October 15th, 2010 / 4:15 pm
Craft Notes

To Blurb, to Flail, to Fail

The technical definition of blurb is: “A brief descriptive paragraph or note of the contents or character of a book, printed as a commendatory advertisement, on the jacket or wrapper of a newly published book.”

But the first use of the word, in 1914, by G. Burgess, defines blurb as “a flamboyant advertisement; an inspired testimonial.”

Blurbing is its own art. There are people who blurb books in magical ways, paring down an entire book into a few glowing sentences. I can think of quite a few writers who do this with real flair: Joyelle McSweeney, Brian Evenson, Gary Lutz, etc. They make blurbing seem easy, effortless. I call them magicians.

Recently, I’ve been asked to blurb a few books. Each time, I suffer. I come up with a few words I want to use and construct sentences around those words. To me, blurbs are puzzles. They are games. I try to make sense out of non-sense. The books I’m blurbing are not nonsense. I am nonsense. The words I’ve chosen are nonsense. They don’t adhere, but I attempt to force them together. It’s fun. It’s painful. I am reminded of a smaller version of myself jamming puzzle pieces together, even though I know they will not fit.

There have been several posts here on reviewing, which is itself a sufferable, glorious task, but reviews allow for more words, more exploration. Even the shortest reviews are hundreds of words longer than the average blurb. Mark Twain said something like: I didn’t have to write you a short letter so I wrote you a long one instead. And Blaise Pascal said something like: My Reverend Fathers, my letters were not accustomed to follow so closely, nor to be so widespread… I’ve done it longer than because I have not had time to make it shorter. (That is a bad translation. I had to use the Google translator because I don’t know French.) I’m not trying to make a value judgement here. They are two completely different forms. Nor am I even saying that longer is easier than shorter. After all, my favorite books are long, sprawling, Proustian. I’m just saying short is difficult. Very difficult.

What do you look for in a blurb? Do you look for a description of the book? Something about the content or form? Something else? Something more ethereal? I mean: blurbs don’t sell books, right? Or do they? Have you ever bought a book because of its blurb?



  1. Mike Meginnis

      I do sometimes buy a book I haven’t heard of based on the names of those who blurbed, because it suggests an affinity. Often the best thing about a blurb, though, is that I can read writers I love being excited about a book I am excited about — the blurbs for Kamby Bolongo Mean River made me feel that way. It was all like, “Oh man, Brian Evenson likes this too!”

  2. Daniel Bailey

      a blurb should capture the feeling or experience of reading a book rather than simply the way it’s written or what it’s about.

  3. Tim

      I’m usually turned off by blurbs that address the writer’s work as a whole rather than the particular book.

  4. Marian May Kaufman

      I was going to leave my own comment but I simply agree with this one whole heartedly. And I believe I am guilty of buying a book based off a blurb once or twice…

  5. Mykle

      Blurbs … oh, the hell of them. If it was possible to describe a book that way, HTMLGIANT would not be necessary.

      But “product endorsements” sell “products.” The writers involved struggle mightily to help each other out while avoiding the unavoidable feeling that that is a blurb really is. One can be forgiven for requesting blurbs, and for providing them. But blurbs themselves are still a drag.

      Isn’t there anything better to put on the back of a book?

  6. alan

      Who wrote the blurb is more important to me than what it says. It establishes a desired association, albeit usually a misleading one.

      The best blurbs, of course, are the ones that don’t sound like blurbs.

  7. Poopypants McGee

      I bought that last book that Rick Moody had blurbbed so hard, but I took it back because it was terrible. I couldn’t believe how terrible it was. It is one of the only books that I have ever taken back.

  8. Ken Baumann


  9. deadgod

      Lily Hoang’s blogicle on blurbs is, simply, a masterpiece: life-affirming, heart-breaking, pulse-pounding, thought-provoking, time-stopping, possibility-expanding, quark-prestidigitating. For those clever enough, beautiful enough, blessed enough to read it, nothing which seems the same will ever be the same; nothing which is the same will ever feel the same. Live more, laugh more, love more – and be that reader!

  10. yizzurp

      here’s a blurb for this blog post, to sum up what it’s about:

      “Recently, I’ve been asked to blurb a few books.”

      or maybe that’s a pull-quote.

  11. jesusangelgarcia

      The problem with blurbs is what Poopypants implies above: you can’t trust them. Yeah, I read them, and I used to believe them, but now that I’m older and I better understand how this whole business works, I don’t trust them. Same goes for reviews. Jeanette Winterson once told me a while back in an interview that she doesn’t read reviews of her books anymore b/c the glowing ones would inflate her ego and the negative ones would make her doubt herself. I think we need other reads on our work (or anyone’s work) to see different perspectives for bigger-picture understanding, but I don’t know that blurbs (or reviews, often) are it. Conversation or discussion, like maybe via a book club or on community blogs like this one, can provide that sometimes, I think. But in the end, I need to read some of the work before I’ll take it home with me. I’m never in and out of a bookshop. It’s usually a whole afternoon outing, cracking open books and reading first pages and random others.

  12. Mybutt

      Take a look at the blurbs on James Franco’s book. (You can see them at Amazon.) That says all that needs to be said about blurbs.

  13. Tim Jones-Yelvington

      I bought Kevin Killian’s collection IMPOSSIBLE PRINCESS in part b/c of a blurb from Dennis Cooper, and now Kevin is a favorite and we are friendly. And also, if I hadn’t found him, it would’ve taken me longer to discover the whole new narrative circle who have become a big influence on me.

      It reminds me mostly of Mike Young’s “how we find out about stuff” post from like two years ago.

  14. Richard

      I think a blurb can be one more thing that adds up to a possible purchase. But more compelling, is the actual writing. I’m usually sold by a combination of cover art + past history with author + blurb + sample of the writing (either the opening pages at Amazon LOOK INSIDE) or other work + reviews. A blurb, to me, means more depending on who it is coming from, and over time, you come to trust (or distrust) blurbers much like you would a movie critic, establishing a relationship with the blurber. If Moody gives bad blurb (for you) then maybe his blurb means nothing. If a blurb by Evenson or Lutz or Straub usually leads to success for you, then you may come to trust those blurbers.

      I’ve definitely bought books based on blurbs.

  15. Cole

      Maybe someday soon entire blurbs will consist of the word “This.” Or “Like.”