Jordan Peterson (Photo by Don Arnold/WireImage)

Disturbed by blurbs

On the ethics of literary marketing

Artillery Row

Self-appointed morality police are patrolling the halls of literature. The latest crisis claims that selecting quotes for book blurbs has become a question of ethics. Nicola Solomon, chief executive of the Society of Authors, recently called the practice of quoting lines out of context “morally questionable”, ignoring the fact that morality and marketing are about as compatible as feminism and Andrew Tate. The one upside to the debate about blurbs is that readers might finally realise there is more fiction on the average dust jacket than in the most extravagant fantasy novel on the market.

In August, the controversy kicked off on Twitter (as controversies generally do) when the Times columnist James Marriott objected to a quote appearing from his review on the back cover of Jordan Peterson’s Beyond Order: 12 More Rules For Life. Marriott stated that his review of Beyond Order “was probably the most negative thing I have ever written”, whereas the quote extracted by Penguin Random House clearly endorsed the book: “A philosophy of the meaning of life … the most lucid and touching prose Peterson has ever written.”

Everyone in literature knows that blurbs are just marketing nonsense

Marriott went on to say in his review that Peterson’s philosophy was “bonkers”. The exact phrase he used was “one of the most sensitive and lucid passages of prose he has written”. We can see the difference in tone, but selective quoting is everyday practice in publishing, and offending words like “bonkers” are always deleted. It seems somewhat disingenuous of reviewers to complain about their reviews being airbrushed. They know full well that quotes have to be spliced together for blurbs, otherwise they would be far too long and meandering. That said, the one no-go in blurb-editing is changing the original words. In this case Penguin pushed the boundaries and drew attention to its own, let’s call it creativity of practice, by replacing “sensitive” with “touching” when “sensitive” was flattering enough as it was. Perhaps Jordan Peterson’s new “rule for life” should be not to be too liberal when it comes to altering words.

The Peterson incident has precipitated much industry hand-wringing and cultural grandstanding. Johanna Thomas-Corr, literary editor of the Sunday Times, spoke out at the shock of being quoted alongside Marriott on Peterson’s book from her “pretty damning” review for the New Statesman. She viewed it as a “gross misrepresentation” and opined that “a line has been irreversibly crossed … I suspect the industry will have to review its practice”. In spite of her strong words, it is unlikely to be the first time her reviews have been distorted.

Publishers have to compete for attention and will use quotes from the biggest newspaper whether the review is laudatory or not. Being deemed worthy of a Times review is cultural cachet in itself. Is a publisher really going to replace a dodgy Times quote with a scintillating endorsement from a blogger of whom no one’s heard? Considering that reviewers sometimes do a “morally questionable” hatchet job on books, either to sell themselves as entertaining writers or because they are offended by a writer’s politics, shouldn’t authors and publishers be allowed to choose the quotes that suit them? Many reviews are mixed. It’s perfectly permissible, even when a book is largely panned, to use a flattering quote. If it’s written, it’s written. There should be no argument as to how it’s used even if the context is changed.

Everyone in literature knows that blurbs are just marketing nonsense. The majority of blurbs are written by peer writers who deliver a set of compliments on style and content without having read the whole book. For short story collections, the convention is to send to the blurbist five stories which are roughly representative of the whole collection. I’ve occasionally written my own précis-style blurb on my back covers. Where does morality come into the equation?

I have to admit that it’s highly flattering to see my name alongside a quote on the back cover of a book. I’m sure Marriott and Thomas-Corr are no different in that respect, even though they’ve managed to summon up some outrage on the subject. It’s probable that Penguin, or Peterson himself, took great pleasure out of selectively quoting Marriott and Thomas-Corr after being roundly excoriated. What better form of revenge than to make a scathing critic appear to have complimented you?

Publishers have swiftly disassociated themselves from any imputation of immorality. Bonnier Books has already grabbed the moral high ground and is now issuing a best-practice document on blurbs for its inhouse teams. Nicola Solomon went further by asserting that misrepresenting quotes is “professionally and legally unsound”. She pointed out that deliberate omission of information can be regarded as a criminal offence under the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008. However, literary reviews are completely subjective, as is any opinion on literature, so it’s inconceivable that blurb-building would ever be a matter for Trading Standards.

Publishing relies on hype, cronyism, and smoke and mirrors

The simple truth is that there is no morality in the publishing industry, no transparency and precious little accountability. It is a world that relies on hype, cronyism, and smoke and mirrors. Robbie Millen, the Times literary editor, commented on the Peterson incident by explaining how “Publishers are like medieval alchemists. They can take the base metal of a stinking book review and turn it into praise”. Exactly. It is alchemy, not illegality. Authors in the past have paid for fake reviews. The long-established practice of publishers sending out free copies to reviewers smacks of buying approbation. It’s not just the blurbs that aren’t to be trusted, but the reviews themselves.

The irony is that Peterson’s sales might soar thanks to the furore raised by disgruntled reviewers. One writer who understood the publicity to be accrued from an infamous review was Anthony Burgess. When he was literary critic of the Yorkshire Post, he penned a review of his own pseudonymously-published Inside Mr Endsby. Hilariously, he wrote of his own work, “This is, in many ways, a dirty book. It is full of bowel-blasts and flatulent borborygms, emetic meals … and halitosis. It may well make some people sick.” The Yorkshire Post sacked him, but he still enjoyed an enhanced reputation for lampooning the review culture.

The question over blurbs is essentially a debate over language and its ownership. It is about verbal manipulation. Because publishing deals with words, it is especially adept at twisting them to suit its commercial interests. The moral to be drawn from this supposedly “morally questionable” tale is for publishers to be a little more circumspect with their editing, but also for reviewers to be much more tolerant of the inevitable misquotes.

Readers do need to be more aware of the sleight of hand of prestidigitating publishers. Words are malleable, and there is always artistic licence where writing is involved. Robbie Millen’s advice is to “be suspicious of the quotes on the back of paperbacks”. An ellipsis in a blurb might well be a sign that the publisher is hiding something. Ernest Hemingway wisely wrote, “Never trust a publisher” — but that should be extended to “Never trust a blurb”.

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