An A-Z of Literary Persuasion – Inside Account of Book Exteriors – The Irish Times
Last year, author Jeanette Winterson posted a photo of her books being burned on Twitter. Cancel culture? No – the person burning her books was Winterson herself. “I absolutely hated the cozy little domestic texts on my new covers,” she wrote, in typically pugnacious style. “Nothing playful or weird or advance stuff that’s in there. So I set them on fire.
The blurbs – the text of the publishers’ sales pitch on the back cover – indeed took a revisionist view of Winterson’s experimental and eccentric work. His modernist love story, Written on the Body, was garbled when published in 1992 with phrases like “Generous in its scope, lavish in its detail, it is a story told by a vulnerable and subversive Lothair, in undeclared sex”. The new blurb began: “In a quiet English suburb, a love affair ignites.”
You can see why Winterson viewed the new blurbs as bathing: they sought to make the books sound like generic literary fiction, and any new reader approaching them that way would be disappointed. On the other hand, his publisher was trying to introduce Winterson – a writer who rose from the forefront to the backroom of the literary establishment – to new readers, which will also benefit him.
Louise Willder, a professional feature writer for Penguin Books for 25 years, keeps her views on the Winterson case to herself: it is only mentioned in passing in her book Blurb Your Enthusiasm. But she gives us plenty of juice on other aspects of the “outer story of the books” in this well-filled sound jar of nuggets on the covers, artwork, puff quotes, and more.
Layouts work in the shadow world of literature: they are crucially important given that they are one of the first things readers will see in a book, after the title and cover design. , yet they are not part of the reading experience. . Their job is to persuade the reader to the first page and then disappear.
They demand meticulous precision, reflecting the feel of the book but not spoiling it (“you can’t sell them the experience of the book – you have to sell them the expectation of reading it”): and the jammer must produce what James Baldwin called it “a phrase as clean as bone”, although they won’t get any credit the author does.
The fewer words you have, the more difficult it becomes, and it’s no wonder that many blurbs devolve into what Willder considers unforgivable clichés of the form, like the “three adjectives and an adverb formula”. (“a shocking, hilarious, and oddly tender novel…”). 324-word description on cover.
We also have asides on things like the cover design, with award-winning designer David Pearson saying he likes to “occupy that space between artistic integrity and unit flogging.” Wilder seems firmly on the side of the flogging units. She’s cynical about blurbs from the past that assume knowledge on the part of the reader – like the one in Greene’s The Power and the Glory referring to a ‘whisky priest’ – for not ‘making it easy’ ; but why not, at a time when we all have Google in our pockets?
Likewise, Wilder is impatient with a new blurb by Kurt Vonnegut that “gives little clue as to what the book is about”, which anyone who has read Vonnegut knows is the least interesting thing about his novels. (and, arguably, most novels) anyway. Far more important is that the blurb captures Vonnegut’s voice and spirit – for readers anyway, if not floggers.
Sometimes Blurb Your Enthusiasm needs to be a little more on the inside than on the outside. Some chapters are little more than collections of examples, while I would have liked more behind-the-scenes stories about the battles over blurbs or how they evolved from author to editor.
We get cool stuff like that, like finding out that Donna Tartt has rejected all attempts to change the blurb or cover of The Secret History, and an acceptance that publishers, by claiming all their books are brilliant, are essentially lying , or at least lie.
Willder also acknowledges that she (probably not alone among her colleagues) invented praise quotes from other authors to put on the covers of new books – with, of course, the approval of said author who did not had time to read the book which they are nevertheless sure is quite brilliant.
It doesn’t have to be like that. As Willder notes, there are ways for the busy author to provide a quote to a friend, as Alan Coren did when Jeffrey Archer asked him for a quote for a new book he didn’t really like. “Jeffrey Archer fans,” Coren wrote masterfully, “will not be disappointed.”