Alan Levinovitz writes in a post over at the Millions that “blurbs, like bullshit, existed long before the term coined to describe them”. It’s a funny line and he brings that wit to a lot of his short history of book blurbs.
Blurbs, of course, are those brief quotes on the cover of most books that tell you that what you hold is the greatest novel ever written or is a thrill a minute, exclusively put there to get that book off the shelf at the store and into your shopping bag. Levinovitz, in tracing the origins of this practice, highlights “[h]yperbole, fakery, [and] shameless cronyism” as some of the main characteristics of the modern blurb.
When it comes to the blurbs out there today, I can’t deny any of those charges. I simply don’t have the animosity towards them that some taking part in this ongoing debate seem to carry. Regardless of why they’re there, I mostly view blurbs as a way of generally recognizing what kind of book you’re picking up.
If I pull up the copy of Kelly Link’s Stranger Things Happen that’s been sitting by my bed for a while, I can find quotes from Jonathan Lethem, Neil Gaiman, and Peter Straub on the cover. I’d argue that the most telling part of these blurbs isn’t their content; in fact, they all resort to the hyperbole that Levinovitz talks about. I think the fact that those authors are featured is telling of what kind of book Stranger Things Happen might be. It gives are very, very inexact idea of where to place Link as an author, but at least there’s a general notion.
Covers can’t perfectly convey what a book is about but they can get people started in the correct direction. Blurbs can help bring potential readers a little closer to the right idea.
This is all an academic question for now, since blurbs aren’t going anywhere in the majority of cases. We may as well learn to live with them.