Summary judgement: a brief history of the book blurb

Jeanette Winterson’s hatred of her jacket copy is nothing new—over the centuries blurbing has always been a grubby business

June 15, 2021
Is this a blurb that I see before me? Shakespeare praised in the First Folio. Credit: Alamy
Is this a blurb that I see before me? Shakespeare praised in the First Folio. Credit: Alamy

Jeanette Winterson committed a bizarre act of literary arson earlier this month, in protest against “the cosy little domestic blurbs” her publisher had added to reissues of her novels. “Turned me into wimmins fiction of the worst kind!” she fumed. “Nothing playful or strange or the ahead of time stuff that’s in there. So I set them on fire.” (Compare for yourself: the new blurb for Winterson’s Written on the Body begins: “In a quiet English suburb, a love affair ignites”; the original 1992 blurb began “Written on the Body is a book for the human condition.”)

The hyperbole on book jackets—both the plot summaries and the lists of adulatory adjectives that go with them—have long frustrated authors, but no one would dispute that a good blurb has crucial functions: it’s a chance to hook readers, and can help them situate a new book within a genre or tradition. Such handy summaries have a long history: think of Milton, at the request of his printer, setting out the “Argument” before each book of Paradise Lost. Yet the modern blurb is more than that: it must alternate uneasily between sober summary, literary interpretation and gushing hype. No doubt Winterson’s publisher would argue their “cosy” new blurbs are designed to lure the widest possible audience into reading something outside their comfort zone.

Plot summaries need not be dumbed-down, of course. The first edition of Philip Larkin’s novel Jill (1946) is a great example of a low-key blurb. It’s informative, while also conveying some of the book’s dry wit: “JILL is the simple story of a north-country boy, John Kemp, who, having been caught up in the inexorable educational machine, is against his will sent to Oxford University.”

But such restraint is uncommon. Especially when it comes to the often mortifying encomia— “unforgettable”; “unputdownable”—extracted from fellow authors and critics and plastered over the cover and front pages. As far back as 1936, George Orwell railed against the “the disgusting tripe that is written by the blurb-reviewers […] When all novels are thrust upon you as words of genius, it is quite natural to assume that all of them are tripe.”

The word “blurb” was coined in 1907 by the comic writer Gelett Burgess but they have been around a long time. The Latin poet Catullus prefaced his books with jokey dedications to fellow writers, which burnished his social and literary credentials: “To whom do I send this fresh little book / of wit, just polished off with dry pumice? / To you, Cornelius.” In the early 14th century, Dante’s great poem was simply called the “Commedia,” until his disciple Boccaccio added the lofty adjective “Divina”: arguably the most successful piece of publishing puff in history.

One of the first major carnivals of blurbery came in 1516, when, ahead of the publication of his satire Utopia, Thomas More wrote to his friend Erasmus, urging him to make sure the book “be handsomely set off with the highest of recommendations, if possible, from several people, both intellectuals and distinguished statesmen.” More’s shameless grasping is all too recognisable: then, as now, public knowledge of private connections was seen as an essential part of book promotion.

It was equally crucial for editors to praise the talents of their authors. In 1532, William Thynne commissioned Sir Brian Tuke to write a fawning preface to his edition of Chaucer’s works, dedicated to Henry VIII. In a manner reminiscent of a Penguin Classics introduction, Chaucer is praised for “his excellent learning in all kinds of doctrines and sciences, such fruitfulness in words […] so sweet and pleasant sentences, such perfection in metre…” and so on. By Shakespeare’s time, this sort of commendatory blurbing was widespread. Indeed, Shakespeare’s own reputation was sealed for posterity by his friend Ben Jonson’s prophetic assertion in the introduction to the First Folio that he was “not of an age but for all time.”

Blurbs are as old as novels themselves. Samuel Richardson’s Pamela, one of the first proper novels, published in 1740, began with long reprinted reviews that had appeared in the Weekly Miscellany, as well as a glowing introduction by the book’s “Editor” (Richardson himself). His pomposity was ripe for ridicule, and Henry Fielding’s parody Shamela (1741) contained its own letter of commendation from “John Puff, Esq,” as well as a warning that “several other COMMENDATORY LETTERS […] will be prepared against the NEXT EDITION.”

With Shamela, Fielding ushered in the long tradition of the parody blurb that is currently going strong. You might remember the dummy dust-jacket that was slipped onto a copy of David Cameron’s autobiography For the Record in Foyles in 2019: “Women wanted him. Men wanted to be him. Animals feared him. He had the world at his feet, yet he threw it all away over a bitter rivalry that began at the urinals of Eton 40 years ago.”

Nowadays, blurbing is an enormous back-scratching industry. The proliferation of creative writing programmes means that authors whose students get a book published often appear on the cover, giving the new author a helping hand and, if it’s successful, offering reflected glory to the teacher. It can go too far, though. In 2014, US author and creative writing teacher Gary Shteyngart hung up his blurbing pen after praising over 150 books (brilliantly, he once said “I’ve compared people to Shakespeare, Tolstoy or whatever […] I’ll do anything”). And there’s no sign that blurbs are becoming any more understated: in 2017 Booker Prize judge Colin Thubron decried “certain quotes that almost blackmail you into feeling intellectually or morally incompetent if you have not liked the book or have not understood it.”

Perhaps Winterson can find some comfort in the knowledge that blurbing has always been a grubby, disreputable practice. And hopefully future book-burnings can be spared if her publishers run their blurbs past her beforehand next time.