A Weird Little Business

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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.

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2 Responses to “A Weird Little Business”

  1. skb Says:

    Perhaps there should be an understanding that for the sake of authenticity, a DEBUT NOVEL (undoubtedly sprawled across front cover) might have blurbs that look more like:

    “Nursed an Americano for hours, but always gave a good tip”
    -Mike, barista, Nairdre’s Cafe, Brooklyn NY

    “Seems to bathe regularly”
    -Ellen, writing club member

    “Couldn’t put it down. Blew my mind.
    Can I come to bed now?”
    -Joe, boyfriend

    This way the writer can work on ditching the friends they realize are good for nothing, and they can take their book out and amass the kinds of friends who are blurb-worthy.

  2. sonyachung Says:

    Define “regularly.” (ha!)

    I remember reading an article somewhere about a study of three year-olds and their friend-making habits. Something about how children demonstrate an instinct for which friends will be most “useful” in helping them achieve their toddler-goals. One wonders at what point “survival” morphs into “ambition,” and what’s the qualitative difference.


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