Feel-good blurb, feel-good story

The murky ethics surrounding authors’ blurbs for book jackets have made the news in recent years. In March, for instance, some British romance novelists admitted to writing glowing endorsements of books they loathed or hadn’t even bothered to read. Word-of-mouth reports suggest that this sort of thing also happens Stateside, among literary novelists.

Earlier this year, Scarlett Thomas (PopCo) wrote an amusing article for the Scotsman about the disheartening process of trying to secure blurbs. “Quotes,” she said, “are a bit like mobile phones. Disapprove of them as much as you want, but once everyone else has one, you have to have one too.”

Some more connected (and in some cases less talented) writers have no difficulty getting positive one-liners out of famous authors — because they know famous authors.

But many writers have a hard time of it. Prominent authors receive a flood of blurb requests, and even if they might like your book there’s no guarantee they’ll have time to read it.

Still, from time to time, a blind request to a respected author actually yields good results. Writer Daniela Kuper met Joyce Carol Oates, briefly, at a reading, and then obtained Oates’ permission to send along her debut novel, Hunger and Thirst, for a blurb. She sent it, and then she waited.

Oates’ response arrived on a “generic postcard” tucked amid the junk mail at Ms. Kuper’s rural Maine mailbox. So unassuming was the postcard that she almost threw it away. Luckily, she read it, and found the blurb that no doubt forms the centerpiece of St. Martins’ marketing materials for her novel:

Dear Daniela Kuper:

Thanks for sending me your engaging novel. It has a wonderfully evocative narrative voice and the details of neighborhood life are breathtaking. My quote:

Hunger and Thirst is one of the most vividly imagined and moving novels I’ve read in recent years. And one of the funniest.

Good luck and warm regards,

Joyce Carol Oates


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