On Blurbing (Or, “This Is the Best Book To Appear since the Invention of Writing”)

Controversy has recently arisen in theoblogging circles regarding Scot McKnight’s blurb for N. T. Wright’s forthcoming Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision (Downers Grove: IVP, 2009), in which book the Bishop of Durham undertakes a response to critics of his approach to Pauline studies (notably John Piper). Justin Taylor of Between Two Worlds suggests that McKnight’s blurb unfairly misrepresents the “neo-Calvinists” (who are among the more outspoken critics of the so-called “New Perspective on Paul”), and that he ends up turning the reasons for their vehement opposition into a straw man only to indulge in accusation and name-calling. (As a side note, allow me to plainly state here what I merely hinted at there: there is more than a dash of humor in the fact that a complaint about the perceived exaggerations of a book blurb should have appeared precisely in a venue that itself routinely publicizes blurbs characterized by some of the more grossly exaggerated praise that I have had the displeasure to read.)

Nor is this the only blurb-related incident of recent times. Chrys Caragounis, who seems to have a penchant for hysterical reactions when other scholars dare to advance criticisms of his work, saw fit to write a 3-page rejoinder to a single line of a blurb provided by Rodney Decker for the American edition of his book, The Development of Greek and the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2006). In the measly line in question, Decker simply states that Caragounis’ thesis is “controversial” and that many (himself included) “may be skeptical” of the claim that Modern Greek is essential to understanding the language of the New Testament, before going on to say that he is “glad to see this work made available in an affordable (sic) edition so that its proposals may be more readily evaluated.”

So blurbs, it seems, are serious business.

In light of this discussion, I thought that a helpful way to examine the nature and character of book blurbs would be to consider some of those printed with Bob Dylan’s memoir, Chronicles: Volume One (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2004). Dylan’s songwriting needs no introduction, of course, and I imagine that all of us have been exposed to one or more of his songs at one point or another. A few words regarding his memoir, however, might be in order, as it is probably the case that not very many of my readers have perused that peculiar volume.

Dylan’s strengths as a lyricist are his undoing as a prose writer. In fact, it would not be unfair to characterize this book as a tedious 293-page lyric about Dylan’s formative years as a singer/songwriter. The text overflows with unnecessary, obscure, and therefore pretentious images, and only very seldom does one come across a well-formed sentence, let alone a well-written paragraph. (It is my distinct impression that the publishers, in order to give an “unplugged” Dylan to the masses, decided to forgo all editorial intervention.) Take, for instance, the following quote, in which Dylan discusses the music of fellow Greenwich Village performer Ricky Nelson:

“[T]hat type of music was on its way out. It had no chance of meaning anything. There’d be no future for that stuff in the future. It was all a mistake.”

This, of course, means nothing at all. There is much more of the same throughout, but I will not inflict it upon you now as we must press on to consider our subject, and the above surely provides more than sufficient background for what follows.

In spite of the obvious deficiencies of Dylan’s grating prose, the 13 pages of blurbs (!) that precede his memoir heap unfettered praise on his writing style. Robert McCrum of The Observer (London) makes the incredible affirmation that the book is “laid out in easy to read prose”; Jeff Barker of The Oregonian (Portland) speaks of the “impressive . . . quality of Dylan’s prose”; Tom Moon of The Philadelphia Inquirer labels it “stunningly clear writing” and has the audacity to suggest that the book is “unlike [Dylan’s] lyrics”; Gregory McNamee of Reuters announces that here we have “literature of the highest order”; Richard Harrington of The Washington Post calls Dylan “a masterful essayist”; and Luc Sante of The New York Review of Books opines that “Chronicles . . . is so fluid in its prose . . . that Dylan looks like a natural at the book game.” The observation by Bonnie Greer of The Observer (London) that “the writing goes right through you” resonates with me, but I suspect for entirely different reasons than she would expect.

The blurbs also predictably abound in literary comparisons: Dylan is variously likened to Henry Miller, Kurt Vonnegut, Jack Kerouac, Marcel Proust, Elmore Leonard, William Faulkner, Raymond Chandler, and W. B. Yeats. The most astonishing literary assessment, however, comes from Stu Levitan of the Capital Times (Madison, WI), who unflinchingly states that Bob Dylan is “the greatest and most important Western writer since Shakespeare.”

Let us pause here for a moment. Go ahead, let that sink in.

Stumped by Levitan’s incredible statement, and afraid that perhaps I had missed something in my literary formation, I decided it to probe his claim by turning to the Oxford Companion to English Literature (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2000). Now Bob Dylan certainly appears there, and he is given an entry with four lines which dutifully informs us that “[his] lyrics have been highly praised by poets and some scholars.” Then I looked up James Joyce, another potential claimant to the title of “greatest and most important Western writer since Shakespeare” that I chose at random. Joyce is mercifully also listed, and is given seventy-four lines to Dylan’s four—which is to say that Joyce is given well over 1,700% more space in this reference work than Dylan. Well, it seems that the editor of the Oxford Companion to English Literature might have missed something too1.

Now of the things which we have spoken, this is the sum: it is the nature of blurbs to be given to exaggeration of various kinds because, by and large, blurbing is an exercise in truthiness. Blurbs toe party lines, deride straw man opponents, and hyperbolize the merits of any given book beyond recognition. For this reason a good many of them are useless, and if considered at all, should be taken with an enormous grain of salt. In some cases, they should be altogether disregarded. (But let us give honor where honor is due: Dr Decker should be thanked for writing an honest, balanced, and actually helpful blurb for Dr Caragounis’ book.)

Allow me to give the final word of this tirade to the greatest and most important satirists in Western literature since Jonathan Swift, the brilliant co-authors of Right Behind: A Parody of Last Days Goofiness (Moscow, ID: Canon, 2001), Mr (now Dr) Sock and Nathan Wilson. I reproduce below the blurbs they masterfully crafted for their hilarious book, for as the once controversial Bishop Pike once wrote in a blurb, “Throughout history satire has been an effective device for stabbing people awake”—and Right Behind offers us blurb satire at its best. Enjoy!

Right Behind is at least as horrible as the original.” –St. Augustine
“If I weren’t dead, I’d be rolling in the aisles.” –John Calvin
“Mr. Sock is the most profound prophecy genius on the contemporary scene.” –Flavius Josephus
“The Left Behind series almost made me regret martyrdom. Right Behind renewed my hope.” –Polycarp

_______________________________

Note:

1 It bears noting that Bob Dylan appears to have had a prescient sense of his competition for the title of “greatest and most important Western writer since Shakespeare,” as witnesses this preemptive strike against Joyce: “The bookshelves were full of books and I noticed the novel Ulysses. Goddard Lieberson, president of Columbia Records, had given me this as a gift, a first-edition copy of the book and I couldn’t make hide nor hair of it. James Joyce seemed like the most arrogant man who ever lived, had both his eyes wide open and great faculty of speech, but what he say, I knew not what. I wanted to ask [Archibald] MacLeish to explain James Joyce to me, to make sense of something that seemed so out of control, and I knew that he would have, but I didn’t” (pages 129-130).

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16 responses to “On Blurbing (Or, “This Is the Best Book To Appear since the Invention of Writing”)

  1. I’m glad you drew attention to the profound and insightful work of Dr. Sock and his human colleague. Their writings sent shivers down my spine, all the way from my head to my right behind

  2. James, it does not surprise me in the least that a man with your culture and refinement would also be a fan of Dr Sock, the foremost prophecy expert of the new millennium, and Mr Wilson. I know of no other works that appeal more to one’s sense of beauty and truth, and which hold more ennobling potential for the human spirit, than these.

  3. Insightful and witty posts like these are what compel me to reiterate that you are the bestest blogger in the history of the world.
    Jeff

  4. Esteban: You can be the bestest blogger in the history of the world until my new computer arrives. At that time I’ll be reclaiming my title. ;-)

  5. Esteban,

    I think you’re overreacting. Although I have not read Dylan’s book, the lines you quote are not all that bad, when read with the proper expectation and proper model of writing in mind. In fact, the line “There’d be no future for that stuff in the future” is rather brilliant. But it’s a category mistake to read this sort of stuff in the context of high English literature, as its true comparands are more on the order of a Coen Brothers movie dialogue. In other words, its brilliance is of a different sort altogether than that which won accollades for Shakespeare, etc.

    As I’ve not read the book, I’ll make allowance that you’re right. In that case, I’d point out that Dylan’s songwriting abilities have waned (in my opinion) since the 1970’s. I think he lost his mojo about the same time he lost his voice.

    Your main point about blurbs not meaning anything, of course, is correct. I find it especially annoying to read a blurb written by the author’s close friends. (Admittedly, I did that once, as a favor to a friend.) One might as well read a blurb written by the author’s mother.

    John C. Poirier

  6. I would never write a blurb for a friend although I’m not opposed to providing a Contextless, Yet Priceless, Endorsement. ;-)

  7. Let us pause here for a moment. Go ahead, let that sink in…

    …while we wipe the coffee from our screens.

    Blathering sycophants. They’re obviously tools of the Devil.

    Reading a blurb can sometimes be as fun an exercise as reading a letter from a Church Hierarch to a schismatic faction. Terminological flexibility is the rule of the day. “Little appreciated” stands in for “Roundly despised.” “Tour de force” is a notoriously ambiguous phrase, in connotation either positive (“Charging boldly through serried ranks of idiocy”) or negative (“Insanely assaulting the foundations of reason, indeed sanity and reality itself”). “Breathtaking(ly nonsensical)” comes to mind. “Fundamental” means “obviously emerged from the author’s fundament.” There’s all kinds of fun to be had here!

  8. I once wrote a mostly negative critique of a book published by Baker. The folks at Baker picked out the obligatory nice parts and quoted them on their website, on a page dedicated to the book. Perhaps that was their way of getting back at me.

    John C. Poirier

  9. John> Like a very bad blurb, my post above is an extended exercise in hyperbole–though the bit about Dylan being the greatest and most important Western writer since Shakespeare surely deserves a much stronger reaction that it got here.

    And ah, it was you! I racked my brain for days before I posted this to remember whose review it was that had been cited, shall we say, selectively, but to no avail. Thanks for coming forward with your testimony!

    And by the way, aren't all blurbs written by authors' mothers, anyway? ;-)

    Kevin> There are simply no words. I felt like I entered a parallel universe when I read that. And yes, the comparison to carefully chosen hierarchical language is apropos here!

    Nick> And I'm thankful! Why, I didn't even have to rewrite or dishonestly excerpt yours… ;-)

  10. Dylan’s songwriting abilities have waned (in my opinion) since the 1970’s.

    Or, put another way, ever since Robert Zimmerman became a shegetz.

  11. So now I’m wondering what you, Esteban, have to say about the ‘New Perspective on Paul’ (and its Neo-Calvinist opponents), and not merely about a blurb about Wright’s new book about it. Call me, and tell me your thoughts at length.

  12. Pingback: On Blurbs | Rightly Dividing the Word of Truth

  13. Pingback: Blurbs- Oh, How I Loathe Thee « Boston Bible Geeks

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