Blurb adjective inflation

Nige ponders the ever-spiralling hyperbole of book blurbs…

Recently I reread Lolita, probably for the fifth or sixth time – it never palls, only grows richer and more wonderful with each reading, the sure sign of a great, rather than merely good, book.

The copy was my battered old Penguin, dating from 1980 (in fact the belated first Penguin edition) and full of misprints. Its pages are brown and it’s falling apart at the dried-out spine. The back cover, unsurprisingly, is plastered with a fine array of raves, including one from Lionel Trilling (‘No lover has thought of his beloved with so much tenderness, no woman has been so charmingly evoked, in such grace and delicacy, as Lolita’) and three words from Dorothy Parker: ‘A great book’. It is Bernard Levin who throws down the most magnificent handful of adjectives – ‘Massive, unflagging, moral, exquisitely shaped, enormously vital, enormously funny’.

All of this is of course true, or a well-intentioned stab at the truth, but what struck me as I idly scanned these blurbs was how much inflation has hit the business of reviewers’ adjectives in the intervening years. It’s now all but impossible to find a novel with any kind of literary pretensions that isn’t garlanded in similar praise from swooning reviewers or open-mouthed fellow authors. The most run-of-the-mill, so-what plod of a ‘literary’ novel – or indeed the most laughably bad – will be hailed on its back (and often front) cover as ‘masterly’, ‘compelling’, ‘dazzling’, ‘intensely moving’, ‘thrillingly original’, ‘richly comic’, ‘essential’, etc. These are all, as employed nowadays, pretty much meaningless, and nobody with any sense would take any notice of them, unless, by any chance, they are the words of an honest critic rather than a hack reviewer.

It seems nobody bothers to read them for sense either. Consider this, from a Susan Sontag rave on the back cover of W.G. Sebald’s The Emigrants: ‘I know of few books written in our time but this one which attains the sublime’. This is surely not what La Sontag meant to say (for ‘which attains’, substitute ‘that attain’). Not that it matters…

Share This Post

About Author Profile: Nige

Cravat-Wearer of the Year Nige, who, like Mr Kenneth Horne, prefers to remain anonymous, is a founder blogger of The Dabbler and has been a co-blogger on the Bryan Appleyard Thought Experiments blog. He is the sole blogger on Nigeness, and (for now) a wholly owned subsidiary of NigeCorp. His principal aim is to share various of life's pleasures.

22 thoughts on “Blurb adjective inflation

    November 7, 2011 at 10:03

    If you look at early Penguins, which means editions into the 1950s, one was offered originally a list of other available titles and subsequent to those, a brief author profile. Neither a publisher’s blurb nor a fellow-author’s puff appeared. (There were ads on the back of at least some titles during World War II – e.g. my 1940 copy of The Quest for Corvo) – but that practice was abandoned.)

    But then early Penguins rejoiced (both intransitively and transitively) in their colour-coded austerity. The rot, as rots invariably must, set in in the mid-Sixties when that coding was part-abandoned and pictures or illustrations began appearing on the front cover. Though the author profile remained for a while.

    PS, A friend, working at Pan Books c. 1972 had a last-ditch, all-purpose phrase, used when all other invention had failed; ‘a huge, boiling novel’.

    November 7, 2011 at 10:20

    Oh I love that ‘huge, boiling novel’ – in fact I think I remember it from the great days of Pan…

      November 7, 2011 at 12:27

      Of course being a little snot, I would have died rather than spend my pocket money on Pan Books. Which was of course due to their covers, the absolute antithesis (I now realise that this would have been deliberate) to Penguin. Now I own a very small collection thereof, and cherish their populist ‘vulgarity’.On the other hand, not a patch on the likes of this: nor this

  3. Gaw
    November 7, 2011 at 11:21

    It’s probably my lack of education in English grammar (another post-’60s curse?) but I find that sentence construction of Sontag’s confusing. There are few occasions I come across this archaism but that I trip over it. (Is that right?)

    jonathan law
    November 7, 2011 at 13:51

    Sontag’s sentence is logically as well as grammatically flawed. The construction “few … but this one” is particularly confusing because it seems unsure of how much it wants to claim — “few” states that there are several exceptions to the prevalent rule of non-sublimity, whereas “but this one” implies a singular exception (Sebald’s The Emigrants).

    In other words, Sontag should have written either “I know of no books written in our time but this one that attain the sublime” (still a pretty lousy sentence, owing to muddle as to whether the subject is plural — “books” — or singular — “one”); or, much better, “I know of few books written in our time that attain the sublime, but this is certainly one”.

    Sorry for the pedantry, but it is after all my vocation and I need to exercise those muscles occasionally. Or perhaps there’s a more interesting point: Sontag is usually a clear enough writer so maybe this infelicity is a sort of parapraxis or meaningful slip. She ties herself in knots because on the one hand she’s trying to conform to the inflated expectations of literary hype (Sebald’s is the one utterly sublime book!) while on the other hand she is trying not to say what she knows to be untrue (that Sebald’s is the one utterly sublime book).

    • Gaw
      November 7, 2011 at 14:34

      Pedants are always welcome around here.

      Interesting theory about the meaningful slip. I wonder whether her clarity of expression was briefly obscured by the influence of Sebald’s convoluted syntax? I know that whenever I read him I envy his ability to carry off a long and involved sentence – though I’m not sure how much of this is merely the product of his German.

    James Hamilton
    November 7, 2011 at 18:07

    For the sake of completeness, Martin Amis’ famous group review of all six Nabokov novels that concerned themselves with ‘the sexual despoiliation of very young girls.’

    Amis must be the preeminent Nabokovian of our times, yet even he remarks,

    Left to themselves, The Enchanter, Lolita, and Transparent Things might have formed a lustrous and utterly unnerving trilogy. But they are not left to themselves; by sheer weight of numbers, by sheer iteration, the nympholepsy novels begin to infect one another – they cross-contaminate. We gratefully take all we can from them; and yet . . . Where else in the canon do we find such wayward fixity? In the awful itch of Lawrence, maybe, or in the murky sexual transpositions of Proust? No: you would need to venture to the very fringes of literature – Lewis Carroll, William Burroughs, the Marquis de Sade – to find an equivalent emphasis: an emphasis on activities we rightly and eternally hold to be unforgivable.

      Hey Skipper
      November 8, 2011 at 21:43

      Which is why I have never been able to bring myself to read Lolita — creepy by association.

    November 7, 2011 at 18:16

    Come off it, Mart! The ‘sexual despoliation of very young girls’ is surely not the theme of Transparent Things. Or have I missed something?

      James Hamilton
      November 8, 2011 at 21:44

      Yes, you’ve missed something. Did you expect the answer to be otherwise?

    November 8, 2011 at 13:41

    This just in – Bernard Levin (again) on Penelope Fitzgerald’s Offshore – ‘A marvellous achievement, strong, supple, human, ripe, generous and graceful.’ Guess he liked it then…

    November 8, 2011 at 15:30

    Henceforth we should always refer to him as Bernard ‘Massive, unflagging, moral, exquisitely shaped, enormously vital, enormously funny, strong, supple, human, ripe, generous and graceful’ Levin. In full.

    jonathan law
    November 8, 2011 at 15:52

    Bernard Levin!

    Strange, and rather melancholy, to think how that was once a name to conjure with. And now, surely, one that scarcely registers at all in the collective cultural memory — unless it’s as that odd little guy who used to go about with Arianna Huffington. A man obituarized by his own paper, The Times, as “the most famous journalist in the world” — a man with his own Spitting Image puppet for Chrissakes — and I wonder if anyone under 40 has the faintest idea? The twice-weekly columns, the books, the TV panel games, the endless series about music, and food, and wine, and travel — all gone into blank oblivion, leaving not a rack, unless it’s the faint aroma of an overcooked prose style …

    Sic Transit Stephen Fry?

    • Worm
      November 8, 2011 at 18:15

      Fascinating (and rather depressing) point JL! I’m a fair bit under 40 but have always been aware of Levin through his books, which were always on the book cases of family and friends. (let’s hope the same fate doesn’t befall Clive James too)

      • Worm
        November 8, 2011 at 18:16

        Ps. Where’s Malty to wish eternal purgatory on AA Gill..

    November 8, 2011 at 16:49

    Oh let us very much hope so, Jonathan!
    Levin’s other claim to fame was getting punched on That Was The Week That Was – the footage survives. Another giant name that’s almost gone is Malcolm Muggeridge…

  11. Frank Key
    November 9, 2011 at 08:42

    One of my favourite Bernard Levin quotes, on John Lennon : “there is nothing wrong with [him] that could not be cured by standing him upside down and shaking him gently until whatever is inside his head falls out.”

    • Gaw
      November 9, 2011 at 13:28

      I would hesitate to get that close to his trousers.

    November 9, 2011 at 10:42

    Oh yes – that’s good, Frank! And capable of wide application…

Comments are closed.