In Brief

Man Booker judges blast gushing book blurbs

Over-the-top quotes have long been an annoyance, so why use them?

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Judges for the UK’s Man Booker Prize literary award have announced their 2017 shortlist, but while praising the writing they’ve complained about the flowery, gushing blurbs that accompany many of the books they read.

Some of the Man Booker judges find the quotes both annoying and embarrassing, The Times reports. 

“There are certain quotes that almost blackmail you into feeling intellectually or morally incompetent if you have not liked the book or have not understood it,” said travel writer and novelist Colin Thubron.

Fellow judge, artist Tom Phillips, complained that the blurbs were “outrageous in some instances”.

‘You’ll claw yourself with pleasure’

The Booker judges aren’t the first to object to over-the-top or reductive book blurbs. The Huffington Post published a list of most-hated book quotes by famous writers a few years ago. One writer, Frank McCourt, compared Mitch Albom’s The Five People You Meet In Heaven to The Odyssey.

McCourt is a notorious offender who has claimed on at least three blurbs that “you’ll claw yourself with pleasure”, said Colin Dwyer, writing for NPR in 2015. The book blurb is one of the only place you’ll find “words you might never hear otherwise – like compelling, or luminous, or unputdownable”, Dwyer added. 

Sky News notes that debut author Fiona Mozley’s blurb includes a review by The Economist that calls her novel, Elmet, “a quiet explosion of a book, exquisite and unforgettable”, while the London Evening Standard’s review of Autumn by Ali Smith says her writing “lifts the soul”.

 In an article in The Guardian earlier this year, Rafia Zakaria condemned the use of “Didion-esque” and “Didion-ish” as catch-all terms to boost books by white female authors. Zakaria complained that repeated comparisons of female authors to Joan Didion had become “a prescription” that was “stifling literature’s diversity”.

‘Disgusting tripe’?

Blurbs and their critics have been around for decades. In 1936, George Orwell complained about “the disgusting tripe that is written by the blurb-reviewers”.

So why are they still around? According to Dwyer, the real purpose of a blurb is to get a book noticed in a crowded market. It’s not about what the blurb says as much as who says it. The imprimatur of an established writer can make someone want to buy the book.

This year’s Man Booker 2017 shortlist of writers includes established names such as Paul Auster, George Saunders and Ali Smith. As well as Fiona Mozley, the list includes debut novelist Emily Fridlund, who along with Mohsin Hamid, will compete for the top prize, to be announced on 17 October.

Judging chair Baroness Lola Young praised the shortlisted titles as “unique and intrepid books that collectively push against the borders of convention”. The book blurbs, however, were another story. 

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