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.