It was a new benchmark. Right there on the jacket of the novel, tucked under a frothy tribute from Rex Reed, was a monstrously circumspect endorsement from Norman Mailer: "It's safe to predict that no best seller this year will be written by anyone more beautiful than Monique van Vooren."
This reluctant encomium provoked more than a few cackles when Simon & Schuster's Summit Books recently released van Vooren's "Night Sanctuary." And it may rank as the most painfully peculiar compliment since Evelyn Waugh wrote of Flannery O'Connor's first novel, "Wise Blood": "If this is indeed the unaided work of a young lady, it is a remarkable product."
But comic as it seems, in the desperate art of blurb-hunting, bagging a big-name quote is no laughing matter.
You'd never know it from the paperback racks, with their squalling pandemonium of praise. But that's because reprint houses can pillage the hard-cover reviews and select only the right stuff. Very rarely, the quotes capture a fresh turn of phrase, such as Business Week's epigraph on the cover of Calvin Trillin's "Alice, Let's Eat": "Trillin is to food writing what Chaplin was to film acting."
But they are the exception. Soft-cover publishers are obsessed with three kinds of words: the Adrenal Ings ("dazzling," "compelling," "rollicking"), the Ultimate Ests ("best," "biggest," "finest") and the Temporal Comparatives ("Not since Tolstoy . . ."). This produces a numbing redundancy:
"The most gripping reading of the year," shouts the Los Angeles Times on Thomas Thompson's "Blood and Money."
"The best nonfiction writer in America," says Mario Puzo on the cover of Gay Talese's "Fame and Obscurity."
"The best thing written on economic growth in 15 years," promises David Stockman on George Gilder's "Wealth and Poverty."
"One of the most heroic stories ever created," enthuses Irving Stone over Ernest K. "Masada" Gann's "Antagonists."
"The best novel of the Civil War since 'The Red Badge of Courage,' " Newsweek says of Thomas Keneally's "Confederates."
"The truest novel about growing up since 'The Catcher in the Rye,' " says John Irving of Terry Davis' "Vision Quest."
"The best novel of ideas I've read since Dostoevski," says John Leonard of Robert Stone's "A Flag for Sunrise," still in hard-cover.
And finally: "One of the best mysteries of all time," intones The New York Times on the cover of Josephine Tey's "The Daughter of Time."
These heavy-breathing hyperboles (of which the authors are quite conscious) are the best of the lot. Less fortunate titles hit the racks wearing only a lonely quote from the Hartford Courant or Grand Rapids Press -- or the trade magazine Publishers Weekly, a likely signal that the volume was not a critical hit. But even in default of raves, paperbacks have plenty of gimmicks.
They can appeal to the emotions, preferably hormonal ("bold" and "daring" signify libido) and ideally lachrymose: "Glorious," warbles Cynthia Freeman of Maisie Mosco's "Scattered Seed," "I laughed. I cried." So did Mario Puzo, for Judith Rossner's "Emmeline": "A beautiful book . . . It moves me to tears."
Rare is the review that does not contain at least one upbeat adjective, and often a paperback house will reprint only two or three words separated by dots. Veteran browsers approach such telltale ellipses with profound dubiety. (And only the pathologically naive are misled by one-word excerpts.) A Pulitzer Prize-winning critic once wrote that Paul Theroux's "The Family Arsenal" "is not a satisfying novel," and criticized its "arid scorn" and "facile vision of despair." He concluded that although the book was "as explosive as a firecracker and sometimes as dazzling," it was "ultimately as chilling as dry ice." The large quote on the paperback said, "DAZZLING . . . as explosive as a firecracker . . . as chilling as dry ice."
Hard-cover quotes are harder to come by, but often hardly more reliable. Washington novelist and former investigative reporter Les Whitten gets about 20 manuscripts a year for blurbing. Whether they come from his publisher or agent "putting the heat on" or arrive "over the transom," he tries "to say something nice whenever I can, because its goddam hard to write any book." As a result, "I've been more often wrong than right." He is unashamedly loyal to his friends Clark Mollenhoff ("we're cross-blurbers . . . it's an awful, incestuous relationship") and Barney Leason, author of the Judith Krantz knock-offs "Scandals" and "Rodeo Drive." And unabashedly indignant when there's no quo for his quid from Whitten blurbees such as William F. Buckley Jr.
But whatever their credibility, quotes are an integral part of hard-cover publishing, where books enter a viciously competitive market for the first time. Countless hours of editorial aggravation are spent ensuring that even the most lackluster volume can shine by reflected light. "It seems to be almost obligatory now," says Robie Macauley, senior editor at Houghton Mifflin and former editor of The Kenyon Review, who dates the practice from the late '40s. It has grown with the industry. In the '60s, a quote from John Kennedy made a paperback industry out of a mediocre spy writer named Ian Fleming; "Catch 22" caught the public attention because of its big-name boosters; and blurbs from Alec Waugh, J.B. Priestley and Graham Greene propelled a little-known book called "The Spy Who Came in From the Cold" into transatlantic admiration.
More recently, many remember the case of the self-help book that helped itself. In the early '70s, Mildred Newman and Bernard Berkowitz, two psychologists with a sizable celebrity clientele, wrote a very slim volume entitled "How to Be Your Own Best Friend." It was not immediately promising, and they had it privately printed. But then the boisterous quotes started rolling in from Neil Simon, Nora Ephron and many more, a similar assault on the big-mouth circuit prompted a cash-register crescendo, and Random House took over publication.
Most houses believe that quotes can determine whether a book is reviewed or not, build book-club interest and sales-force enthusiasm, trigger browser impulse and even turn a dubious project into a phenomenon. When publisher Seymour Lawrence found himself faced with a book of stories ("the hardest thing to launch") by a 26-year-old unknown named Jayne A. Phillips, he mounted a blurb blitz that turned up quotes from John Irving, Tillie Olsen, Tim O'Brien and Geoffrey Woolf, among many others. "It was a laying-on of hands," says Lawrence. When the dust settled, Dell had sold 25,000 trade paperback copies and Phillips had an international reputation.
A first horror novel by an obstetrician named David Shobin might not seem an exploitable property. But "The Unborn" came from Linden Press trailing shrouds of glory: killer quotes from Stephen King and Mary Higgins Clark. "In this impulse-purchase genre," says Stuart Applebaum, publicity director at Bantam books, "those are golden names." Bantam paid $375,000 for it and printed almost half-a-million copies.
Or consider Macmillan's new "Bad Dreams," Anthony Haden-Guest's account of the 1978 Buddy Jacobson murder case in New York. The author was perhaps not a household name. But Tom Wolfe (who calls the book "the most compelling nonfiction story since 'In Cold Blood' ") and George Plimpton were. Macmillan recently bought the cover and two inside pages of Publishers Weekly, playing up the Wolfe quote on the cover. "It clearly influences advertising," says Susan Ostrov of Macmillan. The book would have sold itself, she says. Still, "If you have something to scream about, you scream."
Quote-hunting is usually the responsibility of editors, who draw from their own stables and personal friends, the author's acquaintances and other ostensibly interested parties, depending on the nature of the book. For John Ehrlichman's forthcoming "Witness to Power," Simon & Schuster's editor-in-chief Michael Korda sent out "only 20" bound galleys. "I kept it small because I wanted to keep it basically to John's friends," says Korda. Ehrlichman's allegations of improprieties by Chief Justice Warren Burger turned up in the newspapers. "I should have guessed," says Korda. For cynics who might believe otherwise, Korda said he would have kept the copies out of circulation had he anticipated the news stories: "I never thought the book would need quotes, although they never hurt." Blurbs make more of a difference for fiction, he says, and so far he hasn't received even one for Ehrlichman's book. "And now, we may not get any," he adds.
Publishers prefer blurbers who write in the same genre. "Otherwise," says Phyllis Grann, editor-in-chief at Putnam's, "it confuses the reader." Three to five quotes are normal, with any overflow splashing onto press releases.
Since bound galleys can cost $20 or more each, and the normal blurb-return rate rarely exceeds one in 10 -- one in 20, says Korda, "unless the person has a lot of friends" -- publishers are looking for authors who "kiss on the first date," as Applebaum puts it. Among them, horror champ Stephen King is both bankable and prolific. "One of the great blurb-meisters," says Applebaum. "He's like a guy who says he's gonna quit smoking but always wants one last puff."
Indeed: Random grazing in the racks will turn up a dozen King quotes. Of Peter Straub's "Ghost Story" he said, "The terror just mounts and mounts." So does the rhetoric, as King describes Straub's "Shadowland" as "creepy from page one," reveals that Bari Wood's "The Tribe" "had me nervous about going upstairs," and says of "The Unborn" that "I didn't put it down until I had turned the last page . . . literally wrung out and trembling." A man in that condition can perhaps be forgiven the egregious "literally." After all, he gets a dozen books a week and tries to read them all, probably downstairs.
And King says that "I'm determined not to stop," even though his agent has warned him that over-blurbing will hurt his reputation. It can: Helene Atwan of Farrar, Straus recalls that "When 'Garp' first came out, everybody wanted a John Irving quote -- and everybody got a John Irving quote. And within two days, a John Irving quote was worthless." Irving has since curtailed his endorsements radically. So have Erica Jong and Mario Puzo.
"You start to feel like a pimp," King says, "but if a book is good, somebody ought to say so." He is motivated, he says, by "some guilt," a genuine sense of duty and the grim memory of how Doubleday had to promise double-your-money-back to get readers for "Carrie," which still bombed in hard-cover. And he is especially solicitous of a first novel when "I sense that the publishing house is about to send it out like the Titanic."
Also frequently mentioned as dependable sources are Jerzy Kosinski, Kurt Vonnegut Jr., Joyce Carol Oates, John Kenneth Galbraith, Carl Sagan, William "A Man Called Intrepid" Stevenson, Susan Isaacs and Peter Straub.
King is proud to say that he's never blurbed a book just because he knew the author personally. But many do. "Lucky is the author," says Macauley, "who has important friends." Van Vooren says she has known Mailer socially "for years," and that he asked her to take a part in the stage version of "The Deer Park." One publishing executive says that quote-givers are often responding to "someone they owe a favor to, or the editor is a friend of theirs, or it's somebody who reviewed their last book favorably."
Sometimes the connections are general. Novelist Susan Shreve, a Bread Loaf Writers' Conference alumnus, has received blurbs from a large slice of Bread Loafers including John Irving, John Gardner, Hilma Wolitzer and Gail Godwin. (Shreve blurbed Godwin's new book, "A Mother and Two Daughters.") That was necessary, Shreve says, when she was new in the business. But for her last novel, "Miracle Play," she asked Morrow not to solicit quotes: "It would be unfair to ask them again." The folks at Morrow, she says, "were very upset."
Other networks are more explicit. Judith Krantz, after the publication of "Scruples," was getting hit with five or six books a week. "Most of them were inspired by 'Scruples,' " she says. "I call them 'store books.' " And although "a blurb is a way of getting your name in print," she has only given two.
One of the Krantz quotes was for a new first novel, "Perhaps I'll Dream of Darkness," by 26-year-old Mary Sheldon, daughter of novelist Sidney Sheldon. "I'm a friend of her parents," says Krantz. "The Sheldons live near us in Beverly Hills." And oddly enough, Sidney Sheldon has provided a generous blurb for Steve Krantz, husband of Judith, who is making his novelistic debut at Macmillan with the forthcoming "Skycastle," about oil wildcatting in Texas.
If such cheerful symmetries tend to diminish the credibility of endorsements, one pessimistic executive who has worked at several major houses believes that "about 25 percent" of blurbers do not even read the book. And Kay Sexton of B. Dalton, whose newsletter goes to more than 500 stores in the huge chain, is skeptical because blurbers "usually seem to be authors on the publisher's own list."
Ideally, in looking for fiction blurbs, says Putnam's Grann, "I would work on the Johns" -- that is, Updike, Cheever, Irving and Fowles. But often the most desirable are the least willing, including authors as diverse as Philip Roth, John McPhee, D.M. Thomas, John Hersey, Eudora Welty, E.L. Doctorow, John Barth, Mary Gordon, Woody Allen, Bernard Malamud, Frederic Forsyth, Robert Ludlum, John LeCarre, Robert Stone, Calvin Trillin and Louis L'Amour. Updike will blurb infrequently (and will appear as the only quote), and Cheever, never.
Not everyone finds the process essential. Carole Baron, publisher of Dell/Delacorte, says, "I often wonder if it has any effect on the book-buying public"; and Kay Sexton believes that "most people dip into the dust jackets and make their decision that way."
But that's a minority view, and conviction that blurbs matter can drive authors to stupendous feats of persistence. A recent case in point is a vanity-press volume sporting a hefty double-colon title: "Lawrence and Mann Overarching: Once Up the Country of Ujamaa: Roll Away der Rock and Other Essays." Author Don Paul's collection, which otherwise might have escaped national attention, carries a quote on the back jacket from one of America's most respected men of letters, Malcolm Cowley, who wrote that the book "has vision, if it also has infelicities of style," among other ambiguous musings.
Cowley, who is sent some 50 books a year and blurbs five or six ("once I read 'em, I give 'em a quote"), had no idea who Paul was, was skeptical of the volume and annoyed by the author's incessant supplications. Why, then, did Cowley come up with a quote?
"Because," says the venerable critic, "he's been on my tail for three years."