Sunday, April 30, 2006


This week, I have been consumed by guilt. A pile of books and manuscripts has built up in the corner of my office, all of them with letters attached requesting a supportive quote for the work in question. Over the last few years, more and more have started to arrive, some from writers whom I’ve met, others from editors hoping for a boost for one of their acquisitions, but I find that I have less and less time to read them, which means I am constantly falling behind. I picked up one book proof recently and saw that it had been sent in February, with the novel in question due for publication in May. I suspect my quote may be a little late by this point, but I wish the author well.

Don’t get me wrong: it’s nice to be asked, and it’s good to be able to give a bit of support to other writers. I suppose it’s an indication that I must be doing something right if there are editors and authors out there who believe that a quote from me might prove helpful. Then again, a friend of mine told me last week that a mutual acquaintance had stopped him in a bookstore and complained vociferously to him about one of the books I’d blurbed, to the point of hauling him over to the shelf and pointing out the offending quote on the cover. So there you have it: one of my quotes may help to sell a book, but there’ll be complaints afterwards.

The first book I was ever asked to blurb was written by a former journalist turned novelist. I wasn’t terribly keen on the book. The setting was very evocative, but the plot left a little to be desired, and I had figured out the identity of the killer before I’d even finished my first cup of coffee. I mulled over whether or not to give a quote, and eventually asked my American editor for advice. She pointed out that others had given me quotes and, unless I had grave reservations, it might be nice to return the favour to another writer, so I did. I provided the quote, and it was used.

And I never heard anything back from the author involved. I was a little surprised. Maybe that was how things were done in publishing, but it seemed a little rude not to say thank you. After all, I’d never met him. I was under no obligation to read his book. It wasn’t even published by one of the houses with which I was involved. I recalled that after my first book, Every Dead Thing, was published, I had sent short thank-you notes to the three authors who had offered me supportive quotes: Jeff Deaver, David Lindsay, and Julia Wallis Martin, none of whom I had met at the time. But, in this case, there was no acknowledgement of the gesture. It had been, quite literally, a thankless task.

In the years since then no writer has failed to send at least an appreciative e-mail in return for a quote, which helped to restore my faith somewhat. The problem now is that there are more books arriving in the hope of being blurbed than I really have time to read. Well, that’s not quite true. I could read them all but it would start to feel a bit like homework. At a rough count, five books that I’ve blurbed have been published already this year, with at least two more to come. That’s quite a lot, I think, and for each manuscript or submitted novel I read, I have to sacrifice time that I might have spent reading those books on my shelf for which I’ve paid my own money, books to which I’d rather like to get around before I die.

Glancing idly to my right, I find the following books on my shelf, all purchased in the month of April and all, so far, unread: Fiasco: A History of Hollywood’s Iconic Flops by James Robert Parish; The Sundance Kids: How the Mavericks Took Back Hollywood by James Mottram; Pig Island by Mo Hayder; The Ugly American by William J. Lederer and Eugene Burdick; A Spy By Nature by Charles Cumming; The Devil’s Picnic by Taras Grescoe; Set Up, Joke, Set Up by Rob Long; and, as of yesterday, Muscle by John Hotten, The Accidental Connoisseur by Lawrence Osborne, and The Nasty Bits by Anthony Bourdain. In addition, I’ve received two uncorrected proofs for free - Jeff Deaver’s The Cold Moon and Karin Slaughter’s Tryptych - and a copy of David Mitchell’s new novel, Black Swan Green, from my British publishers.

Then there are all of the books bought prior to April (bought, if truth be told, prior to this year, and some of them bought in the last century) that I haven’t yet read. What of them? What of my ambition to read every Dickens novel at the rate of one a year? These are books that I really want to read, not books that I feel I should read, or that someone else would really like me to read.

I also seem to receive a lot of crime fiction. That’s understandable; after all, it’s what I write, and therefore whatever value a blurb from me might have is likely to be greatest in that area. Yet, looking back over the books that I’ve read so far this year, most are not crime novels. My reading tends to be much wider than that. In fact, I’m now less likely to read a crime novel than I was, say, two or three years ago. I still love reading mysteries, and there are fellow crime authors whose books I will always devour, but there is more to books than this one genre. In fact, some of the books I’ve been most pleased to support in recent times - Luis Urrea’s wonderful The Devil’s Highway, Shane Duffy’s gripping, moving Wednesday’s Child - have been non-fiction works.

I also don’t want to become a “blurb whore”, the general term of opprobrium for those authors who can’t seem to say no to a request for a quote. If my name starts appearing on the cover of every second book published then it’s probably going to reduce whatever small value a gesture of support from me might have. Then again, it’s hard to say no. I was talking to a publishers’ rep in a bookstore recently. She pointed to a newly published novel that had an appreciative quote on the cover from a famous female writer. “She gives one to everyone because she wants them all to like her,” remarked the rep. I’m not sure that I want to be liked that much (or even, given my character flaws, that there are enough blurbs in the world to buy that degree of affection) but neither do I want other writers thinking that I just don’t care, or that I’ve become one of those jackasses who won’t give a quote for fear that it might help potential opposition.

It seems to me that the whole area of blurbing requires UN-levels of diplomacy. Suppose that you’re given a book by a fellow writer, perhaps one whom you know well, one whom you like and admire, and the book just isn’t very good: what do you do? One author friend of mine refuses to give blurbs to writers whom he knows personally, but it’s a little late for me to institute that policy, and anyway it avoids rather than confronts the issue to hand. In the end, all you can do is keep quiet and hope that the author doesn’t press the issue, or that the unmentioned book doesn’t become the elephant in the corner at all future encounters between the writers involved.

So the "unread" pile remains. Other books will inevitably be added to it, and I’ll get around to reading some of them, but I’ll never be able to read them all. I know that writers will feel snubbed, and editors will consider me rude, but what can I do? I only have so many hours to spend reading, and there are so many books. I even hope to write a few more myself, given time.

Apologies in advance, therefore, for not getting around to reading everything. Still, I wish you all only the best. Mea culpa.

This week John read

The Call of the Weird: Travels in American Subcultures by Louis Theroux
Old School by Tobias Wolff

and listened to

Music for Airports by Brian Eno
St. Elsewhere by Gnarls Barkley


lucifuge616 said...

i barely manage to read a book a week! i'd most likely break down and cry if confronted with so many books...either that or i'd ease my guilty consumerist conscience & donate them all to a homeless shelter...theyre surprizingly well read, the homeless... i'm going off topic though, looking forward to TBOLT

Jayne said...

I can relate to this, John. I used to review books on a regular basis for various magazines, but they were very rarely books that I would go out and buy. Occasionally, I would be sent a novel that I loved but, more often than not, they were books that I didn't particularly enjoy.

My own book collection was building up and I wasn't getting chance to read them, due to reading all the books that were sent out to me. Whilst it was nice to be sent free books, I found that I was beginning to resent having to do book reviews - I just wanted to be left alone so that I could catch up on some of my own books.

So, last Christmas I decided that I'd had enough and I stopped doing book reviews. I've now got more time on my hands to read what I want to read and that makes me so much happier.

Sandra Ruttan said...

I'm dealing with this from both sides now.

It was brutally hard to even ask people I knew to consider blurbing my book. I'm so aware of how busy these authors are.

On the other side, I'm now being sent review copies with the hopes I'll do a write-up in Spinetingler.

And read one draft copy for a book not being released until next year.

I'm beginning to see that one of the most important things for an author to acquire is the ability to say no. Not because you're mean, but because you simply can't do it all.

But anyone who blurbs my work would definitely get a "thank you" - it's just rude not to acknowledge the time and effort someone puts into what is meant to help your book.

Mark P said...

Hi John, just wanted to say that the Anthony Bourdain book you've bought is as good a read as ever. I'm reading it now and the introductory chapter, where he and a family of innuits go out seal hunting and then bloodily devour their catch, is as gory and stomach churning as the nastiest of crime novels! Fantastic stuff!
Oh, there's also the added bonus of it being a collection of articles, so you can dip into it between reading the less satisfying stuff. A tasty snack between the odd heavy meal, as it were.

H said...

John, Thanks for the blog. Brilliant!


Sean V. Lehosit said...

I guess we have to play politics no matter what we do these days. I understand what you're saying too, I've not had any fiction published yet but I write for my college newspaper and most people near me know i'm an english major, so I constantly get requests to "look over" an essay, or tell somebody what I think of their short story. I don't mind either, but sometimes it's a bad time, or innapropriate setting, but I guess everyone should take things like that as a compliment, sometimes you can only shrug and smile.

K said...

You do the best you can do, and really that is all you can do.


anne frasier said...

i can't believe someone would send a ms without asking. that seems horribly rude.