April 15, 2004

Attack of the Busch-League Blurbs

Attack of the Busch-League Blurbs

A senior editor at “The Hatemonger’s Quarterly”—let’s just call him “Chip”—was perusing the April 12 & 19 number of The New Republic, as is his wont. This issue of that fine magazine, semi-cleverly entitled “God Bless Atheism,” contains a full-page advertisement from the University of Chicago Press.

This advertisement, hawking the latest tomes from that venerable press, bears the heading “Power Reading.” Yes, “Power Reading”: That’s the best that the marketing whizzes at the University of Chicago Press could muster. This led us to wonder what titles actually lost out to that genius appellative: The dignified yet catchy "Books-n-Stuff"? The more academically inclined "Hegemony Reading"? The sassier "Books"? The more frank "Books Written by Tenure-Track Professors Desperately Hoping to Coast Through their 50s"? Ah, but the cunning marketing department at the University of Chicago Press rightfully realized that “Power Reading” was surely the most fetching exhortation.

But never mind the silly title. We, the crack young staff of “The Hatemonger’s Quarterly,” have bigger fish to fry. One of the books publicized by the advertisement is Invent Radium or I’ll Pull Your Hair, a memoir by one Doris Drucker. Now, we here at “The Hatemonger’s Quarterly” haven’t read this fine tome, and we don’t intend to. But clearly the book deserves a more spirited blurb than the one offered by Jack Beatty, senior editor of The Atlantic Monthly: “Doris Drucker’s memoir is as original and entertaining as its title.” Oh, come on, Jack: We realize you are a fancy-pants editor at The Atlantic—the place where Christopher Hitchens undoes yet another button on his shirt and really lets loose—but we think you’re ‘phoning it in. The book’s as entertaining as its title?!? The start of your blurb is as is as pathetic as it is uninspired.

And this leads us to the more general topic of blurbs. These days, it seems as if just about every book contains an overwrought blurb from either William Kristol or Susan Sontag. In fact, we’re inclined to believe that William Kristol has read every book Susan Sontag hasn’t. And vice-versa. And, between the two of them, they’ve liked every one. There’s not a clunker in the bunch.

Oftentimes, the blurb is so general, it remains unclear whether the blurbist has actually read the volume he is so earnestly recommending. Take Jack Beatty’s: Couldn’t he offer a first sentence that makes it clear that he at least slogged through the acknowledgments page? It’s like one of those longwinded Gore Vidal criticisms in The New York Review of Books: Full of pomp and circumstance, but doesn’t leave the audience with the impression that the book in question was actually worth the good reviewer’s time.

Why don’t William Kristol, Susan Sontag, and the other bigwigs of blurbalia simply concoct a formulaic quotation, thus freeing him or her from going to the trouble of reading the work in question? We, the crack young staff of “The Hatemonger’s Quarterly,” humbly offer this as a sample blurb-by-the-numbers:

“[Insert title of the book] was great! It’s the best work in its genre since The Closing of the American Mind/Austerlitz/The Greening of America. Everyone is going to be talking about [insert author’s name] for a long time to come. Simply indispensable.”

Well, Bill and Susan, there you have it. We’ve just increased your productivity ten-fold. Perhaps you can send us a portion of your royalties?

Posted at April 15, 2004 12:04 AM | TrackBack