Against blurbs and for endorsements

Whenever I read a glowing blurb on a book these days, I wonder to myself, "what is this person's relationship to the author?" It's no secret that authors write blurbs for friends, or former students, or authors who have previously blurbed them. Every blurb comes with a price — a favor owed, a favor repaid. A bookseller once told me that the only blurber they trusted was Thomas Pynchon, because Pynchon was a recluse and therefore he only blurbed books that he honestly liked because he didn't carry the personal baggage that every other author did when it comes to blurbs. (I've used this observation as a yardstick in the years since, and Pynchon has driven me to authors I might not otherwise have discovered, including Jim Knipfel.)

It's not like this observation is new or especially deep. Blurbs have always been favor games, passed around like cigarettes in prison. But maybe now, thanks to social media and a broader range of book news outlets, we can just see the strings that connect the authors a little more clearly than we once could. We now know when authors are friends or that they both spent time at the Iowa Workshop back in 2009 or that they have the same agent. Maybe it's always been this craven and insular, but it's never been quite this openly craven and insular.

I was talking with a friend a few weeks ago and I wondered, as I often do, if maybe we should do away with blurbs altogether. Nobody I know takes them seriously anymore, so maybe a blurb moratorium — a blurbatorium? — would be worthwhile. But my friend had a better idea. She said, "maybe they should just list the author's friends on the back cover." And, you know, that struck me as a pretty good idea.

Call it the Endorsements List. Rather than run a bunch of two-sentence lies about the book that overuse words like "luminous" and phrases like "by turns," why not just provide a list of the author's peers, teachers, friends, and classmates? We'd be able to learn a lot about the author — it would be kind of like an "If You Like X, You'll Also Like Y" algorithm — and we wouldn't have to sift through all the atrocious bullshit that passes for modern blurbs. Lay it out plain and let the reader decide whether they care or not.

These lists would just be governed by one simple rule: authors would have to expressly consent to be added to an endorsements list. The understanding would be that they were using their own name as a commodity to add value to another author's name. If they overused that commodity, people would stop caring. But if they only endorsed the authors they truly enjoyed, the value attached to their name would increase. This would mean less work for the authors — rather than struggling over how to describe a book in twenty words or less, they'd just have to sign their name — and it would clean up a dirty system of paybacks and back-scratching.