Monday, February 29, 2016

Words to Read By: Evaluating Books by Their Blurbs

BLOGGER’S NOTE: I usually try to keep my blog family-friendly and age-appropriate, but this entry will describe briefly some of the things I avoid when choosing reading material.

The last time I was at the library I went on another borrowing binge. As I was scouring the stacks searching for my next Great American (or any other nationality, I’m not particularly picky on that count) Novel, I realized that I was judging books by their covers…but more than that, I was judging them by their blurbs.

This is perfectly acceptable library behavior. Blurbs—the description of the book’s contents either on the back cover or inside the front flap of the dust-jacket—are carefully crafted in order to communicate how great and readable the book is, in order to sell as many copies as possible.  It’s important to remember that a badly written blurb does not mean the book itself is badly written or vise-versa. However, it is also important to put some time into decoding a blurb in order to get a correct idea of what the book will actually be about.

I love mysteries and historical adventure novels, but often I will pick up a novel set in Victorian England or 19th-Century New York or Chicago (you can usually tell it’s Victorian by the elaborate yet artfully aged font chosen for the title on the cover’s spine), only to hastily shove it back on the shelf. Why? Because it is a rampant cliché of such novels to have the mystery begin with “a murdered prostitute.” In fact, that’s exactly the word I scan for whenever I read the blurbs of such books.  As soon as I see the “P” word (or any of its many euphemisms) I put it back.  Same with descriptions which include “gritty” or anything to do with sex.

I understand the reason for this is probably inspired by the fascination with Jack the Ripper, but frankly

 a) It’s lazy writing since almost every Victorian Crime Novel is about that and
b) I don’t necessarily want to fill my mind with that garbage, anyway. 

Does that mean that I am prudishly restraining myself from an otherwise excellently-crafted tale? Possibly. But there are so many other books that do fit my criteria, that I can hardly expect to finish my ever-growing reading list in my lifetime anyway. So I can afford to be picky, even overly-so.

It’s important for a reader to understand what sort of fiction they enjoy. This is not to say that one shouldn’t try different genres or stories, to never leave one’s comfort zone. But that doesn’t mean I want to always seek out books that I’m unlikely to enjoy. Therefore I often will reject a book where all the characters seem to suffer from depression or suicide or live a meaningless, mundane life until they are middle-aged and then decide to embark on a soul-seeking adventure of recklessness, irresponsibility, and often marital infidelity. Such books are a dime a dozen in the contemporary lit section of my library, it seems. But I’d much rather read books like The Blue Castle where the main character, unfulfilled and hopeless as she may start out, seeks her own happiness by serving others and standing up for herself in less haphazardly destructive ways.

Additionally, I judge my prospective reads by three arbitrary tests. First, if the author has a ton of books on the shelf, I am less likely to read them. This is due to an underlying uncertainty I have about prolific writers and whether it’s possible for them to pump out that many publications without somehow “diluting” their talent. Also the fact that they have written so much and have become popular is no incentive for me to read them; I’ve always had a sort of contrary urge to never read popular fiction, which is why I gravitate so much to classics, forgotten classics, and quirky independent literature by first-time authors. 

Second, I usually will not read a copy of any novel where the author’s name is in bigger print than the actual title. This has always bugged me to no end.  I care about the story, and couldn’t care less who wrote it as long as it is awesome.

Third, I usually will put back a book if its blurb is merely a collection of praise and accolades by publishers, newspaper reviews, and other writers. If I don’t care who the author himself is, why would I care who these other people are? And since I don’t care who they are, why would I invest any importance to what they thought of the book? 

This last bit is perhaps a little hypocritical, considering I myself am a blogger and often say whether or not something is worth a read. However, I am not a blurbist. Not just because that is not a word, but because even though I am not a blurbist, I nevertheless try to convey what a book’s theme or points of interest are without giving away too many plot points. I don’t say “Such-and-such an author is the Kafka of modern representational comparative literature in the 21st century!” or “Phenomenal use of scene and style strike a balance with the chaotic characterization of the post-modern cubist protagonist.” The point is, for good or bad, a book’s blurb is an important factor for a reader when trying to decide whether to buy or borrow or read said book. A bunch of quotes, even from authoritative sources, are not as effective as a short description of the plot and characters in “hooking” the audience in.  

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