One Cheer for Cheering

What’s in a blurb? 

Spy magazine had a column titled “Logrolling in Our Time,” devoted to exposing authors who traded good reviews back and forth. The Spysters might have had even more fun with jacket quotes. Not the ones taken from published reviews, but those that appear without explanation, as if a bunch of top authors—say, Dave Eggers, David Foster Wallace, David Sedaris, and Zadie Smith, all of whose endorsements grace the back cover of Arthur Bradford’s new story collection—just happened to stumble upon the manuscript, love it, and call the publisher to gush about it.

Some authors are worse offenders than others. Take serial blurber Frank McCourt: A cursory search reveals that he’s doled out at least 15 blurbs since the publication of Angela’s Ashes in 1996. Here are some examples of his tumid praise:

“You wonder: How could Sheri Holman have written her novel, A Stolen Tongue, without spending half her life in some vast library, the other half hiking and sailing from Ulm, Germany to Mt. Sinai? … Sheri Holman’s prose, tart and racy and somber, will sing in your soul a long while.”“When you read Nuala O’Faolain’s Are You Somebody?, you’ll wish Ireland was giving out some kind of a Booker or Pulitzer Prize. … You don’t want the book to end.”The Meadowlands by Robert Sullivan: “His is a journey into nature, the past, polluting, eccentricity. It’s a story about him—his high spirits, his sense of adventure, his good humor, his compassion for all God’s creatures, his sense of ease whether he’s in a library, a bar, or a swamp. You’ll be giving this book for birthdays and holidays as long as you’re alive and there isn’t a teacher in this land who won’t be telling his or her students, ‘Read it. Read it.’ “Project Girl by Janet McDonald: “An eloquent account of a remarkable life, Project Girl should be placed on all high school and college reading lists and offered to anyone looking for a book beautifully written.”Peace Like a River by Leif Enger: “Written in prose tart and crisp as a Minnesota autumn, Peace Like a River is seductive and deliciously American and there are passages so wondrous and wise you’ll want to claw yourself with pleasure.”

If you raised your eyebrows at the image of McCourt clawing himself with pleasure, you may want to skip the next blurb because he uses the expression again:

This Side of Brightness by Colum McCann: “In language that makes you claw yourself with pleasure, he powerfully evokes the stink of the present and the poignancy of the past.”

Many thanks to Adagio in “The Fray” for pointing out a third example of McCourt clawing himself:

Open to any page of Helen Gurley Brown’s I’m Wild Again, and you’ll claw yourself with pleasure over an impish humor that would charm the balls off a pawnbroker’s sign.

There may be a special reason McCourt got so hot and bothered: Helen Gurley Brown’s husband, David Brown, produced the film version of Angela’s Ashes. Sheri Holman, author of A Stolen Tongue, used to be an assistant to McCourt’s agent Molly Friedrich, and Enger is represented by a colleague of Friedrich’s. Which is not surprising, considering the way blurbs are gathered. Though some are excerpted from reviews independently published in newspapers and magazines, many are solicited directly from authors by well-connected editors and agents. Trace the books blurbed by Thomas Pynchon, and you’ll find several were represented by Pynchon’s wife, agent Melanie Jackson (Dreamland, by Phil Patton) or written by his friends (Richard Farina’s Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me). [Correction: This blurb was an excerpt taken from the introduction Pynchon wrote for the book after Farina’s death.]

But what’s the harm in a little logrolling among friends? With the number of requests an author of McCourt’s stature must receive each month, it’s hard to blame him for relying on his friends in the publishing business to filter out the must-reads for him. By and large, McCourt’s blurbs are thoughtful, detailed, and show he’s actually read the book (which is more than you can say for some). Most of the books—Gurley Brown’s is an exception—got strong reviews, which suggests that he usually isn’t endorsing anything substandard, even if his praise is comically overblown.

It’s an awfully big favor McCourt is paying the first-time novelists he blurbs, whose chances of getting noticed multiply with his stamp of approval. The main danger in wanton blurbing is that he will squander the power of his own praise: The more quotes he hands out and the more ecstatic he waxes, the more his blurbs will be ignored by readers.

But with the exception of recycling a few purple phrases in his blurbs, there’s no reason to draw out the long knives on Frank McCourt. Except maybe to trim his fingernails.