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Two thumbs up! (I hated it)

The blurb is a funny thing. Do snippets of inflated praise on dust jackets make any difference to potential readers standing in a bookstore? Is anyone buying Benjamin Percy’s werewolf novel, “Red Moon,” because John Irving called it “terrifying”? Nobody knows. But publishers and authors still solicit and trumpet blurbs with panicked enthusiasm.

One of my favorite features in the old Spy magazine was “Logrolling in Our Time,” a monthly collection of grandiose compliments that authors traded with each other in public. On her blog, Janice Harayda periodically updates a list of such backscratching. Gary Shteyngart has parodied the whole process by handing out blurbs to just about anybody who asks.

But then there are those unsolicited blurbs — the objective blurbs: lines lifted from past reviews to show that it’s not just the author’s friends and teachers who think this is a great novel. Look: The Miami Herald loved it! The Kansas City Star called it “masterful”!

Sometimes, publishers choose these lines with the selective hearing of doting moms and dads at a parent-teacher conference. Through the magic of creative editing, “This is not a great book” shows up six months later on the paperback as “This is . . . a great book!”

I’m [not] kidding.

Other times, praise for an old book is recycled to make it look like applause for a new book. The funniest recent example appears on the paperback edition of Martin Amis’s “Lionel Asbo,” released this month by Vintage.

Amis is one of the finest stylists alive, but I thought “Lionel Asbo” was a bad novel. A really bad novel. In fact, my review of “Lionel Asbo” was a finalist for the Hatchet Job — a prize given for the most negative book review of the year. And yet, on the new paperback — on the front cover, no less — appears this ringing endorsement from The Washington Post: “Amis is a force unto himself. . . . There is, quite simply, no one else like him.”

All true. But caveat emptor. That line is drawn from a review of “London Fields” that my colleague Jonathan Yardley wrote . . . 23 years ago.

Books fade away, but blurbs are immortal. Like John Irving, I think that’s kind of “terrifying.”






Ron Charles is the editor of The Washington Post's Book World. For a dozen years, he enjoyed teaching American literature and critical theory in the Midwest, but finally switched to journalism when he realized that if he graded one more paper, he'd go crazy.



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Ron Charles · May 19, 2013

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