In search of the perfect blurb…

Blurbs – those pithy, effusive, adjective-heavy, uniformly positive endorsements from other writers or simply famous people that adorn the back covers of books and sometimes the front covers – get a lot of mixed, if not downright bad, press.

Writers, who depend on blurbs the most, often have a love/hate relationship with receiving and giving them, seeing the practice in the first case as a necessary evil at best, and in the second a distraction from real work at worst. There’s much debate about whether blurbs actually help sell books to readers, or whether their primary purpose is simply to market books to booksellers, a not insignificant task.

In his latest book of verse, Needs Improvement, Jon Paul Fiorentino satirizes blurbs in “Blurbists,” a poem in which every stanza is an absurdist stand-alone example of the genre. One of my favourite stanzas in the poem admirably illustrates the sentence fragment sub-genre of blurbs: ” ‘A kindling, then a fire in the form of still life. The perplexities of arrival and departure. The fragmented wholeness. Read and reread. Then read again. Then reread.’ ”

C.P. Boyko skewers the weaknesses of the blurbist style in “The Prize Jury,” a story in his current short story collection Novelists. (Unsolicited blurb alert: For those of you who haven’t read it, Novelists is a finely-crafted and hilarious exploration of the idiosyncrasies and foibles of the writerly-inclined: perfect for the writer in your life or for those who have to live with one.)

Has-been novelist Clint Lewes has found himself presiding on a jury for the world’s most prestigious literary honour: the Godskriva Prize. He also happens to have written the introduction to one of the finalists’ novels in the hope of reviving his own literary career. On the jury, he’s not so subtly exploiting his position to steer the other jurors into voting for that book. In the climactic voting scene, Boyko has Clint calling on “all the hysterical superlatives with which twenty years of blurb-writing had equipped him.”

But despite the many writerly (and readerly) misgivings, blurbs continue to be written and read. When my publisher Linda Leith pronounced the manuscript for my first novel Sons and Fathers ready to begin the final push toward publication, my earnest quest for blurbs began.

Sons and Fathers is about that special relationship and male friendships, but also about politics, journalism, and spin. Having spent the last twenty years of my career in corporate communications and government relations, I knew far more government people and journalists than I did novelists. But I was connected to a few novelists on LinkedIn and had enjoyed some brief correspondence with others.

Linda had mentioned we needed no more than three blurbs, and a good one – one from a credible source that fully captured the spirit of the book – was far better than three less effective ones.

I respectfully sought out blurbs from political journalists and novelists. Everyone was genuinely very supportive and congratulatory about my upcoming first novel but very few could spare the time to write a blurb, either because they were writing their own books – a perfectly understandable excuse – or, in the case of more than a few of the male political journalists, because they didn’t read fiction. (Why men don’t read fiction deserves its own blog post!)

Luckily for me, one bestselling Canadian novelist had been at the top of my blurb-seeking list from the beginning, and he was the first writer I approached.

Terry Fallis is one of the busiest writers around. His reading schedule alone puts the demands of most full-time jobs to shame. I didn’t know Terry personally, but he and I were connected on LinkedIn. We both worked in public and government relations and – although our time there hadn’t overlapped – at one point in our careers we had both worked at the same public and government relations consulting firm.

Sons and Fathers has its comic moments (a cab ride through New York and a vasectomy scene come to mind) but it’s not a comic novel in the way that Terry’s are. Nevertheless, I thought that what my novel had to say about Canadian politics, journalism, and spin would appeal to the writer who’d crafted The Best Laid Plans.

Terry kindly agreed to read the unproofed text of Sons and Fathers under a fairly tight timeline. In the end he wrote a blurb that concisely captured the novel in a way I hadn’t been able to do myself:

“In Sons and Fathers, Daniel Goodwin takes us on a wild, page-turning ride through a harrowing collision of family, friendship, politics, and love.”

What more can I say about the book?

Thanks Terry for taking the time to read and respond to Sons and Fathers.

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