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by Robert Roth
It's a small thing. A big thing. A small thing. My relationship to blurbs in a sense is more complex than the situation warrants.
At one point cultural power was very centralized. Famous “great” authors had significant clout. As did reviewers from major newspapers and magazines. Would a blurb from them carry some weight. Maybe yes, maybe no. But the blurb was part of the whole package: publicity campaigns, authors tours, well placed book reviews, media appearances etc. Self-published books would be referred to as vanity undertakings. Shame and ridicule by the guardians of privilege telling people in so many ways to know their place. Any attempt to bring attention to yourself outside these channels would be called self-promotion. While a publicity campaign, let's say for Stephen King, would just be seen as the way things are done. This of course has dramatically changed. There is barely a stigma, well not exactly barely, for someone publishing their own book. “Was it self-published?” is still the first thing generally asked when a new book comes out. Often the name of a press, even if only a made up name, is put on a book, to give the impression that an actual, if unknown, press has published it. A slew of small presses have also sprung up. In addition people have multiple on-line platforms. The iron grasp on expression has loosened in many ways. So then what power does a blurb have? “Ground breaking”–New York Times. “Ground breaking”–me. Either way what does ground breaking mean? Or what did it ever mean?
As things have gotten more decentralized the power as well as the existence of the famous great author has decreased. I had wondered what impact a blurb by someone who was viewed as a cultural authority had in the past. Friends said it did provide some kind of guide for them. Something that no longer applies in most cases since they have no idea who the person quoted is.
So what then is the function of a blurb for self-published books or books published by a small press? At times there is a famous great person who has written a blurb. But even if not, a blurb gives some semblance of “legitimacy.” A form of cultural validation. Here is a book that serious people take seriously, are impressed by, learn from, enjoy. And it looks like a book because there are blurbs on it. Usually the blurb writer is described in some way by their position in the cultural or corporate hierarchy: Joan Smith, head of neurology at Beth Israel Hospital, Mike Ventura, author of three plays that have been performed off off Broadway, Billy Hardwig professor of linguistics at Breakout University. It definitely won't be Leslie Klein author of scores of unpublished books, R.L. Clark, a sensitive person with a bad case of writer's block or Sarah Kendel, with nothing there but her name. What was once a major industry of big book publishers is now a huge industry fed by small presses, self-publishing and a dream. So when my recent book Book of Pieces came out, people asked me whether they should buy it on Amazon or from me directly. They used the word “trending” as if five people buying my book would signal a wave of interest. Or create a momentum that would help generate sales. Keeping a running track how each book is doing, as well as ranking it in relationship to how other books are doing in some particular category, is a very effective ploy to make people feel savvy and engaged as they/we become more and more snared in Amazon's mega corporate net.
Another friend, with some pull, who was being helpful and supportive, said if I paid Publisher's Week a $150 there was a chance they would review my book. If I was really serious about pushing my book the payoff would outweigh the risk. Though the big risk is not the money dished out, or the psychic anxiety of waiting to see if it will be reviewed or even the disappointment of it not being reviewed, or less likely since I don't think they would bother, the pain of it being reviewed negatively. The big risk to me was to get sucked into the machinery. The dream of success dangled out there, tantalizingly close. All you need to do is grab it. The choices in general are pretty stark. You are either a captive of the ever shifting, ever changing culture machine or you are invisible. How you negotiate the space in between is treacherous and complicated. This time around I have been unusually passive. Essentially ensuring, at least for now, that Book of Pieces will have no traction.
Social media. What is the difference between sharing feelings, thoughts, analysis, personal experiences, photos of events, nature photos, even pushing your work out into the world from branding and marketing yourself?
I don't have a cell phone, an iPhone or cable TV. I do use email. I got my first cordless phone two years ago. Texting and tweeting are just words to me. Though I do often ask in conversation for someone to look something up for me on their phone. This is a statement of fact. Nothing I am either proud of or ashamed of. But obviously it does effect how I live in the world.
Front and center in many people's lives, but way off to my side, are apps geared to help create business models. New marketing strategies. Target audiences. Political groupings, Cultural gatherings. All types of strategies. It could be for a clothing line, an end of life therapist, a dog walker, the promotion of a new book. Almost anything. Multiple little businesses sprouting up all over. How then to create an interest in your work? To move it, to market it, to sell it. It is a pretty weird dynamic. One I don't really understand that well. And that many people who are immersed in social media understand very well.
I was recently at an event where the person who put it together was talking about social media, especially Facebook and the multitude of friends that she has made through it. The event in fact was soulful, expansive and humane, reflecting something very unique and special about her. And quite successful. At the same time a review in the New York Times still carries disproportionate weight. A kind of residual power that while diminished is still very real. Recently my friends released a remarkable documentary called When Two Worlds Collide. It was about the struggle over resources in the Peruvian Amazon.
It won many awards (this is all very much a part of the machinery I'm talking about) including best debut documentary at the Sundance Film Festival. It got many seriously written, very positive reviews. That is except for the Times. The reviewer there sounded like he wrote it in between sips of champagne at Sunday brunch. The review was blasé, offhanded and dismissive. The writer Glenn Kenny wrote, “The issues presented in 'When Two Worlds Collide' are so crucial that it feels churlish to characterize it as a dutiful, and ultimately pedestrian, documentary.” Ten years of work, facing real physical and psychic dangers, raising major concerns, concerns that Kenny himself was probably only marginally aware of, and this was the best he could come up with. Now of course he doesn't have to like the movie. But for him, the need to be entertained clearly took precedence over any talk about exploitation, repression, racism and the destruction of the Amazon. But not to respect the effort of the filmmakers and to engage it more fully was extremely distasteful. All this seemingly without any real grasp of the power he wields. The impact was not insignificant. You can see this magnificently done, very important movie on Netflix. But the review played a role in the film not being picked up by theaters. The publicist said that the Times review is the only one that is ever really looked at. In fact, as ridiculous as the review is, the beginning of it is presented as the top blurb (with a link to the full review) in an ad for the film.
Years ago another friend, years older than me, had her play produced at the Public Theater. It got a very harsh review from Clive Barnes, a reviewer for the Times, a person with great influence. The complaint was not dissimilar. He complained about the shrill feminist message of the play. His review essentially derailed her career. A couple of years later I saw my friend on the unemployment line. She had achieved some measure of worldly success, but there she was with the rest of us. It was extremely demoralizing. I could never imagine a degree of “success” that would match hers. On the other side of things Barnes was a witness at the trial of another friend, Lennox Raphael, whose play Che, was busted on obscenity charges. Barnes testified to its artistic merit and helped win the case.
When my first book Health Proxy came out in 2007 I adamantly rejected the idea of having blurbs on it. One reason was I thought maybe no one would want to write one. But that was a very minor concern. The major reason was I felt it would undermine my book in some basic ways. Much of the book deals with various forms of hierarchies. It explored ways in which oppression is both external and internal and how it reproduces itself in small and big ways. Blurbs felt part of the culture of status and location. So I used a quote from the book instead. I felt the same way, but with much less passion, when Book of Pieces came out.
This is mostly due to the fact that over the last number of years I have been asked to write a significant number of blurbs. I found it mildly ironic at first. But I never had a moments hesitation other than my anxiety about not being able to do the book justice.
One blurb was actually the first thing you saw when you opened up the book. It functioned almost like an introduction. I love that book in a very big way. I feel very proud of the blurbs I've written. To be connected even in a small way to such profound achievements is deeply satisfying.
A couple of blurbs sprang almost effortlessly from me. But mostly I had to work pretty hard on them. Sometimes I read a book twice. Usually I get a feel of what the book is about the first time. And understand it better the second time. The blurbs themselves are short, compact, very dense. Maybe a couple of long sentences with a lot of dashes. All that work. For what? Who will read what you've written? What impact if any is hard to know. But if it gives pleasure to the author and their friends or family that is more than enough.
It is flattering to think that someone respects me enough to ask me for one. Sometimes I am actually surprised, no longer startled, but surprised, that someone has that type of regard for me. It is actually a surprise, not a shock but a surprise that someone would even care enough or like me enough, yes like me enough, or respect me enough or, and here is what's most surprising, think that my public influence is enough to matter. I always tell the person asking that they can add or subtract or change the wording on anything I come up with. Obviously I do want to see the changes before the blurb appears. For the most part any changes made, have only made the blurb better and more alive. Each one giving me an added dimension of understanding, facility with language and maybe insight that if not deserved, I was smart enough to accept. Once I actually blanched at a word someone added. It was a Yiddish word that would never even have occurred to me to use. A word I had never said, thought of, let alone wrote. It jarred some sense of myself. It was an interesting experience in that it revealed a certain uptightness that I didn't know I had. As it turns out it was highlighted in ads for the book and clearly caught people's attention. And in fact a couple of people enjoyed quoting it back to me.
Recently I received the following hand written note in the mail. The person, someone I have great admiration for, said I could use it anyway I want.
“Like no one I have ever encountered, Roth captures the nitty gritty within the Divine”—William Blake
Had I gotten this before my last book came out, rather than after, I think my resolve not to use blurbs would have dissolved in an instant.