I was at the home of my friend Hubert Selby Jr. one day when I noticed several ungodly piles of bound galleys on his floor.
"Yeah," Cubby said. "They don't want to publish my books, but they . . ." He grinned that beautiful fatal grin of his.
It was a sadly illuminating moment.
Blurb: a stupid word for a stupid thing. It originated with Gelett Burgess (18661951), who gave the name Miss Blinda Blurb to the voluptuous blonde he drew in 1906 to illustrate his comic booklet Are You a Bromide? Eight years later, in Burgess Unabridged: A New Dictionary of Words You Have Always Needed (1914), he defined the word: "Blurb, 1. A flamboyant advertisement; an inspired testimonial. 2. Fulsome praise; a sound like a publisher." Burgess, it should be noted, also gave us goop (1900), which the Oxford English Dictionary defines as "a stupid or fatuous person." Etymology is not without its own illuminations.
Cubby never needed blurbs, and he never sought them. He had received the sort of unsolicited, unprejudiced acclaim of which publishers and most other writers only dream. The Times Literary Supplement stood in awe of "the drama of Selby's work and its ferocious poetry." The New York Times spoke of "Selby's genius," writing that "Selby's place is in the front rank of American novelists," and "to understand his work is to understand the anguish of America." The Nation likened him to Dante and saw his "high poetic art" in the light of "the greatest American poetryóWhitman, Pound, Williams, Olson."
I remember sitting down on his couch without looking. I felt a book under my ass. I pulled it out: a new British paperback edition of Last Exit to Brooklyn. On the back cover there was a quotation from the Financial Times: "One of the six best novelists writing in the English language."
"Jesus Christ," I said. "What do you do, sit here and stare at this shit and jerk off?"
"Oh, yeah, it's nice, but, you know . . ." It was like that old Amos Milburn song, "Put Something in My Hand":
I know you love me, baby, but put something in my hand, 'cause romance without finance I just don't understand.
All the rare and wondrous praise that had been bestowed on Cubby and his work meant nothing to publishers in the United States in his later years. No major American house would publish him. But these same publishers were relentless in seeking his praise for the lesser writers whom they did publish.
Think about it. If a great writer's words are deemed to be worth nothing between the covers of a book, why should they be deemed to be of value on the back of a book?
And Cubby, who was the most giving man I have ever known, did his best to comply. I believe that he even tried to read the books that were sent to him, and that he tried to find something good in each of them. When a somewhat misknowing scholarly study of his own work was published by a university press several years ago, he said kindly of the author: "He tried." And this seems to be how he looked at all those other books that he had never asked to see.
I myself haven't been so giving or so kind when it comes to blurbs. I've often given blurbs to friends, and occasionally to strangers who've struck me as good souls. As a matter of policy, however, I've never actually read the books that I've blurbed. For one thing, I'm such a slow reader that if I were to read a book before I blurbed it, the book would already be published and remaindered before I came up with a blurb. But, more to the point, I'm just not interested in these fucking books, no matter how sincerely I might wish their authors well.
Cubby introduced me to a man who was to become one of my closest friends. At the time, my friend was about to publish his first book. I remember the occasion well. The guy was very profuse in his admiration for my work, and Cubby turned to me with that grin of his and said, "See, at least somebody heard of you." The guy asked me if he could send me a copy of his book in typescript, so that maybe I could give him a blurb if I liked it.
"No, man," I told him, "I hate those things, all that paper and those rubber bands. But I like you. I don't need to read it. Just tell me a little about it and I'll give you the blurb."
It was one of my best: "a howl of laughter from the abyss of horror, a comic nightmare from the sick, troubled sleep of this century's desolate end." And it appeared directly above Cubby's blurb.
Perhaps the only time that I did read a book that I blurbed was when I was asked to blurb The Fiction of LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka. This was because I had read Roi's System of Dante's Hell almost thirty-four years before, when it had first come out in paperback. The novel had made a profound impression on me, and I restricted my blurb to this particular book, and I meant every word of it:
An evocation and an invocation both, of gods and of demons alike, The System of Dante's Hellócall it fiction, call it poetry, call it grimoireóis a tour de force of rare black magic through which the streets of Newark and the in-dwellings of the soul are hot-wired into one of the most powerful and beautiful expressions of blind hatred and its wages since the Pentateuch; a dark and deadly book; a great and, yes, in its way, a holy book.
As far as blurbs go, they don't come any better than that. What's more, it was heartfelt. So how does the editor who solicited the blurb respond to it? He asks me if I might rewrite it slightly so that it applies to the entire body of Roi's oeuvre.
Both Cubby and Roi were there to give alms when I ended my own days of blurb-begging. I'd written a book about Sonny Listonósort of about Sonny Liston, anywayóand when the publisher asked from whom I should like to solicit blurbs, I named Selby and Baraka.
Back in 1964, when Liston was in his unconquerable prime, Roi had written: "Sonny Liston was the big black Negro in every white man's hallway, waiting to do him in, deal him under." He was "the bad nigger," the "heavy-faced replica of every whipped-up woogie in the world." As irony had it, Roi could've been prophetically describing himself, or America's fearful and hateful view of him, in the years to come.
Both of them came through. Cubby's words were more an act of saintliness than of friendship. But while Roi's words were as generous in their way as Cubby's, they were an act of, well, Roi:
OK, my man, the book's out! After all, the guy's from Jersey, with the rest of us mobsters.
What to do with this crypto-hip jive? To most readers, woefully unfamiliar with the arcane reaches of Newark's black sub-slang, "the book's out," with or without exclamation mark, meant simply that "the book is now published and available for purchase," which seemed a baffling statement of the obvious, rather than "this book is fucking out there." The solution was to bend the words to "the book is out!" And those words, below Cubby's, are the only words that appeared on the plain white back cover of that book's dust jacket. Those were the last blurbs that I ever got, and I love them both, and they're a fitting farewell to my days of dalliance as a blurb-fly.
Even then, in the last days of the last century, I'd become convinced that publishers were, as they tend to be, wrong, and that blurbs were not only meaningless but often downright dangerous.
They are meaningless because they do not sell books. Not long ago, when Philip Roth, in a rare occurrence, gave a blurb to Susan Jacoby's Freethinkers, her book was not magically blurb-borne to glory. Similarly, at the other end of the marketplace, a blurb from Stephen King may look good on a trashy paperback, but it accounts for few sales.
Blurbs are dangerous because when we see praise from a writer whom we dislike or detest, we naturally turn away from and dismiss out of hand the book that is the object of that praise. Blurbs can thus do more harm than good. Glibberish kills.
I can't keep the bar coding off my book jackets, but I can keep the blurbs away. As for pandering to the blurb-lust of others, I've had enough of that, too. When writers and would-be writers asked him to read and comment on their work, William Faulkner used to tell them that he only read the bibleóa lie finer by far than those of which blurbs are made.
Nick Tosches's article about Arnold Rothstein, the legendary patriarch of organized crime and corruption, will appear in Vanity Fair this spring.