English English language Etymology Expression Language Publishing Usage Writing

Blowing Their Cover

[Pat’s review of a book about how publishers tout their books, reprinted from the September 2022 issue of the Literary Review, London. We’ve left in the British punctuation and spelling.]

* * * * * * * * * * * *


Blurb Your Enthusiasm: An A–Z of Literary Persuasion
By Louise Willder (Oneworld 352pp £14.99)

‘It starts with the rats.’

Gotcha, didn’t it? That line got me too. It’s from a blurb for The Plague, and the nameless copywriter deserves a plaque. Those five words conveyed all the ominous menace of the book and got there a lot faster than Camus, bless him.

Blurb Your Enthusiasm, Louise Willder’s homage to the persuasive end of publishing, is studded with jewels like that – sales pitches raised to artistry. Or to hilarity, as with the blurb for a campy German novel about Hitler’s return from the dead: ‘HE’S BACK. AND HE’S FÜHRIOUS.’

A ‘tell-all’ of shameless promotion, this book examines all the paraphernalia designed to hook a reader: title, subtitle, first sentence, jacket art, review quotes, flattering remarks from other authors, and so on. But the star here is the in-house précis and plug known as the publisher’s blurb, usually found on the back cover or a jacket flap. After twenty-five years in publishing, Willder figures she’s written more than five thousand. (A side note: in the United States, a ‘blurb’ is a prepublication endorsement by a fellow author, otherwise known as a ‘puff ’.)

Although Willder admires blurbal perfection, she has also put together a ‘little cabinet of horrors’ – blurbs so deliciously bad that we suspect the copywriters were impaired or never read the books. She describes these productions as ‘unhinged’, ‘barking’, ‘bats’, ‘deranged abominations’ and ‘a big “screw-you” to the reader’. A standout in that last category: ‘This is a Lord Peter Wimsey story. Need we say more?’ Well, yes.

Pulp editions of the classics are particularly rich in covers that in no way reflect what’s inside. Willder delights in a garish edition of Pride and Prejudice featuring a smouldering, hairy-chested Darcy, smoke curling from his cigarette, and the line ‘Lock Up Your Daughters… Darcy’s In Town!’ Often the writers of blurbs for pulp classics ‘take leave of their senses’, the author writes, citing a reprint of Zola’s Nana: ‘Voluptuous and violent, she created a world of luxury which revolved about her person.’ Her person?

In a more serious vein, Willder explores the history of book promotion, from William Caxton’s medieval flyers to the marketing tricks that helped sell Charles Dickens and Victor Hugo. Dickens owned the author tour and the dramatic reading, we learn, while Hugo perfected the art of advance buzz, right down to press releases embargoed till publication date. And when it comes to advertising posters, Hugo was the original plasterer of Paris.

Now here’s a eureka moment. Think of the ridiculously verbose title pages of 17th- and 18th-century books, their inflated subtitles ballooning out to fill every inch of space. A case in point:

Who lived Eight and Twenty Years,
all alone in an un-inhabited Island on the
coast of AMERICA, near the Mouth of
the Great River of OROONOQUE;
Having been cast on Shore by Shipwreck,
wherein all the Men perished but himself.
An Account how he was at last as strangely
deliver’d by PYRATES.
Written by Himself.

It’s a blurb! Daniel Defoe’s own blurb, Written by Himself. As Willder explains, early books had no covers, let alone jackets. They were just bundles of folded pages (the wealthy had them bound). So the logical place for any marketing hoo-ha was the title page, which a bookseller could hang on a string to attract shoppers.

Then as now, hyperbole sold books. And speaking as a copywriter, Willder admits to creating her share. The blub is ‘my 100 words of little white lies’, she says. ‘There has to be some kind of sugar coating and, yes, lying.’

Of course, one has to draw the line somewhere, and Willder would like to see fewer shopworn adjectives on book covers, specifically ‘luminous’, ‘dazzling’, ‘incandescent’, ‘stunning’, ‘shimmering’, ‘sparkling’, ‘glittering’, ‘devastating’, ‘searing’, ‘shattering’, ‘explosive’, ‘epic’, ‘electrifying’, ‘dizzying’, ‘chilling’, ‘staggering’, ‘deeply personal’ and the ubiquitous ‘haunting’.

Hooray! Publishers (and reviewers), take note. I never could understand ‘incandescent’. Even light bulbs aren’t incandescent anymore. And while we’re at it, I’d like to blue-pencil the noun phrases ‘rite of passage’, ‘coming of age’ and ‘richly woven tapestry’.

Louise Willder – we are cut from the same cloth. But you can’t escape without a couple of quibbles. It wasn’t Dorothy Parker who said, ‘I’d rather have a bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy.’ It was Tom Waits (one could fill a book with Dorothy Parker quips that Dorothy Parker never quipped). And ‘furlough’ is not an American term. It originated in 17th-century British English. Check the Oxford English Dictionary, a deeply shattering work of haunting luminosity.

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation. And check out our books about the English language and more.

Subscribe to the blog by email

Enter your email address to subscribe to the blog by email. If you’re a subscriber and not getting posts, please subscribe again.