AUGUST 9, 2015
THERE’S NO getting around it: book blurbs are a much-maligned aspect of publishing culture. For many, the celebrity endorsements that feature prominently on the outside of books should be entirely disregarded, irrespective of author, since they bear no meaningful relation to the works they purportedly describe. Part of this cynicism is due to the dismal quality of many of these blurbs, which invariably seem to have been either hurriedly churned out, or else are wildly overblown in their claims. After all, there’s only so many times a new novel can be described as “compulsively readable” or “dazzlingly imaginative” before such phrases begin to float free of all meaning. Readers’ skepticism toward blurbs is also due to suspicions about the integrity — or lack thereof — of such endorsements. It’s hardly a secret that publishing houses frequently solicit blurbs in the attempt to increase sales, calling in favors and wheedling high-profile authors in the hope of receiving a glowing review. This perceived insincerity might be the most irksome aspect of many book blurbs, which prompted no less an authority than George Orwell, in his great essay “In Defence of the Novel,” to characterize them as “disgusting tripe.”
It’s thus perhaps not surprising to find that David Foster Wallace was also highly cynical about the culture of blurbing. At a public reading in 2004, when questioned on the blurbs that adorn the jackets of his own novels, Wallace coined the helpful term “blurbspeak,” which he defined as
a very special subdialect of English that’s partly hyperbole, but it’s also phrases that sound really good and are very compelling in an advertorial sense, but if you think about them, they’re literally meaningless.
Despite being quick to point out that vaguely positive phrases are obviously “far preferable to savage meaningless phrases,” Wallace’s critique gets to the heart of what can often be so distasteful about blurbs. His nod to marketing culture is a telling one, since seasoned literary “consumers” tend to treat blurbs as mildly irritating advertisements.
And yet for all this justified cynicism, blurbs still function. There’s a good reason why publishers spend so much time cajoling prominent authors into composing those florid and fawning sentences, since for most of us, there’s still something persuasive about seeing a cherished author’s endorsement on the cover of a new book. This might be due to a kind of unconscious exceptionalism: despite knowing that the wider blurb genre is hopelessly compromised and corrupted, we choose to believe that the particular endorsement we’re reading is a genuine one. In fact, very often I think we assume that despite the cronyism and logrolling prevalent in publishing culture, there’s still a margin of freedom within which an author can use a blurbing opportunity in good faith, to spread the word to their fans about a new release.
At least, this is how I mostly think about blurbs written by novelists whose work I like. In the case of David Foster Wallace, who despite his deep cynicism still contributed numerous book endorsements, there are many books I might never have picked up without his recommendation. Take Dan Josefson’s quirkily brilliant 2012 debut That’s Not a Feeling, for instance. Wallace’s endorsement for this novel (“Dan Josefson is a writer of astounding promise and That’s Not a Feeling is a bold, funny, mordant, and deeply intelligent debut”) was so significant that Soho Press used it on both the front and back covers of the book, as well as printing an appendixed interview with fellow writer Tom Bissell, explaining the blurb’s origins. Bissell’s account describes what Wallace found compelling about the novel, but it also reveals Wallace as a serious theorist on the function of blurbs. Bissell reports that, in 2008, the two of them “had a long conversation about what blurbs were even for, and why they were so important,” regretting that he didn’t take any notes at the time.
I loved That’s Not a Feeling on its own terms, but I also enjoyed the experience of reading the book through Wallace’s eyes, thinking about the kinds of things he would have been drawn to, and the degree of overlap with his own literary aesthetic. It’s thus always seemed odd to me that the many blurbs Wallace composed never get talked about. Scholars seemingly deem them unworthy of critical consideration — despite Gérard Genette’s important work on literary “paratexts” and “peritexts” in the late ’80s — and most other readers either aren’t familiar with the particular endorsements Wallace wrote, or else the kind of cynicism described above means they don’t take them seriously.
But I think there are three key reasons why it’s worth paying attention to these blurbs. For one thing, they work as an oblique record of Wallace’s evolving views on what literature is really for, comprising a parallel history to the aesthetic agendas he set down elsewhere. Read carefully, his blurbs reveal intriguing overlaps with these broader agendas, as well as gesturing to the particular qualities he valued in fiction. They also indicate an engagement with a surprising and often counterintuitive range of texts, hinting at Wallace’s broad intellectual interests. And finally, the blurbs themselves are in most cases finely crafted, elegant sentences, which may even represent one of the final frontiers of Wallace’s published — though uncollected — work. Although much of Wallace’s previously uncollected essays, teaching documents, and other work have been published in recent years, the twenty-odd blurbs he composed across his career have, in my opinion, been unfairly neglected. The following survey makes a case for giving these blurbs a closer look.
Beyond the Josefson example, Wallace wrote numerous blurbs for similarly young novelists and short story writers whose careers could be jump-started with a high-profile endorsement. Wallace’s generosity toward such writers is evident in many of the blurbs that fall into this category. For instance, in 1989 he blurbed 28-year-old A.M. Homes’s debut novel Jack, describing it as “[a] moving novel, and a very refreshing one. Jack is such an engaging, attractive human being, it’s a pleasure to believe in him.” At this stage of his career, two years after the publication of The Broom of the System, the believability of literary characters was becoming more of a focus for Wallace, who was slowly moving away from his earlier reliance on arch postmodern tropes to an approach that valued more traditional elements of storytelling. It’s hard to imagine the relentlessly cerebral Wallace of earlier years praising a novel for having an appealing or “attractive” main character, though his later work would prioritize exactly these qualities. Revealingly, he later admitted to David Lipsky that at the time he was editing Broom, he couldn’t see that the book’s most compelling aspect wasn’t its engagement with esoteric philosophy, but its portrayal of Lenore Beadsman, the one character who “seems halfway appealing and alive.”
But just one year later, Wallace was championing Mark Leyner’s My Cousin, My Gastroenterologist (1990), in an endorsement that shows his ambivalence toward conventional forms of literary realism. Wallace claimed that Leyner’s work
will blow away your expectation of what late-model literature has to be. Unified by obsessions too eerie not to be real, this gorgeous rearrangement of our century’s mental furniture is testimony to a new talent of Burroughs/Coover/Acker scale.
Wallace’s effusive praise for the collection is surprising, since it was famously retracted in his 1993 essay “E Unibus Pluram,” where he claimed that Leyner’s sole aim in the book was ultimately a depressingly shallow one: “to ensure that the reader is pleased and continues to read.” But his initial enthusiasm is revealing inasmuch as it offers a snapshot of Wallace casting about in search of a new aesthetic program. (It’s also telling that Wallace distanced himself from Kathy Acker, in a review of Portrait of an Eye published around this time.) While Leyner’s vision of literary fiction at first seemed like a way out of the postmodern funhouse, a solution to the perceived exhaustion of artistic forms, Wallace ultimately saw this vision as leading to yet another dead end.
It’s equally surprising to learn that Wallace blurbed Irvine Welsh’s short story collection The Acid House in 1994, when Welsh was trying to make inroads in the US on the back of Trainspotting. Wallace called Welsh “the real thing,” suggesting that the collection contained “a marvelous admixture of nihilism and heartbreak, pinpoint realism (especially in dialect and tone) and almost archetypal universality.” Wallace’s emphasis on dialect sits neatly alongside the kinds of voices he was himself crafting during this period (including the use of Ebonics, Spanglish, and idiomatic Irish in Infinite Jest). But it also contains an oddly inconsistent approach to literary nihilism, since Wallace was criticizing Bret Easton Ellis for precisely the same aesthetic around this time. Presumably, the other strengths of Welsh’s fiction — such as his focus on outsider figures who destabilize dominant ideologies — made his treatment of nihilistic despair more palatable to Wallace. (Or perhaps the truth is that it was simply easier to praise a contemporary British novelist than an American rival.)
By the mid-to-late ’90s, following the publication of Infinite Jest, Wallace’s own aesthetic agenda had come into sharper focus. The endorsements he penned for Ken Kalfus and Susan Daitch rhyme with his own articulations on the function of literature, as well as hint at what he perceived to be his shortcomings as a novelist. Here’s Wallace’s 1996 blurb for Daitch’s Storytown:
These are fine and moving stories about the death of meaning, about persons trying to decode the seas of signals in which they float and drown, failing. Their flaw is their triumph: they try — and so the stories are also about courage, that most tragic of virtues. This is an important collection by one of the most intelligent and attentive writers at work in the U.S. today.
And here’s his similarly lengthy blurb for Kalfus’s debut short story collection, Thirst (1998):
A book to give to people who piss and moan about the unpromising future of American fiction. It’s the most exciting story collection since George Saunders’ CivilWarLand in Bad Decline; and Ken Kalfus is an important writer in every sense of “important.” There are hip, funny writers, and there are smart, technically innovative writers, and there are wise, moving, and profound writers. Kalfus is all these at once, and the stories in Thirst manage simultaneously to delight, impress, provoke, and redeem. Three cheers and then some.
This latter assessment is one of Wallace’s most expansive blurbs, and once again reveals his enthusiasm for the work of early-career writers. But it also offers an indirect appraisal of his own fiction: it’s not hard to sense Wallace’s self-assessment that his work was doing enough to merit inclusion in the first category of writers, but not quite enough to cement his place in the second. At this stage of his career, Wallace was clearly in the process of distancing himself from his former reliance on cerebral hijinks, but still searching for a way of combining postmodern techniques with emotional directness. For Wallace, Thirst succeeded in doing exactly this, while Daitch’s experimental collection — in its attempt to blend genuine “virtues” and emotions with a more abstract treatment of the need to “decode the seas of signals” that surround us — also aligned with his revised artistic project.
By the time he came to early 21st-century fiction, Wallace began writing blurbs for higher profile authors. In 2001, he wrote a gushing, 250-word blurb for Dave Eggers’s A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, in which he praised the novel’s ability to be “terribly, terribly moving, without being in any way gooey or contrived,” as well as its “willingness to risk” the appearance of “bathos or sentimentality.” Wallace’s blurb also admires Eggers’s ability to write “arias of grief” alongside “po-mo comic bits,” and candidly reveals his own fear of seeming treacly or sentimental.
But the most striking aspect of this lengthy endorsement is that it reads like a private letter to Eggers, whom he addresses personally, referring to “your willingness …” and talking about the places where “you cut loose.” This suggests that Wallace saw blurbs not merely as a chance to inform potential readers of a book’s worth, but as an opportunity to engage in a dialogue with its author. Only a few editions of the novel ran with the full blurb, with the rest using a tightly compressed version of Wallace’s praise: “This thing took off for me in the basement and didn’t stop. It’s a merciless book.”
Wallace gave a similar blurb to Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections, describing the novel as “[f]unny and deeply sad, large-hearted and merciless,” and “a testament to the range and depth of pleasures great fiction affords.” Incidentally, “merciless” doesn’t exactly seem like a high form of praise, but it’s clear that Wallace thought that literary novels needed to be emotionally disarming as well as intellectually engaging. He also endorsed Joanna Scott’s 2002 historical novel Tourmaline (calling Scott “the absolute cream of our generation”), and wrote a revealing blurb for Arthur Bradford’s Dogwalker in 2001:
A book that’s like being able to have lunch with the part of you that dreams at night … Stories that are sweet, haunting, resonant, generous, and true the way only the very strange is true.
This elegant précis of Bradford’s story collection dovetails with the ideas about surrealist expressionism that Wallace set down elsewhere, including his 1996 piece on David Lynch — whom he described as having prompted the realization that “being a surrealist … didn’t exempt you from certain [realist] responsibilities, it upped them” — and also his PEN address on Kafka. In fact, Wallace could have easily described Kafka’s fiction in the same terms. The blurb sits neatly alongside Wallace’s characterization of Kafka’s stories as “heroically sane,” in spite of their grotesquery and dreamy oddness.
Around this time, Wallace was also advocating on behalf of older or more experimental writers whom he considered to be unfairly neglected, an impulse that chimes with his 1999 Salon article on what he referred to as “direly underappreciated US novels > 1960.” For instance, he contributed an important blurb to the 1999 Norton reprint of Paula Fox’s Desperate Characters — “A towering landmark of postwar realism … a sustained work of prose so lucid and fine that it seems less written than carved” — which featured prominently on the back cover of this particular edition, given larger text than the surrounding blurbs. Franzen himself wrote the introduction to this edition, and had previously used Fox’s short novel as a way of talking about the dwindling role of fiction in his 1996 essay “Perchance to Dream.” But though Wallace’s appraisal is only very brief, his response is still revealing in its departure from Franzen’s reading. Where Franzen had taken Desperate Characters as a paragon of literary engagement, treating it as a “deadly pertinent” model for socially responsive fiction, Wallace was keen to stress the novel’s unusual aesthetic, emphasizing Fox’s “lucid and fine” prose, which he thought seemed so weighty as to have been etched into the pages. Moreover, while Franzen saw Desperate Characters as offering a blueprint for how one might go about making fiction relevant in an age of media saturation, Wallace situated the novel firmly in the past, as embodying a particular version of “postwar realism” that could no longer be put forward as a viable artistic approach.
During this later period, there are also those blurbs that bear obvious signs of being reciprocal arrangements or favors to friends. For instance, he wrote an endorsement for Mark Costello, his collaborator on Signifying Rappers, describing Costello’s 2002 novel Big If as “[a]n unclassified tour de force that’s every bit as absorbing as it is original.” He also blurbed Manhattan Nocturne (2007), a novel written by his former Harper’s editor, Colin Harrison, once again pulling out the “merciless” descriptor from his bag of tricks:
Mercilessly observed and heartbreakingly plotted, Manhattan Nocturne is totally enjoyable on all levels — the best piece of postmodern noir since James Ellroy’s The Big Nowhere.
And when Antonya Nelson, whom Wallace had studied with at the University of Arizona and with whom he shared a literary agent, published Some Fun: Stories and a Novella in 2006, Wallace wrote that he had “been a Toni fan ever since I read a story of hers called ‘The Salad’ on my second or third day of graduate school. I read her newest collection so fast the pages are singed.” However, even these endorsements were not given lightly, since Wallace apparently declined to blurb a 2002 collection of Star Wars essays edited by Glenn Kenny, whom he had previously worked with on a Premiere piece.
Across his career, Wallace also advocated on behalf of various nonfiction texts, which he wanted to help find a wider audience. Wallace contributed a blurb to Curtis White’s The Middle Mind in 2004, a book that reflects on the failure of the American political imagination and offers scathing critiques of partisans on both sides of the divide, a thesis that gels with Wallace’s own Third Way politics. Here, Wallace once again dusted off the “merciless” and “true” descriptors, characterizing the study as “[c]ogent, acute, beautiful, merciless, and true.” (Wallace had also found common ground with White back in 1998, when he blurbed his experimental novel Memories of My Father Watching TV as “[w]itheringly smart, grotesquely funny, grimly comprehensive, and so moving as to be wrenching.”) As with Daitch’s fiction, White’s books were published by Dalkey Archive, a publishing house that Wallace revered.
Wallace was also clearly enamored with the essayist and cultural critic Lewis Hyde, contributing two blurbs to Hyde’s survey of the picaresque imagination, Trickster Makes This World (1998). In one of these blurbs, Wallace suggested that “Lewis Hyde is a national treasure, one of our true superstars of nonfiction,” but he also gave a more expansive version of this description:
Lewis Hyde is one of our true superstars of nonfiction — this book not only covers its subject in more depth and comprehension than anything before (anything I’ve read, anyway) but it also ends up being about … well, everything. The guy’s both brilliant (intellectually, literarily) and wise (psychologically, spiritually, you-name-itally).
This particular blurb exhibits many of Wallace’s stylistic idiosyncrasies, as well as calling attention to precisely the same achievement he located in Daitch and Kalfus. Since the attempt to combine technical brilliance with genuine wisdom was clearly one of Wallace’s chief aims throughout his career, it makes sense that he was ever alert to this achievement in the work of others. According to D.T. Max, Wallace read Hyde’s Alcohol and Poetry: John Berryman and the Booze Talking in the late ’80s, but Wallace also loved Hyde’s analysis of gift economies and artistic practice in The Gift (1983), contributing a blurb to the 1999 Vintage reissue. His brief, though revealing, endorsement pointed out that “[n]o one who is invested in any kind of art can read The Gift and remain unchanged.” As Max and a range of scholars have shown, Wallace himself had certainly not remained unchanged by Hyde’s book. The marginalia in Wallace’s archived copy of The Gift testifies to a profound engagement with Hyde’s argument, which ultimately prompted him to rethink his own artistic practice, seeing it as a kind of offering to the reader.
A final window onto the kind of nonfiction Wallace admired is found in the blurb he wrote for John D’Agata’s 2003 collection Halls of Fame, which Wallace compared to many of his favorite essayists from an earlier generation (including Hyde), arguing that
John D’Agata is one of the most significant U.S. writers to emerge in the past few years. His essays combine the innovation and candor of David Shields and William Vollmann with the perception and concinnity and sheer aesthetic weight of Annie Dillard and Lewis Hyde. In nothing else recent is the compresence of shit and light that is America so vividly felt and evoked.
As well as containing one extremely unlikely form of praise (Wallace’s own essays are rarely concerned with “concinnity”), the blurb provides an indirect description of what he valued in literary nonfiction. Once again, Wallace here used a blurbing opportunity to outline a complex synthesis of literary qualities, and used his authority to help a younger writer at the start of his career.
Rounding out the list of Wallace’s blurbs are those that don’t fit into any of the above categories, and are somewhat anomalous. These include a memorable description of Wodehouse’s particular brand of comedy on the jacket of The Best of Wodehouse (2007) — which Wallace called “[t]imelessly funny and mean” — and a droll endorsement for a collection of essays on tennis edited by Jay Jennings, titled Tennis and the Meaning of Life: “My only complaint is the title’s redundant.” Also in this category is Wallace’s promotion of a satirical “SkyMaul” catalog produced by the San Francisco comedy group Kasper Hauser and published in book form by St. Martin’s Press. Kasper Hauser’s website assures readers that Wallace’s quip on the catalog’s “bullman face” mask — “[t]he D.U.I. mask really works!” — is a “real quote, not made up.”
And of course, there are also the blurbs opportunistically sourced by publishers from Wallace’s reviews and essays, which include those placed in prominent positions on the jackets of Siri Hustvedt’s The Blindfold, Greil Marcus’s Dead Elvis, and David Markson’s Wittgenstein’s Mistress, among others. (By far the most disingenuous of these is the decontextualized quote — “a small masterpiece of lucidity” — on the cover of Edwin Williamson’s The Penguin History of Latin America, the lone compliment paid by Wallace in his withering review of Williamson’s Borges: A Life.) At this point, Wallace’s name carries so much weight that such appropriations make perfect marketing sense.
While Wallace’s characterization of “blurbspeak” contains many of the same complaints that most readers have about the way blurbs operate, it’s clear that his own blurbs offer a far richer glimpse into the broader themes, aims, strengths, and self-diagnosed shortcomings of his work than they are usually given credit for. Despite his deep cynicism about the genre, Wallace clearly took his own blurbing opportunities seriously. As fans and readers of his work, we should too.