and you’ll read them too, because there’s nothing more judgemental than that fold on the book icon in your e-reader that says a book has never been opened. And sure, your backlog will pile up, and there will be a stack of books by your bedside and under your table and in the corner of your sock drawer, and sure, someone will have linked to another great long-form piece by then that you will dutifully save to your read-it-later application, and you’ll get to that one too, I know you will.

Because here’s the clincher, here’s why you don’t read as much as you used to: it’s because, in fact, you read a lot more than you ever used to. When you think about it, that’s a whole other kind of wonderful.