31 July 2006

Can you Blurb my Blog?

“NOW WHAT explodes the blogosphere like a runaway comet attacking the dinosaurs at the dawn of mammal time. It’s an otherworldly rocket ride through the terrain of innovative publishing—a spinal tap for the dull consumerist spinal cord—an all-encompassing Whitman-esque embrace, that, like the godfather of American poetry—takes everything in and leaves nothing to chance. NOW WHAT is the heir to H.L. Mencken, Martin Luther, and Soupy Sales. Slip on a hand puppet, nail your complaints to the door, and enjoy this endlessly delightful show.”

***

I was struck by a recent discussion in the most recent American Book Review (27.5) between Joe Tabbi and R.M. Berry, regarding Tabbi’s review of Berry’s great novel Frank. There is much to the exchange between the two authors, but one point involves Tabbi’s worry that innovative authors and publishers sometimes claim a secret knowledge of the world, beyond the perception of the average reader; one implication is that such claims may be a type of marketing hyperbole.

I wonder if those on this blog, contributors and readers, have any thoughts about book blurbs. You know, those little parcels of often-outrageous praise we solicit and write for the back covers of new books.

Do blurbs tells us anything useful about a text or a writer—or, like many letters of recommendation in higher education—are there only differing degrees of extreme plaudits? Do any of you have evidence that authors have not read books to which they contribute blurbs? What are you blurbing habits? [BONUS: Can you write the best possible NOW WHAT blurb?] There's an entire publicity system at work that we have yet to discuss.

Of course, feel free to respond anonymously. And it is rare, if not unheard of, to be asked to blurb anonymously.

Davis

10 comments:

waw said...

As embarassing as it may be for me to admit, blurbs do influence my purchase of books. Well, mainstream stuff that I just happen to find sitting on the shelf, anyway - you know, otherwise unknown, unrecommended things whose covers catch my eye as I'm waking by.

But the part that I always actually feel bad about is this: it's not so much the content of the blurb as the writer of the blurb that gets me to investigate further. And the worst part is the reverse of that situation: show me a book without a blurb from someone I have heard of and I will be more inclined to toss it on the pile of dry, boring fiction that is the mainstream and less inclined to give it a chance.

When it comes to a publisher or imprint I trust, the blurb still has sway, but only a fraction of what it does otherwise. A personal recommendation trumps all.

Dimitri Anastasopoulos said...

Davis, my first response to Tabbi's comment about secret knowledge is, "what world?" Isn't the unreal world of any fiction a secret until it's either read or written?

Secondly, a blurb is as good as the writer. I think some writers d it really well, like Paul West. He seems to believe that writing a blurb is an occasion of a sort. Others stick to the tedious cliche, or else use trite formulas ("the author employs the techniques of Franz Kafka while channeling Banana Yoshimoto).

One thing blurbs can't do is tell us much about the book. I think they tell us a little about how people read the book. And sometimes I find it interesting that a blurber believes a book is about "an occurence occurring" even if the book is about nothing of the sort.

Lostcheerio said...

I look at who wrote the blurb, not what the blurb said.

Lance Olsen said...

I love blurbs for the strange category of fiction they inhabit, Davis—that is, how they have nothing to do with the book at hand, except obliquely, yet pretend they do, and all in a space smaller than a perfect sonnet, of which they often somehow remind me.

But I want to go back to what prompted you to ask the question: that back-and-forth between Berry and Tabbi. For those not familiar with it, Tabbi wrote a generally positive and thoughtful review of Berry's Frank that, strangely, had embedded in it a slight upon innovative fiction and its relationship to what Tabbi still thinks of as "The Mainstream." Berry responded with a congenial yet robust rebuttal that saw innovative fiction through the lens of Wittgenstein and Lyotard and emphasized its continued importance.

I was disappointed by Tabbi's apparently hurried response to Berry's rebuttal. Instead of engaging with it and continuing the conversation he had begun, Tabbi fell back to restating his case almost as if Berry hadn't penned a response in the first place. So my impression is that hasty monologue replaced a gesture of potentially illuminating dialogue.

More interesting, though, is that Tabbi still apparently believes there is only one thing called experimental fiction, its aim is unitary, and that its audience and the one for "mainstream" fiction are somehow stable across time and space.

Davis Schneiderman said...

Good comments all around--thanks. In fact, there comments are like Samuel Beckett crossed with Air Supply.


I agree with Dimitri that blurbs tells us more about how people read, then what the content of a book may be.

Yet I still wonder if they might also tell us how people don't read...

Does anyone have any dirty little blurb secrets? Blurbing w/o fully reading...if we indeed take the point that blurb's often have little to do with the text...

Remember, you can be anonymous...


Davis

joseph tabbi said...

Lance - if my end of the exchange seems “hasty,” hey - at least I take the time in my response to cite Ralph’s words. What I get from you and Davis are speculations on what I “evidently” or “apparently” think and how I view “average” readers. I’m accused of slighting “innovative fiction” and reductively opposing “innovative fiction” and “The Mainstream.”



But let’s be fair: nowhere in my review do I speak of average readers. Rather I mention “those who read fiction published by conglomerates, get their news from papers and blogs or network media, and find pleasure where they can.” Davis reduces this list of singularities to some “average,” and then I am the one who is accused (by you, Lance) of still “apparently” believing “there is only one thing called experimental fiction.”



As for my “slight on innovative fiction” – I thought I was objecting to the way certain publishers, FC/2 and Chiasmus, go about promoting innovation with claims about fiction’s purported access to special information, an “untamed America” that can be revealed only by writers. Ralph himself pointed out that my “reservations” are “not so much about Frank, as about its description by the publisher.” So where is the slight on “innovation” itself?


For the life of me I cannot find any adherence to some notion of “mainstream” fiction that (as you put it) is “somehow stable across time and space.” What I do find, in my review, is the proposition that a literary text needs to be stable in its “material supports” – that is, at the level of letters, pages, and bound editions. Nowhere do I say that “fiction” as a genre, be it mainstream, innovative, or otherwise, needs to be stable. “To be meaningful, fiction needs to dissemble, and it needs to revel in the awareness that nothing – literally nothing – can stop the production of meaning, and still different meaning.” That’s neither an attack on innovation nor an endorsement of some unchanging mainstream.



So who is being hasty here?



In my response to Ralph, I did object to a “modernist compulsion to innovate, endlessly and mindlessly” – but it’s the endlessness that disturbs me, much as the compulsion toward endless capital accumulation and all-over media coverage troubles me. But isn’t that also what troubles the main character in Ralph’s novel? He’s spinning out inventions endlessly, spinning them out of his own brain and his own, extensive reading of literary texts. In my review and my response, I was trying to understand the worldly context of this compulsion to re-write the classics and recast everyday experience, not just in Ralph’s novel but in Ron Sukenick (Mosaic Man), Curtis White (America’s Magic Mountain), Shelley Jackson (Patchwork Girl) and the other authors mentioned in my review. There’s something going on here, closer perhaps to renovation than innovation – but whatever it is, it’s not telling us something we don’t already know about the world or can’t read in the archives.

Lance Olsen said...

It's great to hear your voice joining this party, Joe, and I hope Now Whatters will get to hear a lot more from you in the future.

Please do forgive my own apparent hastiness in addressing your article in ABR, but, as you can tell from my comment above, my mention of it formed an aside to my answer to Davis's question about blurbs. Still, I'm afraid my overall sense of your ABR piece as a restatement of the argument you already set forth in your earlier review of Frank, rather than a dialogic engagement with—and therefore expansion of—Berry's rebuttal, remains firm.

But that's neither here nor there. More interesting, it seems to me, is to push from yet further reiteration toward something like conversation, and perhaps the best way to do that is by means of question rather than renewed assertion. With that in mind, let my pose a few that struck me while reading your post, and see what you, other readers, and I can do with them:

—Is there a difference between "fiction published by conglomerates" and "mainstream" fiction, and, if so, what is it?

—Is there a difference (besides those obvious economic ones of, say, distribution and PR) between "fiction published by conglomerates" and fiction published by those "certain publishers" you have in mind, and, if so, what is it? What does that difference tell us about what writing is? Innovation?

—You say that in your ABR pieces you were "objecting to the way certain publishers, FC/2 and Chiasmus, go about promoting innovation with claims about fiction’s purported access to special information, an 'untamed America' that can be revealed only by writers." Who is the "we" implied in that sentence? That is, you seem to suggest an audience to whom "certain publishers" are speaking, while assuming others (who apparently think of themselves outside that discourse in some way?) find said publishers' claims of access to "special information" bogus. What is the nature of those publishers, that audience, and those who find those publishers' claims bogus? Is each group really as monolithic as your sentence appears to want to make it?

—Have those publishers, that audience, and those who find those publishers' claims bogus (however you might define each group) changed over time, and, if so, how? If not, why not?

—Do you imagine your claims (I'm tempted to borrow your phrase "special information") holding in countries other than the U.S.? Germany? South Africa? Cambodia? Iran with Saddam? Iran after? Lebanon?

—What would an example be of the "modernist compulsion to innovate . . . mindlessly"?

—You find in the compulsion "to rewrite classics" (however one might define that terribly troubled latter term) something "closer perhaps to renovation than innovation." How might one go about differentiating between the two notions? Are there really narratives out there that are purely innovative rather than renovative—purely, I want to say, original or unique? What would they look like? How could we make sense of them? Why isn't the act of renovation itself an innovative one? How, in this situation, would you define such fused and confused terms? Does it matter that writers have been renovating texts for centuries, and that this isn't a recent impulse?

—You conclude by saying that, whatever the something is that's going on, "it’s not telling us something we don’t already know about the world or can’t read in the archives." Whose world are you referring to—a bus driver's in Bonn or Beruit? A Bedouin's in the Sahara? A lit professor's in Illinois? An female undergraduate's in Phoenix? A male's in Manchester? Again, who does the "we" in that clause refer to? The plural pronoun seems to suggest a stable referent across time, space, social class, race, education, literacy, gender, culture, etc., but surely you don't find that the case, do you?

joseph tabbi said...

Lance - I'm not talking about Germany, South Africa, Cambodia, or Saddam, the Sahara, males in Manchester or females in Phoenix. I'm talking about Ralph's novel, and in my review I objected to the way specific, named publishers in the U.S. try to stake an untenable position 'outside' the culture of information that is available to anyone who has access to written resources in any medium. I know that excludes most of humanity, but if we (you and I, at this moment) are talking about readers of novels, then being wired, and being literate, seems like a reasonable delimitation of the field of potential readers.

You ask, who is the 'we' in my sentence about 'special information.’ Lance, read the sentence again: there is no 'we' in that sentence!

I use the plural pronoun in my conclusion, true enough. But isn't the context obvious? I am talking about those of us who have read Ralph's novel and who are interested in reading and talking about works of literary imagination. An example of the 'modernist compulsion to innovate...mindlessly' would be the work produced by Ralph's title character, assuming this character ever produced more than the scraps and notes and false starts that his amanuensis, Rob Lawton, finds in the author's pockets at the end of the book. Maybe Frank just made it all up, his life and his loves and his literary ambitions. Maybe he's as much of a comic character, as the serious innovator he makes himself out to be. (In my review I neglected to mention that the novel is really very funny, as one of my editors pointed out to me after it was published..)

There are other examples throughout history, I'm sure, of re-written classics but at the moment I am trying to understand *this* book by *this* author, and its connection to a spate of re-writings in the past few years. On my shelf I've got Christian Moraru's 2001 book, Rewriting: Postmodern Narrative and Cultural Critique in the Age of Cloning. Maybe Christian will offer some clues. If others have other references, I’d be happy to have them.

Lance Olsen said...

Two very quick points, Joe, in addition to many thanks for your last post, and then I suspect I should leave this discussion to others:

1. You write: You ask, who is the "we" in my sentence about "special information." Lance, read the sentence again: there is no "we" in that sentence!

Exclamation points aside, there's a "we" embedded in every written sentence, Joe: the implied author and the implied reader. I don't' think this "we" has been explored much, if at all, with respect to innovative fiction in particular, and that's in good part what leads many authors and critics into myriad troubles with definitions. Your sentence is rich with a number of implied and assumed we's that to my mind trips up its apparent logic.

2. You write: There are other examples throughout history, I'm sure, of re-written classics but at the moment I am trying to understand *this* book by *this* author, and its connection to a spate of re-writings in the past few years.

The postmodern urge to re-write has its launch site, not "in the past few years," but back in the sixties, with the re-fictions by Coover, Barthelme, Gardner, Reed, and others. There hasn't been a "spate" recently, but rather a steady stream through the seventies, eighties, nineties, and into this century.

But it would be a mistake to think of this textual strategy as somehow uniquely postmodern. Nearly every one of Shakespeare's plays is, in an important and revealing sense, a re-writing, for instance, as are most sections in The Odyssey and Metamorphoses.

I suppose the relevant questions, then, are: how and why, and do recent re-writings really differ from previous ones, or is Moraru's book simply imposing a snazzy metaphor (cloning) onto one of the oldest narrative techniques I can think of?

Davis Schneiderman said...

Belatedly, and with deep sadness, I retract my use of the phrase "average reader" in the intial post of this thread.

I have just returned from the funeral for the "average reader," in Las Vegas, where I offered a eulogy for the great, middling, unwashed mass--used hastily and with severe oversimplification as a convenient fiction invented by 19th century statisticians and eugenists.

BTW, the food at the wake, after the funeral, was way _below_ average.

Davis