Saturday, January 30, 2016

Critical cliché: Blurb words

Some of the least creative language about writing can be found, counterintuitively, in blurbs—those paragraphs we turn to on the back of a book in hopes that they will let us see into the heart of a collection.

Writers of blurbs have two key concerns. They want to say something to honor a book (generally because it’s written by a friend or former student), and they want it to be recognizably an entry in that odd subgenre of writing. These concerns can work together to skew the writing—to keep the blurb from expressing any clear assessments of the work.

Of course, the weird insular nature of the blurb—friends asking friends to write nice things—also stands in the way of anything very important being said. But even presuming that it’s actually possible to give quick insight into work in these brief, uncontextualized statements, our reliance on tired descriptors serves as a barrier to that sort of illumination.

On occasion, I’ve written these statements myself, and I’ll admit it—the desire to portray my enthusiasm was always matched by an equal or greater need not to look like some junior varsity player who doesn’t know how to write a blurb.

Let’s be honest. As poets go, I’m not well known. (Yet.) My name on the back of a book is not the name that will sell it to the masses. Sometimes I ignore the content of blurbs and just read the names to see if the book by a new writer is at all similar to other writing I admire. If I like the work of the blurbers, chances are I’ll find something to appreciate in the book. My name isn’t one of those names, though; readers aren’t likely to say, “Whoa, look here—Karen Craigo admires this writer. I’d better buy this right away.” To really come through for the writers I support, I’d better say something important and true.

It’s illuminating to take a moment and parse some of those terms that we see so often in blurbs and reviews. These are not high-frequency words in normal discourse, but in the world of the blurb, a word like “luminous” is nearly as common as the word “poem.” Here are a few blurb words, with their literal meaning and what they seem to try to communicate:

  • Luminous: full of light, especially in darkness. A luminous poetry collection stands out from the murky darkness of so many drab collections. Strangely, all of those aphotic, cimmerian, crepuscular, caliginous, obfuscous collections also bear blurbs, and—surprise! Most of those are luminous, too. A better way to talk about the luminous quality of poetry is to explain what, exactly, it shines a light upon.
  • Stunning: capable of invoking a paralyzing level of wonder and bewilderment. Poems are stunning when we read them and then just stand with our mouth agape, drool darkening our shirt, as day to turns to night and then becomes, ahem, luminous again. I’d like to be stunned by a poem. Sadly, I’ve never been more than thrilled or astonished. It would be nice to know what causes such a shocked reaction in the blurb writer. Where, exactly, was the surprise?
  • Evocative: causing strong feelings or reactions. The blurbist (blurber?) claims to have felt some sort of reverberation from the work. I hate to sound like a broken record, but what was evoked? On rare occasions, this is specified in a blurb, but sometimes we’re just told that poems are evocative, full stop. It’s not a tremendously illustrative adjective all by itself.
  • Unflinching: without fear; specifically, without a physical manifestation of fear. So often, poets take an unflinching look at X. We must be a very twitchy bunch, if not flinching is so noteworthy. It’s easy to spot the poets at the annual conference of creative writers; apparently, we’re the ones jerking and feinting and twitching our way down the aisle of the bookfair. Blurbs are usually good about revealing what poems look at so unflinchingly, so a lack of specificity isn’t the problem with this word. The problem is that blurbists are themselves creative writers (or they’re at least presumed to know a bit about the subject), so there is very little excuse for relying on this cliché.
  • Essential: necessary for life. I recently read an “essential” collection that was released in 2012. It’s been a perilous four years without those poems, but I’m happy to report that I made it through. Since every fifth poetry collection is essential, I should probably wrap up this blog post and get to reading—quickly. A blurbist who calls a book or a poet’s voice essential is trying to say that something about the collection felt very important. It’s quite possibly something he or she wants all readers of poetry to experience. Or maybe it’s not. Maybe this, too, is hackneyed language to describe work that likely deserves better.

In pointing out our inadequacy in talking about each other’s work, I hope to up our game, collectively. Poets should do better than this—they should develop a critical vocabulary that refuses to lean on expectation or habit. Truly noteworthy poetry deserves no less, and lesser poetry looks paltry in the glow of such praise.

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