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A Well-Meant Complement: Timothy Liu on the Fine Art of Blurbing
Shall we talk about blurbs? Is it crass to critique a well-meant compliment? Perhaps. But a corrective may be in order. Many poets, poet-editors, and poet-critics gush to a disingenuous fault. Cocktail chatter can provide ample evidence. Such flattery (and flatulent excess) we have even come to expect. But when such utterances find their way to the back of book jackets, time to take stock, even risk a little rudeness. Here I feel emboldened by book reviewers like William Logan. Or Michael Robbins, another maverick poet-critic seemingly fearless about what his candor might cost him. I’d like to propose a new critical genre: blurb reviews. Anyone game?
Of course every writer must safeguard the writing life, but unlike our aforementioned rebels, what a vigilance some writers pay to safeguard their own reputations and careers, major trade publishers and the Ivy Leagues needing to be protected from infiltration and corruption at all costs. Guard those gates! But these are fungible variables. Six courses as an adjunct shuffling from one community college to the next or publication in an obscure venue that does not pay but is venerated and patronized by a coterie one devotedly courts can no less engender the dissembling I am speaking of.
If we depend on genuine critiques to atone for the disingenuous (a ritual cutting-to-the-bone that might expiate an entire tribe), who then is worthy to perform the rite? And where does kindness fit into this picture? What if I love your first book but hate everything you have published since? Do I gush over the former and keep my mouth shut on the rest (even when directly asked) especially if you are in a position to further my own career (publications, reviews, grants, prizes, reading or teaching gigs)? Scratch my back and I scratch yours, but not too harshly . . . or lavishly.
You might ask: Don’t we all expect a little excess? No harm done! With blurbs often clocking in at under a hundred words, some may wonder if there’s much room for anything substantial, but what’s brevity if not the soul of wit? Even so, many poorly-written blurbs resort to a liberal sprinkling of quotations, often a sign that the blurb writer hasn’t much to really say. Regardless, since most blurbs are written by poets (who are more often more “established” than the poet being blurbed though many post-Boomers seem to eschew authoritarian proclamations in favor of peer shout outs), why not hold poets accountable for their (mis)use of language, however well-intentioned? Blurb inflation can get tiresome. Behind the overt message of “Buy this book!” is the more covert “Please buy into this disingenuous literary economy that I need for my very own survival.” Of course, poets who have arrived at a certain venerated station might have the luxury to dispense with blurbs altogether. […]