I find book blurbs annoying, though I understand they are a necessary marketing tool.  Once I  learned how they come to be – the author or agent calls in favors to famous friends and sends off the book hoping they will receive two lines of praise in return for whatever they did years ago (publish that person’s book?) – it was hard take them seriously.  That was a big, disappointing moment, and felt equivalent to learning that Santa Claus didn’t exist, or being laughed at when you’re eleven because you’re the only person who didn’t know that Puff the Magic Dragon was about pot, and you weren’t totally sure what pot was.  

And though plenty of times blurbs are right – the book is great, great, great, and I’m happy a writer I love told me to read it – sometimes the insincerity crawls on your skin like a bug.  I remember reading an incredible blurb by Joan Didion on the cover of a novel that I know didn’t deserve it.  It literally made me laugh.  And the book was put in the unfortunate position of having to earn its blurb.

Tom McCarthy brings this up in his review of Clancy Martin’s “How to Sell” in the New York Times.  McCarthy does like the book, but he is very hung up on the praise on it’s cover, so much so that I felt it impeded his ability to enjoy it.

Publishers are like jewelers: they know the importance of packaging. This book, Martin’s first, comes decked in the best tags imaginable. There are cover blurbs from stellar names like Benjamin Kunkel, who ascribes to it the “inevitability of the classic,” and Jonathan Franzen, who calls it “greatly original.” Maybe I hadn’t drunk enough whiskey when I popped the box, but this second quotation started alarm bells ringing. Takedowns of the national dream through parables of fraudulence and overreaching aspiration centered on material wealth are staples of American fiction: that’s the subject of “The Great Gatsby” — or, to cut even closer to the stone of Martin’s subject, of Fitzgerald’s shorter work “The Diamond as Big as the Ritz.” These themes are staples of European literature too: think of Maupassant’s “Necklace,” Balzac’s “Père Goriot” or Flaubert’s “Madame Bovary” — or, for that matter,Shakespeare’s “Merchant of Venice,” in which, just as in Martin’s book, ostentation, speculation and desire waltz around one another, eventually coalescing in a piece of jewelry, a ring whose trading represents dissimulation and betrayal…

…The novel is a good, pacey and ultimately unchallenging read. Why couldn’t they just say that on the cover? “Entertaining, zippy and unchallenging — X, author of Y.”

The reason they don’t, of course, is that, as with the whiskey-soused prospective purchaser, there’s a bigger sale being made: we’re being asked to buy into the notion that lively storytelling and more-than-adequate craftsmanship constitute great, “classic” literature. I’m not so sure. To bastardize the Latin, emptors need to sober up and exercise a little caveating over that one. I suspect that real, high-karat literature, with its complexity and ambiguity, its general slipperiness, is sitting in another box, one opening to a dimension that “How to Sell” doesn’t breach (and, to both its and its author’s credit, doesn’t itself actually claim to) — or, to use a fittingly ur-geological metaphor, that it’s lying buried in a rock-seam that this book walks comfortably over the top of but leaves unmined.

Oh.

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