THE INFLUENCE OF ANXIETY:
What Are Blurbs For?
By DOROTHY PARKA
I was seduced by John Hodgman. No, not that way! He seduced me into reading a book by blurbing it in a highly complimentary fashion.
About ten years ago, I discovered that I didn’t like books that were blurbed by Padgett Powell. Powell, besides being a writing professor at the University of Florida, is a Southern writer whose work is kind of a cross between Harry Crews and Donald Barthelme. Sounds right up my alley, right? For whatever reason, Powell’s work didn’t grab me, although I only read his book of short stories, Aliens of Affection. I like X-Files aliens, but this wasn’t about that kind of alien.
But I understood that the problem was with me, not with him. So when I noticed his name under jacket blurbs, I would find my interest suddenly piqued. Purchase would ensue, then reading, then disappointment. It was like some sort of five stages of death thing. It took me several books before I got to the fourth and fifth stages: anger and acceptance. I now know that I will not like any book blurbed by Padgett Powell. I started a “do not trust” list of book blurbers, and Powell’s name is at the top. In fact, it’s currently the only name, but I’ve got time.
Anyway, what this brings me to is this: Blurbs are not to be trusted! This is how most blurbs are gotten: the author contacts every writer he or she has ever met and asks them to write a complementary blurb on his or her book. This is why grad school is so important to writers—that’s the place where they meet their future blurbers. Obviously not all blurbing works this way, but do a little digging around, and you’ll see a strange correlation between glowing blurbs from MFA writing professors and the school where the author got his or her degree.
But even with my inherent savviness about these things, I am still suckered in by the blurb. I’ve often read books based on the fact that they were blurbed by David Foster Wallace, despite the fact that I knew we did not share the same taste in literature (though Dave Eggers’s A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius and Ken Kalfus’s Thirst were two recommendations I enjoyed). I’ve read a lot of things blurbed by Pynchon, and I haven’t been disappointed yet (did you all read Phil Patton’s Dreamland? It’s about X-Files aliens!).
All this leads up to the fact that I was suckered in by Hodgman. I got this book called Smart Girls Like Me by Diane Vadino, and it kinda looked like chick lit. Apparently Vadino worked at McSweeney’s and Spin and had an award-winning blog (I know, I know, your cat has an award-winning blog), and it has a bunch of great blurbs. Nylon called Vadino “an exhilarating talent.” Entertainment Weekly said the book was “A raw and honest glimpse at single life.” Yeah, whatev; Nylon and EW are not exactly The New Yorker. But JOHN HODGMAN calls it “a zippy-smart, bitter-funny read.” Hodgman! This guy knows funny, right? And smart. I loved The Areas of My Expertise, especially the portents of the end times, like cats and skunks eating side by side. The hobo names were kind of a throw-away, but, well, I forgive easily.
John Hodgman: Man of questionable blurbage.It seemed that Smart Girls Like Me was intelligent chick lit, which maybe I’d be OK with reading. Like maybe it wasn’t really the chick lit book I thought it was from the description (20-something editorial assistant at a fashion website, in love with some dude, friend getting married—all the usual stuff). Maybe it was only being marketed that way to attract a wider audience. Maybe it was, as Hodgman said, hiding a beautiful, accomplished novel in its genetic code. So I read and I read and I read and I FINISHED and I haven’t yet discovered the part that’s not proto-typical chick lit. I’m calling you out, Hodgman!
As chick lit goes, Smart Girls is good. It’s got everything chick lit fans want: a quirky insecure heroine living in New York City with a job in fashion and media, a hunky but stupid objet de désir, a wacky best friend, and lots of product placement. To be something more than chick lit, it would need, oh, I dunno, something that reaches beyond the genre. Aliens, maybe, or feral hamsters or a war.
Now, maybe Hodgman didn’t read Bridget Jones’s Diary, a genuinely highly accomplished chick lit novel. Or any Jane Austen. Or maybe Hodgman has completely different taste in literature than I do. But the fact that I couldn’t find that beautiful, accomplished novel Hodgman speaks of made me think that possibly he blurbed so effusively because he and Vadino became good friends when she worked at McSweeney’s. And with friends like Hodgman, who needs hunky but stupid boyfriends?
Of course, this brings up a larger issue—when does a blurb go from truthiness to an outright prevarication? Should we as readers have to put on our sleuthy hats and houndstooth capes and do a close reading of the blurbs? It feels like overkill, but I almost feel as if readers either have to ignore the blurbs or be prepared to do some Magnum P.I. style research on possible nepotistic connections between blurber and blurbee. Oddly, I’m willing to forgive Powell—his blurbs aren’t lies, but they are clearly indicative of a fundamental lack of understanding of what will appeal to me. Hodgeman’s truth was so stretchy that it almost begins to take on another state, like going from solid to vapor.
On the other hand, when I applied to grad school, I only asked the profs who would give us glowing recs, so who am I to talk? I hope they said similar things about me: Accomplished! Zippy-smart! Fun!
The jury is still sequestered as they debate whether or not I have to add Hodgman to my “do not trust” list of blurbers. But John Hodgman, I’m watching you.