A Weird Little Business
20 March 20009
In approaching a few writers to read the manuscript of Long For This World and possibly provide blurbs, I’ve been surprised by a more-than-once response, which goes something like: I’d be happy to read it, but you should know that I will only blurb it if I absolutely love it.
My first (inner) response is, Well, of course; why would you praise something falsely? Followed by Hmm, I suppose that response implies that it is not uncommon for writers to praise work falsely.
“Falsely” is too strong. The common practice, I believe, is for writers to praise what they love about the work of writers in whom they believe. In other words, the commitment is personal, rather than work-specific.
Wyatt Mason of Harper’s writes this week in his blog about the role of friendship in the making of literary careers. Quoting T.S. Eliot in a letter to the benefactor John Quinn:
I am sorry to say that I have found it uphill and exasperating work trying to impose [James] Joyce on such “intellectual” people, or people whose opinion carries weight as I know, in London. He is far from being accepted, yet. I only know two or three people, besides my wife and myself, who are really carried away by him.
Mason goes on to comment:
Quality is the key to any serious literary endurance, yes, but friendship is underrated as a critical tool. Anyone can write a blurb extolling, adverbially, the “fearlessly brilliant” and “daringly brave” (?) qualities of some someone’s latest something. But not everyone will write and circulate defenses of under-known works and undervalued artists, try to raise cash for the strapped genius, advocate in public and push in private for the virtues of the great but obscure… We forget, now and again, in the careerist whirl of the weird little business that is made of writing, how much altruism there is among those who do this sort of work.
Of course we’d rather believe in a pure meritocracy, but as Mason points out, it’s not so either/or. As in any field of work or path to success, there’s some element of luck/good fortune that comes into it. And the magic of the altruistic personal touch is still alive and well.
My editor and I will hope for some good fortune, but as far as blurbs go, we may just have to do this the old-fashioned way. In the words of the late John Houseman: we’ll have to earn it.