A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius was the very memorable title of Dave Eggers’ 2000 debut, which catapulted him to literary fame. It parodies the hyperbole we are all familiar with from blurbs – especially on the kind of book with lurid, glossy covers that you see on supermarket shelves. It’s witty because it’s ironic – poking fun at the potboilers, while slyly claiming the high ground of literary work. And at the same time, still more slyly, it does after all imply that it's a heartbreaking work of staggering genius itself! It’s a brilliant title, and I believe it was largely responsible for the book’s success. But this post is about genuine blurbs, and the part they play in book promotion.
Not long ago I had a teenage stepdaughter. This year at a book fair in northern Portugal, where I live, I gave her the money to buy a book of her choice. She selected The Da Vinci Code. As you might imagine, I groaned, not only inwardly either, and suggested she look for something else, but she was adamant. I asked her what had attracted her to the book. Had she read even the first page? She had not. But she liked the cover, and the blurbs claimed it was brilliant. I tell this story not to have fun at the expense of a fourteen-year-old, but to point out how most readers probably choose their books – including more sophisticated ones. How many of us are not seduced by a fulsome blurb by a celebrated author we know and respect?
And it’s not only potential readers who might be swayed by the blurb. At the moment my publisher, Flame Books, wa new press, is negotiating with book distributors in the UK. Apart from the massive commission you pay them, which might just influence them a bit, what determines whether they will distribute a book, and what whether bookshop managers will display it? Clearly they aren’t reading every book submitted to them from cover to cover. I suspect they glance at the cover, decide whether it looks professional and eye-catching, and read the publisher’s blurbs and recommendations by the famous.
At least I hope they pay that much attention to an unknown book! The anxiety that nags at the author is that they will only distribute and display books published by the Big Five. That would be a pity, because the Big Five have become conservative and predictable, and are serving up formula books, just as Hollywood produces formula movies, with rare exceptions. Whatever else you may think of it, my novel, Our Parent Who Art in Heaven, is quite unlike anything being published today, so it deserves an audience, whether it’s in tune with the zeitgeist or not.
And here are some of the blurbs I’ve got, which I set before you (ahem!) not in the spirit of self-promotion, or only a tiny bit, but to illustrate what a good blurb should do: give an idea of the flavour of the book, compare it to known novels, and incite your curiosity so that you want to know more. I’d love to hear whether in your view they succeed.
‘Pure comical genius. Spot-on (uproarious) observations about today’s imbecile cancel culture. You’ll be reading parts of this book to friends and strangers alike – if you can stop laughing long enough. Powell brilliantly hoists woke insanity with its own petard.’ – Gary Buslik, author of A Rotten Person Travels the Caribbean
‘When I started reading Our Parent Who Art in Heaven, I laughed so loud I scared myself – when I finished it, I realised I’d just read a brilliant book. If I taught English Lit, I’d put Powell’s satire on my syllabus with writers such as Evelyn Waugh, DH Lawrence, and John Fowles.’ – Kirsten Koza, humourist, author of Lost in Moscow
‘In Our Parent Who Art in Heaven, Powell has penned what may be the anti-woke campus novel of our times, a rollicking satire equal to the wittiest and most keenly observed of Tom Sharpe and Evelyn Waugh.’ – David Joiner, author of Kanazawa
What do you think? Two comparisons to Evelyn Waugh, one of my great literary heroes! I’ll take it! They all find it funny, and see a deeper, more serious side to it too.
As for the ‘masterpiece’ of the title – that’s Gary Buslik talking about the novel again. I don’t care whether the book makes me any money or not, or whether it makes me famous or infamous – Kirsten Koza anticipates the Twitter mobs coming for me with pitchforks, screaming for the novel to be cancelled – as long as people read it. I don’t claim to be a latter-day Giordano Bruno, but I stand by what I say and accept the consequences. Fiat lux!
Garry Craig Powell’s debut novel Our Parent Who Art in Heaven will be published by Flame Books in the United Kingdom on April 15, 2022.