The Art (and Power) of the Book Blurb

In the current issue of the TLS, DJ Taylor addresses in the “Freelance” column “blurb-writing” for book covers and promotional materials. He begins with a discussion of the various considerations brought to bear in composing a successful blurb. These are based on his own experience as well as the advice of book publishers such as Anthony Blond and Rupert Hart-Davis. Perhaps the best of the stories about blurb composition relates to Orwell’s 1984 where Taylor notes that one of the pitfalls:

is the copy hazarded by an enthusiastic editor which betrays in every line just how little he, or she, has understood the book. “As to the blurb, I really don’t think the approach in the draft you sent me is the right one”, an aggrieved-sounding George Orwell wrote from the island of Jura to Roger Senhouse, his editor at Secker & Warburg, in December 1948, six months before Nineteen Eighty-Four hit the shelves. “It makes the book sound as though it were a thriller mixed up with a love story, and I didn’t intend it to be either.” Orwell, keener on the “zones of influence” he had detected at the 1943 Tehran Conference and wanting “to indicate by parodying them the intellectual implications of totalitarianism”, eventually had his way.

Another case considers one of Waugh’s last books, A Tourist in Africa:

How have book blurbs changed over the years? One obvious answer is that they have grown marginally less sedate. How, you might wonder, did Evelyn Waugh react to the news that Chapman & Hall considered A Tourist in Africa (1961) “a very pleasant bedside book (which should induce sleep in all but the most stubborn insomniacs)”?

So far as appears from his correspondence with his agents AD Peters in this period, Waugh seems not to have made any comment or involved himself in the composition of that blurb. It was the concluding sentence in a one-paragraph description of the book on the inside front flap of the dust wrapper. The rear page of the dust wrapper is covered with favorable quotes from reviews in the British press of the Ronald Knox biography. In any event, Waugh had no reason to object to the modesty of the blurb as he was under no delusions as to the quality of A Tourist in Africa. He told his brother Alec in a letter dated 25 October 1960 that he had not sent him a copy because he was ashamed of it

Waugh was not reluctant to become actively engaged in blurb-writing when it suited his interest. He wrote favorable descriptions of two early Muriel Spark novels and sent one to her agent (for The Comforters) and one to her (for The Bachelors). Both of these quotes still appear on the front cover of the current UK editions of these books. On the other hand, he was no shrinking violet in turning down book publicists’ soliicitations. For example, when Nina Bourne of Simon & Schuster ask for a favorable comment on Joseph Heller’s book Catch-22, Waugh sent back a catalogue of perceived defects of the book: indelicacy, prolixity–should be cut by half, often repetitious, lacking in structure. He was, however, prepared to say that “Much of the dialogue is funny”. He offered his own rather verbose blurb should she choose to use it: “This exposure of corruption, cowardice and incivility of American officers will outrage all friends of your country (such as myself) and greatly comfort your enemies” (Letters 417, 551, and 571-72).

Taylor’s musings over blurb-writing is in response to the need to compose one for his upcoming book which was mentioned in a previous post. Here’s a preview:

But where does this leave yours truly? To judge from these templates, it would saddle my own darling work with a paragraph that begins, “This is a book about some young women who worked on Cyril Connolly’s literary magazine Horizon in the 1940s and what they got up to in the black-out”. Somehow absorbing works of cultural reinvention and dazzling new lights seem the safer bet.




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