To Blurb or Not to Blurb

Once a week, on average, I receive a request to blurb someone’s poetry book. For the last five years, I’ve been saying no. For a while it was a hedged no; I’d say that I probably won’t have time, but feel free to send the manuscript, anyway. A few dozen consecutive failures and that evolved into a blanket no. No, sorry. No, sorry. Sorry, but no.

Time, of course, is a major problem—even with the best intentions, and when I know I’ll probably love the book, it’s hard to find the time for extracurriculars when 20,000 poems still need replies (and they always do).

It’s more than that, though. When my own book was in pre-production, I asked seven of my favorite poets for blurbs. It was as awkward as it is for everyone else, but that’s what you do with a new book, and I did it. Almost immediately two of them replied in a way that I never expected: They said that they didn’t have time, but that they trusted me, and/or already knew that they liked my poetry, so if I needed a blurb I could just write one myself, and put their name beneath it. One said that I should send it to them for approval, but the other said I could use whatever I wrote unseen. I told them both I wasn’t comfortable blurbing myself, and used other blurbs instead. I know they were genuinely trying to be kind and not unethical, so I won’t say who they were. But I was more than a little taken aback—one might be a fluke, but two of seven? Every time I read a blurb now, I think of this.

And then there’s the fact that blurbs are ridiculous. I don’t need to describe how they’re ridiculous; everyone who’s read them knows they’re ridiculous. Dan Waber put together a great take-down with his Blurbinator, but there have been many.

They are hard to write, of course; that’s why they’re ridiculous—the balloon is so inflated that anything less than “John Keats reincarnate occupying the emotional space between an orgasm and angioplasty” sounds like faint praise. There’s an art to it, but it isn’t a fun art, nor an art that, I think, does much good.

Needless to say, all of this really interferes with my natural impulse to help books that I enjoy find a wider audience. I’ve been planning on writing more of these microreviews, which are basically just honest blurbs after publication—it’s still hard to find the time, but I want to try.

This morning I was declining my 40th blurb request of the year, and found myself halfway through a sentence saying that, while I can’t blurb the book now, I might be able to microreview it after publication, when the obvious occurred to me—why the hell am I offering to consider blurbing later, but not now, when it will be much more useful to the author now?

Here I am, holding a grudge against blurbs for the simple fact that I hate them because I can’t trust them, when I could instead simply try to make them trustworthy.

So I think I’m going to start treating blurb requests the same as I treat review copies: You can send me your manuscript, and a deadline, but you can’t count on me. If I don’t reply, it will either be because I didn’t find time to read the book, or because I didn’t love the book—but I’m not going to tell you which it was. The fact is, I don’t love many books, but I don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings. And of course I’ll continue to only comment on books that I actually love. And have read.

I shouldn’t have to say that. And I probably don’t; the whole enterprise probably isn’t as bad as it seems. But I vow to stop being so cynical about it from now on.

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