Browsing at Barnes & Noble a couple of months ago, the attractive cover design and unusual title of 36 Arguments For the Existence of God, by Rebecca Goldstein, caught my eye. My first thought (beyond, "Dammit, am I really judging a book by its cover?") was to wonder what the hell a preachy religious tract was doing in the fiction new releases section. But I investigated further. The subtitle, "A Work of Fiction," hidden in plain sight in black cursive at the bottom, was a clue...
when I saw her in Central Park?), and so turning the book over, I was excited to find two novelists I admire, Jess Walter (The Zero, The Financial Lives of the Poets [my review]) and Jonathan Safran Foer (Everything Is Illuminated, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close), absolutely gushing in the back cover blurbs. That's it, I thought, this book's coming home with me.
I've never put much stock in blurbs (or really even read them at all); either from other writers or from the magazine/newspaper reviews usually included on the first few pages. They usually seem like marketing hooey, and more of a hindrance than a help to enjoying the novel. But, as I'm reading and thoroughly enjoying "36 Arguments", a book I selected based solely on its blurbs (a first for me), I started to wonder if other readers have had success using blurbs as a selection criteria for new novels, too.
There's two parts to this consideration, really: What the blurbs say, and who did the blurbing. To me, the second is more critical, since I've heard over and over again how careful writers are when choosing books to blurb. It's always risky for writers to link their names to another's work. No one wants to be associated with a bomb, in any capacity. So if you've enjoyed a blurbing writer's work, it's not a logical stretch to conclude that that the blurbed novel is solid.
That is, except when the content is bad. Or wrong. Take, for instance, this hysterically and "painfully overwrought," blurb Nicole Krauss wrote for David Grossman's new novel To The End of the Land. Because I had to read it about three times to really understand it, it doesn't exactly make me want to dive over bookcases to get my hands on the novel.
When blurbs are misleading, they can negatively affect your reading experience as well. That was the case for me with Carlos Ruis Zafon's The Shadow of the Wind. Blurbers compared Zafon to Arturo Perez, Umberto Eco, Jorge Luis Borges, so I was expecting something a lot smarter or more bookish than what I got. (My review here.) But Stephen King is blurbed on the front cover, so that just confused me. Anyway...
So, how important are blurbs to you when you're prospecting for new novels or novelists? Do you give more stock to a novel that's been blurbed by other novelists you've enjoyed? Examples? Do you read the pages and pages of marketing-tailored fluff on the opening pages?
(Dammit...Ever since I titled this post, I've had the song below by the Chicago rock band Janus stuck in my head...Click "play" on the clip and fast-forward to about the 3:08 mark if you want to understand the connection. The lesson here? I'm a nerd.)