Sometime next month I’ll sit down with The Cocktail Waitress, an unpublished novel by James M. Cain. Hard Case Crime’s Charles Ardai, who’s published many worthy novels (not a few of them mine), unearthed Cain’s manuscript, edited it with his characteristic sensitivity, and will publish it this fall.
I expect to enjoy it. But, like it or not, I’m sure I’ll give it a blurb.
It’s been around fifteen years—maybe closer to twenty—since I stopped giving blurbs. I made the decision for a couple of reasons. First, I was getting more manuscripts and galleys than I could possibly have read, even if I did nothing else, even if I were a certified graduate of Evelyn Wood’s speed-reading school. Giving blurbs, after all, is like feeding pigeons, and every time you say something nice about somebody’s book, five more editors add you to their list of prospects, and ten more ARCs turn up in the mail.
Nor did I want to be stuck with the choice of saying something nice about a book I didn’t care for or indicating my dislike of the thing to its editor or author. The only way to avoid that particular no-win situation is to steer clear of the whole business. Hence, no blurbs.
This is a stance many writers adopt sooner or later. A rush of blurbish generosity is a not uncommon response to success, and both Stephen King and Mario Puzo were at one point accused of never having met a book they didn’t like. I never knew Mr. Puzo, so can’t guess what he did or didn’t read and did or didn’t like, but I’ve had enough contact with Steve King to doubt he ever blurbed a book he didn’t care for. He takes his responsibilities too seriously for that. But he’s always been an avid reader, and his enthusiasms are considerable.
Mario Puzo died in 1999, but well before then his fervor for blurbing died down, as did Stephen King’s. At one time or another, though, most writers get caught up in the game. One wants to give one’s friends a helping hand, one wants to do some cheerleading for a really outstanding book—and, less altruistically, one can see how one gets a blurb for oneself every time one gives one to somebody else. (“Outstanding!” —Jeremy Puddler, author of Red Sky at Midnight)
Once I’d established a firm no-blurbs policy, life became simpler. I had a ready response to requests, and over time editors and publicists got the message. The volume of ARCs decreased sharply, and what got through was easily handled and dismissed. The downside, of course, was that periodically a good friend would write a book I really liked, and I had to deny him some heartfelt public praise.
I broke my own rule a couple of times. Two friends each self-published a book of poems; while I couldn’t imagine how my endorsement could boost their sales, I saw no reason to withhold it. (And I did in fact like the poems.)
And, just before my first appearance on his program, Craig Ferguson sent along the manuscript of his novel, Between the Bridge and the River. I loved the book, but felt torn. Wouldn’t it be awfully whorish for me to give a blurb to someone in a position to do so much for my own career? But wouldn’t it be stupidly self-destructive say no? I went to a friend for counsel. “Give the blurb,” she advised, “and if anybody bugs you about it, tell him you’ll happily blurb his book as soon as he gets a national TV show of his own.”
One effect of my policy has been that I’ve felt honor-bound not to seek blurbs from other writers. When Mulholland was preparing to publish A Drop of the Hard Stuff, my editor had a batch of prominent writers from whom he wanted to solicit blurbs, and when he asked me for additions to the list, I explained he’d have to abandon the whole project; if I wasn’t going to give blurbs, neither was I going to seek them, or even use them if they dropped unsummoned out of the heavens. I did encourage him to send copies to a great many friends and colleagues, but with a letter explaining that no blurb was sought. Several of these good fellows, perhaps unable to believe that they’d been sent a book for which no quid pro quo was desired, sent along blurbs anyway. They warmed my heart, but I didn’t use them.
Before I stopped giving blurbs—indeed, before I was much asked for them—I received some generous quotes from Stephen King, Martin Cruz Smith, Jonathan Kellerman, Tony Hillerman, and Evan Hunter. Publishers still trot them out, dust them off, and slap them on books of mine. Tony and Evan are gone, I’m say to say, but if any of the others wanted a blurb from me (and I can’t imagine why they would) I’d be hard put to say no.
Which is why I’m sure I’ll find something good to say about The Cocktail Waitress. Back in 1974, when Dell was about to publish the first Matthew Scudder novel, my editor Bill Grose asked me if I could think of anybody with real name value who might be persuaded to give the book a blurb. “I don’t know him,” I said, “but how about James M. Cain?”
I’ve no idea what made me think of him. He was, of course, one of the founders of hardboiled crime fiction, with two of his books, Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice, adapted as classic film noir. I admired Cain, certainly, but I hardly saw him as Scudder’s literary Godfather; I’d have been more likely to cast Ross Macdonald in that role, and never even mentioned him to Bill.
Cain’s star was fading at the time, and maybe I thought of him because I figured he probably didn’t get many requests of this nature. At any rate, Bill sent him the manuscript, and to our mutual astonishment Cain wrote back with something we could use. (He also offered some suggestions for improving the book, which Bill and I agreed we could safely ignore.)
And so when The Sins of the Fathers appeared as a Dell paperback original, there was a brief but laudatory quote from James M. Cain on its cover. That was in 1976. I should certainly have written to thank him, but of course I never did, and a year later he was dead at age 85.
Now, three and a half decades later, I get to return the favor.
I can’t imagine that my blurb will have much effect. I’m sure The Cocktail Waitress would sell just fine without it. And I have to wonder what good Cain’s gracious blurb did for Matt Scudder’s debut. The book didn’t sell well at all, and, being a paperback original, got virtually no press attention.
I’ve never been convinced blurbs make much of a difference. It seems to me that people sufficiently sophisticated to go out and buy books (or stay home and buy them, for that matter) are pretty good at screening out the hype. “Ah, those are his friends,” they’ll say. “And he and this one have the same publisher, and isn’t he married to that one’s sister?”
It’s not hard to see why editors and publicists like to push for blurbs. Unlike almost anything else that might be called upon to do for a book, blurbs are essentially free. If you send out a book and get a blurb, it looks as though you’ve accomplished something. If you send out a book and don’t get a blurb, it still looks as though you’ve been busy.
As I’ve said, I’ve reduced the flood of galley to a trickle. But, with the rise of the social media, it’s a rare week when I don’t get half a dozen requests from authors. I get emails, I get Facebook messages, I get tweets, all with the inevitable request.
I’m sure a lot of writers just ignore these requests, but just as the new media facilitates the requests in the first place, so does it make it easy to respond. I always do, and I always say no.
Some writers assure me that they aren’t looking for a blurb, that they simply want me to have a copy of their book. This might be disingenuous, but I’m willing to believe them, as I can recall sending books of mine (unwanted, and I’m sure unread) to John O’Hara and Arthur Koestler.
Would I supply an address, so the writer/fan can send a book? It’s a little harder to say no to that, as nothing’s being asked of me, but the fact of the matter is that I spend very little time reading these days, that I rarely finish the books I do pick up, and that the last thing my apartment needs is more books in it.
Ah well. I’ve always liked the way Robert B. Parker would respond when some hopeful young writer would ask him to read his new book, and, um, if he liked it, um, supply a blurb.
“I’ll do one or the other,” Bob would say. “You decide which.”