Booker judge rails against star book blurbs

The Guardian‘s Claire Armitstead posted an article that asks the question, “Do celebrity book blurbs ‘blackmail’ readers?”

“This year’s flurry of fur and feathers was provoked by a tirade from Colin Thubron (pictured) on celebrity endorsements,” Armitstead writes. “Some blurbs, said the veteran travel writer, ‘almost blackmail’ readers into feeling that ‘you’re either intellectually or morally incompetent if you don’t love this book or you’ve failed if you haven’t understood it.’ Some people, he felt, ‘seem to earn their living . . . saying: ‘This is the most profound book of our generation.'”

It’s true. There are plenty of “quote whores” out there, and not just in the field of literature. How many times have film fans seen a blurb from someone like Pete Hammond over-praising a movie that’s mediocre at best? And as Armitstead points out, the practice of celebrity or star blurbing is hardly a new phenomenon. And when a star is born, there are plenty of knocks on the door for favor payback.

Armitstead cites novelist Nathan Filer as Exhibit A. Filer said that one critic didn’t even bother to read his debut novel, The Shock of the Fall, preferring instead to quote a blurb writer who was a better-known novelist. Joe Dunthorne called it “engaging, funny and inventive.” But as Filer pointed out, “I’ve known Joe Dunthorne for many years. I think he owed me a favor.” And six months after he won the Costa book of the year, he received 42 unsolicited proofs of soon-to-be-published novels asking HIM for a blurb.

Such is literary life.

“Filer’s post produced some hilarious comments about the pratfalls of indiscriminate blurbing. ‘Probably the nadir,’ wrote Chris Power, ‘is John Updike’s for ZZ Packer’s Drinking Coffee Elsewhere: ‘ZZ Packer tells it like it izz.'”

Of course, anyone who’s read a number of Updike’s blurbs knows that he tended to blurb only those books he liked, and when he went for a pun it meant the occasion (or book) called for it.


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