A rose by other names, please

The Daily Intel blog of New York magazine turns its attention to blurb comparisons. Some examples:

"F. Scott Fitzgerald or Edith Wharton: If you write about society, you write about rich drunks, or you write about crumbling marriages and decadence, you're one of these two. If you're a boy, you're Scott; if you're a girl, you're Edith. If you're a girl pretending to be a boy, maybe you get to be George Eliot."

"Malcolm Gladwell: If you find a fascinating new way to state the obvious, you're a Malcolm."

"Hunter S. Thompson: If you are a crazy writer who did something adventurous, and your publicist couldn't even get through the book but sensed it would be transgressive, you are a Hunter. If your publicist could get through it, you are more like a Jack Kerouac."

This certainly translates into crime fiction. Here's a few of my suggestions:

  • If your book has anything to do with cutting up dead bodies, you are like Patricia Cornwell.
  • If you set your novel in Scotland, you are the next Ian Rankin.
  • If a book has a lawyer in it somewhere, the author is compared to John Grisham.
  • An exciting book – James Patterson. (Or "a female James Patterson" as was written on the blurb of a book I read recently).

Although this practice is lazy, it does have the effect of conveying very briefly the broad outline of a book. However, the comparison is often wrong. Just because a book is set in Scotland does not mean that the contents will have any similarities whatsoever to the Rebus books – I have read a few of these so I know. And such comparisons put quite a burden of expectation on an author.

Perhaps the best thing a potential reader of an untried and unreviewed author can do to rely instead on a blurb written by a popular author. In that case, you might note the ubiquity of Val McDermid, Mark Billingham and Harlan Coben. In another genre, Stephen King is legendary in this regard.


14 thoughts on “A rose by other names, please

  1. I’ve written about this phenomenon, poking fun at the grasping comparisons to Rankin for any male protagonist who is not postively Mr. Rogers-like in his demeanor. I also once posted this comment in a note on critical cliches:
    “2) “If Author X wrote in Genre Y, this is the book he would write.” Author X in this formula is often Borges, García Márquez or Kafka. (See “transcends its genre.”)”
    I like the jab at Malcolm Gladwell. I’ve never read him, but everything I’ve heard about him suggests to me that the jab is dead on.
    In crime fiction, anyone not from the United States is “like Henning Mankell.” Any author whose protagonist dispenses homely advice is like Alexander McCall Smith. And the undisputed king of crime blurbing is Ken Bruen, that “indefatigable blurbster,” as a certain blogger once called him.
    Detectives Beyond Borders
    “Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home”

  2. I’ve found recently that fairly often I have to refresh or reload the page (sometimes more than once) in order for a comment, or comments, to appear, when coming to the comment area from a Comments or Recent Comments link. Perhaps refreshing or reloading is sometimes needed also after posting a comment in order to see the comment.

  3. Actually, I am beginning to suspect that the best way to give a new author a fair shot is to not read any back cover copy at all. Back in the first half of the 20th century, while hype was still part of the package, publishers didn’t do nearly as much of this author-tagging type of promotion on book covers.

  4. My debut novel earned a comparison, in one review in a students’ magazine, to Raymond Chandler. Although I felt this was utterly misconceived, as it bore no resemblance whatsover to Chandler, I was at first pleased – until I read on, and discovered that the reviewer clearly didn’t like Chandler!

  5. Your blog has recently decided, on 7 January to be precise, to talk to my RSS Reader (or perhaps it was the other way around), and now your posts are arriving as they used to. Happy new Year!

  6. Thanks, Kerrie – very good to get that feedback as I have finally sorted out the incompatibilities between the blog and Feedburner – good to know that it really is working again. Happy new year to you, too.
    The “comments not appearing” happens occasionally to me, too – Typepad has just (a couple of weeks ago) introduced this new method of commenting, which is in “beta” (I’m a “beta tester”). I hope that they will iron out this problem and a few others (eg if you are signed in to Typepad you can’t comment on another Typepad blog). Refreshing is always a good tactic for a range of issues (not only related to TypePad!).
    Thanks everyone for the comments, much appreciated.

  7. My comment on this also got lost — one rather too long for me to reconstruct now, especially as I might in any case encounter the same problem, a new one to me. When I clicked on ‘Post’, there appeared a box telling me my time to edit my comment had expired. Not at all sure what that means — I’d simply written, given it the once-over, and clicked to post, same as I always do. Re seeing comments, I always now have to click ‘comments’, then go back to the post and click on it again.

  8. One issue that stumped me, Philip, is that sometimes you are only in “preview” but it looks as if you have “posted”, because “preview” is actually on the comment thread main page. However, you have to press “post” also to go through. I do think there are several glitches, though, which I hope they will sort, as this new system does seem in principle better than the old one. Sorry to have missed your comment, though, I am sure it was typically informative.

  9. Yes, some people are renowned for blurbing – whereas some authors won’t do it at all. As a former editor told me when once again everyone had drawn a blank trying to attract a blurb for one of my books: ‘there is usually a connection.’

  10. My comment got eaten too!
    Now I have to try and remember what I said… It was something about comparisons putting me off. If I see something that says “the new Da Vinci Code” it’s an automatic turn-off for me.

  11. Probably because your books are not easy to stick into one of those publishers’ categories, Clare. The “professional blurber”, who does not (I am sure) actually read the book, can write a reasonably accurate phrase by knowing a rough synopsis of, say, a typical police procedural or “gore in the path lab” book. An original concept and piece of work, now – that’s a different story! And it is rather strange I think that more publishers don’t quote from blog/website reviews of books, which would be much more informative for potential readers than a few generic words from “Rent a Blurb” people.

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