Still, at this moment, I'm struggling with the blurb format, which often seems to be a particularly literate form of Mad Libs:I read this (via Moorishgirl) shortly after receiving an email in which a Certain Author said, "Oh dear. I can't put that blurb on the back of the book: 'I fell into a deep and comforting sleep, except for the *****'" [I have deleted the actual word, because s/he is one of the few writers on Earth whose characters emit, encounter, and examine this particular noun.] (Of course, s/he would not put anything I wrote on the back of a book anyway, because the goal of using someone's name is to sell books, not scare the audience away.)
"This (adjective) and (adjective/noun) cuts to the bone of (evocative phrase). Reminiscent of the works of (mainstream author) and (groovy, less well-known author), this (adjective) work marks (insert writer's name) as a (choose one: [a] writer at the top of his/her game; [b] a bold new voice of his/her generation)."
The cynic in me has always read blurbs with a sensibility borrowed from Mad Magazine: "When they say 'ambitious,' they really mean 'I didn't finish the damn thing.'" My favorite unpublished blurb is one that was written by a very famous Hollywood personality, who I unfortunately can't identify here: "What do you want me to say?" the blurber wrote. "I'll write anything!"
I've long been fond of the word "blurb", because it's kind of onamatapoeic, the sound of someone laughing and vomiting simultaneously. I even find myself swayed by them now and then, though of course I should know better. I remember picking up a book by a writer I'd met at a conference, looking at all the blurbs, and realizing every one of the blurbers had been a teacher of this writer at some MFA program or another. My congenital naivete began to weaken.
Writers blurb as favors to each other and to their publishers, they blurb because they haven't seen their name in print often enough, they blurb because they want to get more free books, they blurb and blurb and blurb. Over the past couple decades, publishing has been infested with blurbs, so that now a book seems naked if it's only got five or ten. I certainly don't hold it against anybody at this point if they say, "This is the greatest thing I've read since Shakespeare!" on a piece of drek, because I know that blurbs are just another part of the publishing package, something people generally do because it has to be done. Sometimes they're even honest.
Blah blurbs are no fun; the best are the most outrageous. For some examples, there's the famous Puffies, an award given out by Alex Good. Or then there's Nick Tosches, who, in discussing blurbs and Hubert Selby, Jr., admitted, "As a matter of policy, however, I've never actually read the books that I've blurbed." Steve Almond once offered advice to both blurbers and blurbees. Thomas Pynchon may wear a bag over his head on "The Simpsons", but even he blurbs -- and if you'd like to know how to get him to blurb your book, Salon.com can tell you how.)
One of the most interesting facts about blurbs, though, may be the etymology of the word. Occasionally, the word is attributed to Brander Matthews, but the consensus seems to be that it came from Gelett Burgess in 1907, and originally meant not just any praise, but "flamboyant advertisement; an inspired testimonial". That's not the interesting fact, though.
No, the interesting fact is that the man who gave us the word "blurb" is also the man who gave us one of the first poems I ever memorized, and one I continue to torture people with now and then:
I never saw a purple cow;
I never hope to see one;
But I can tell you anyhow,
I'd rather see than be one.