Blurb: Definition

Blurb, meaning words of praise on the back of a book, is a pathetic word that quickly devolves into an almost existential meaninglessness, not a shout into the void but a soft round brick shoring up nothingness. Blurb—rolly-polly already in its sound and to be taken as seriously as a beach ball or a random burble or a bubble; of air, of oil, of nothing that contains any sustenance. But the emptiness of a blurb is not truly empty: in that space exists a corruption self-aware with the horror of collusion: the blurb is attached parasitically to a book, sucking out all of the originality in favor of a comfortable banality and too-fulsome over-compensating injections of pus-like praise. This pus explodes all over the reader, who is influenced by this literary ectoplasmic spew in their perception of the text before reading a single page for themselves. A blurb is usually birthed bud-like by a fellow writer also feeding at the half-rotted hog-trough of publishing who hopes to benefit by association (another parasitical relationship) with the book at hand, and, long-term, to receive a foetid blurb in return. The blurb thus starts with a back scratch and ends with a mutual, world-encompassing reach-around, but it’s the reader who gets screwed. It is not enough that the reader is subjecting him- or herself to the stupidity found in one’s average book, but must also be inundated by stupidity on the outside. Biopsy a blurb and you find not just the stinking corruption of word-pus, you also find a grotesque yet accurate metaphor for distortion, warping, and group-think. In a way, a blurb is the essence of the worst of the literary world in concentrated, soul-deadening form.


  1. says

    VanderMeer has outdone himself with this latest post! I could not put it down. A reinvention of the whole form of whatever this sort of thing is. The prose of this thing is sensuous, ferociously intelligent, achingly romantic, brilliantly typeset, and written in the authentic hard-won hard-bitten voice of a working Sarbanes-Oxley compliance consultant. Will this do?

  2. Dan says

    At the risk of spoiling the fun…as a person who is very much attached to the “meta” aspects of books–the many things that attach to a book beyond the text itself–I actually find blurbs to be interesting and useful much of the time. I can definitely appreciate where Jeff is coming from, especially in regards to the “cheapening” effect on both the work and the author, but I actually enjoy decoding some of the hidden meanings to be found in the blurbs (including the sycophantic and nepotistic aspects, which can add a lot to the context). I’m one of those weird people who *wants* all this meta stuff before I start experiencing the text. Just the way my brain works. I study book covers, front matter, back matter, and blurbs as sure as I read the ingredients list and *all* of the copy on the outside of a box of cereal.

    To me the blurbs are part of the overall context of the book as a thing in the world, and of the author as a person in the world. These things are at least as interesting to me as the text–even after I’ve read it. After reading a text, I will often revisit these meta aspects, including even re-reading the blurbs during and after reading the text. Of course, if blurbs were the only thing, or even the main thing, there would tend be barren ground for finding meaning.

    I would also offer a defense of the blurb as a way that experienced writers can help out up-and-coming writers. Would it seem stingy if Stephen King, for example, were to *never* bestow a blurb? I’m reminded of the heavy metal music scene, which over 30 years of being a grassroots-supported genre of music, has also developed a system whereby bands who are moving up the ladder help out bands who are coming up by bringing them on their tours and having them open up for them. It’s a real tradition in that world, not just a way to fill the bill at the shows. Every successful metal bands remembers the time when no one gave a shit about them. Book authors don’t have tours and opening slots, but they do have blurbs (and blogs) as a means for bestowing their endorsement on the up-and-comers. I don’t hold it against an author for wanting to grant them or to receive them.

    At the same time, as a person who has been the publisher of a couple books, shopping for blurbs was the least enjoyable part of the process for me. It did feel kind of cheap, but I also knew that they are important to certain book shoppers–at least they have been for me many times as a book shopper. I found that the world of authors was divided up between people who understood the currency of the blurb–who were willing, at least, to participate for whatever their own reasons, and authors who were not interested in transacting in that currency. Similarly, there are probably publishers who are better at wielding blurbs than others, and authors who are better than others at writing them.

    OK, thanks for listening. Count on me to pour a bucket of cold water on a good rant!

  3. says

    Hey, I can be unfunny, too.

    “Blurb, meaning words of praise on the back of a book.”

    See, Jeff’s *front* cover praise for Jesse Bullington’s The Enterprise of Death doesn’t apply, because it was on the *front* cover. Blurbs are for those lamers on the back cover, like “I do not wish Sam Sykes dead.” (John Scalzi, on the back of Sykes’s Black Halo.)

  4. says

    Dan’s comment is like the love-child of Philip K. Dick, Roberto Bolano, Tom Clancy, and Julian of Norwich – on acid! The setting of Dan’s comment is so richly imagined that you can almost feel the distinctive smells and shrieks of Jeff VanderMeer’s blog’s comments section. You will never look at comments about posts about blurbs in the same way again.

  5. says

    I’ve got a blurb for you Jeff, free with no strings attached:

    “Jeff VanderMeer still owes me twelve dollars that he borrowed in 1973″.

  6. GB Steve says

    Have you tried buying a book in France? Occasionally they have a quote from the book but mostly they have nothing. It’s very hard. We’re used to the lies and understand the subtext so blurb me up!