March 3, 2015

Two for Tuesday: Should Justin Bieber blurb Jonathan Franzen?


This is the most up-to-date and appropriate picture of Justin Bieber I could find. Happy birthday, Biebs!

This is the most up-to-date and appropriate picture of Justin Bieber I can find. Happy birthday, Biebs!

Topics discussed: blurbers, blurbers, blurbees, Led Zeppelin, logrolling, the state of the publishing industry, the state of our confusion about the publishing industry, ISIS, Alex’s love of ISIS, Alex’s love of Charles Manson, Charles Manson, technolibertarians, Grove Atlantic, Ryan Boudinot, corruption, Lee Child, Justin Bieber, Jonathan Franzen, Michael Schaub

Mark: Hi Alex! So, I try not to look in your general direction while we’re at the office (the mustache is overpowering), but I couldn’t help but notice the ever-growing pile of ISIS-themed books by your computer. What’s going on? Have you fallen hard for ISIS?

Alex: I’ve been a fan for a while, Mark. I believe you called me an “ISIS hipster” a few months ago, and my girlfriend recently told me that I told her that I “loved ISIS” last spring. Earlier today, I told Julia that ISIS’s Dabiq magazine was behind the recent resurgence of print—that it was the real reason why Starbucks and Uber were getting into the magazine game.

Am I proud of any of that? Not particularly. I am apparently not very good at distinguishing between being fascinated by things and being enamored with them, which is probably why I was engaged to Charles Manson for several weeks back in 2007.

But ISIS is important! They’re not unprecedented as a group, as Michael Weiss and Hassan Hassan argue in their excellent book ISIS: Inside The Army of Terror, but what they’ve accomplished is unprecedented, and it’s largely been the result of a series of geopolitical blunders, as Alexander Cockburn argues in his excellent book, The Rise of Islamic State. Both of these books are really good! Anyway, they’re better than reading about Netanyahu or the dress, or whatever else is going on these days. I am just going to crawl into my hole and read about ISIS, thank you very much. Also, people look at you funny/don’t talk to you on the train when you read books about ISIS, and that is invaluable. People talk to me on the train all the time. They don’t when I’m reading about ISIS.

Mark: Oh man, I totally forgot about how I called you an ISIS hipster. I’m very proud of that line, because I have so little to be proud of in this world. But yes, I can’t really condemn you for your interest in ISIS, even though I think it’s a little . . . .weird. We didn’t know each other in 2004, but I bet that back then you were spending all your time e-mailing your friends from your Hotmail account about Muqtada al-Sadr. I’d really love to read some circa-2004 Alex Shephard al-Sadr e-mails. The NSA probably has copies.

Anyway, I believe that over the weekend, you paused your ISIS reading for long enough to read this piece in The Stranger, by Ryan Boudinot. The piece, which is titled “Things I Can Say About MFA Writing Programs Now That I No Longer Teach in One,” struck me as broadly useful, if a bit overstated. And I wonder if most MFA students won’t have already honed in on many of its lessons. There was one moment in the piece, though, that seemed worth discussing:

But in today’s Kindle/e-book/self-publishing environment, with New York publishing sliding into cultural irrelevance, I find questions about working with agents and editors increasingly old-fashioned. Anyone who claims to have useful information about the publishing industry is lying to you, because nobody knows what the hell is happening. My advice is for writers to reject the old models and take over the production of their own and each other’s work as much as possible.

What’s striking about this is the self-evident tone in which it’s written. You and I have encountered versions of this argument hundreds of times, but we’ve gotten to a point where these kinds of statements–which are really an assertion concealed as an argument–seem so self-evident to so many people (or at least to Boudinot and his editors) that they don’t need any preamble. What’s your take on this? Are we doing a bad job of articulating our own reason for being? And more importantly: DO YOU AND I REALLY HAVE NO USEFUL INFORMATION ABOUT THE PUBLISHING INDUSTRY??????

Alex: That piece largely feels like one of those pieces parents occasionally write about hating their kids and then publish on The Huffington Post or The Daily Beast—there’s a sense that Boudinot is being bad, but “keeping it real.” But, as in those pieces, most of what he’s saying is pretty simple: if you want to write, you should write and care deeply about your craft; if not, don’t fucking write. That’s generally good advice, even if I don’t agree with a lot of the nuts and bolts! (I should add that I read Boudinot’s most recent book, Blueprints of the Afterlife, and liked it. If you like Kurt Vonnegut but don’t think he’s weird enough, you will like this book.)

It’s worth noting that Boudinot is painting in very broad strokes throughout and the publishing thing is no exception—it isn’t exactly written for close analysis. That said, it strikes me as bad advice wrapped in good advice—or maybe just “almost good advice.”

There’s no evidence provided—nothing to persuade you, only something to rally around—though I think that he’s largely right about “nobody know[ing] what the hell is happening.” Things are changing very rapidly! But he makes a mistake—a popular mistake, and a big one—in implicating the publishing industry here. Basically, the general pessimism about the state of the industry that—surprise!—has always existed has combined, in recent years, with the sense that the industry has not kept up sufficiently with the post-industrial world. According to this logic, the publishing industry is insufficiently of the moment because it hasn’t adopted the ethos of innovation and disruption–the themes that are at the heart of contemporary thinking about technology.

Is Boudinot right? Well, sort of. The publishing industry has lagged behind in some areas—particularly marketing, though I don’t think things are as bad as they appear—but those changes aren’t as dramatic as many think that they are, especially with ebook sales plateauing, etc. The publishing industry is “old-fashioned” insofar as it still has employees—it’s “old-fashioned” only if you think that everyone should be a freelancer (that’s not a particularly attractive proposition to me). There’s nothing I’ve been able to find that’s an “alternative” that’s radically different from what’s already out there—except for authors who pay out of pocket and have to deal with freelancers, some of whom are good and some of whom aren’t.

Boudinot recommends self-publishing without thinking a lick about the work that goes into publishing, or, perhaps more importantly, about the fact that what he’s advocating is the technolibertarian (and, in my opinion, very frightening) idea that “We are all entrepreneurs now.” Should writers be entrepreneurs? Well, that’s up to them, but I know it’s certainly not something I would broadly prescribe without thinking much about it. Anyway, I’d like to know why Boudinot thinks we should “reject the old models.” If I knew that, maybe I’d have a better sense as to why we should reject them or, more importantly, why he doesn’t think they can adapt. I think Grove, Boudinot’s most recent publisher, is doing some interesting stuff in that regard, but maybe I’m too old-fashioned.

Still, I’d love it for more people—and perhaps MFA students in particular—to think about new models for the industry, or just to think harder about the industry itself. But thinking about new models requires understanding the old ones; saying “just ignore it, do something new! I don’t know what, but you figure it out” is bad advice in any field.

Mark: Right. And I should say that there’s a reason why you and I (and many people like us) are probably somewhat thin-skinned about this. After all, this kind of casual, unargued claim doesn’t just make a case for our uselessness–it presupposes it! That’s . . . frustrating. But I do think it’s important to try to take this kind of thinking apart. Boudinot isn’t Matt Yglesias, who walks around Washington, DC in a cape that has the word “#disruption” emblazoned on it (note: I don’t know if this is true); he’s a published writer who has experience with the world of publishing, with its audience, and with the people who want to find themselves participating in it, in one form or another. If a person in Boudinot’s position can make these kinds of claims, then it’s safe to say that they’re widely accepted. And they must be challenged!

But I think you’ve done a good job of challenging them, so let’s move onto some other claims that we can challenge. Here’s one: blurbs are evil and useless! I might be overstating this a bit, but I’m pretty sure that you and I have often heard variations on this claim, and have heard them a lot. The idea is that blurbs are essentially:

So! Not to get too counterintuitive, but I think this is mostly wrong. I won’t really dispute “incestuous” or “corrupt,” because I’m sure this applies from time to time (maybe even often!), but even this doesn’t seem like all that big a problem to me. Writers have always had friends who are other writers, and they’ve always sought to help those writers out. Would I like to imagine a world where some objective measure of quality triumphed over all social bonds and only the very best writers got the very best blurbs? Sure, that’d be cool. But I don’t think it’s ever been that way, and I don’t really think things are any worse now. They may be a little more desperate, but not worse.

And yet precisely because things are a little more desperate is why I’d argue that blurbs are absolutely not useless. People who complain about blurbs tend to be the kind of people who see blurbs somewhat transparently–they may be reviewers who know that two writers went to school together, or that they share an agent, or that their editors once slept together. (They may also be writers who were once the recipients of blurbs acquired through not-quite-kosher means!) But I don’t think most readers know very much about these relationships, and–and this is key–if they did know, I don’t think they’d care all that much.

Similarly, a bookseller may know that Ladbroke McEllis and Childers Creek (two very bad fake names I just came up with) both got MFAs from Sunnyside Industrial College (not, as far as I know, a real place), but that doesn’t mean that said bookseller will reject McEllis’s glowing blurb on the back of Creek’s novel-in-stories. Maybe McEllis hasn’t fully weighed the merits of Creek’s novel-in-stories against every other novel-in-stories ever written. But if she’s willing to put her name on it, and if the bookseller’s customers trust her, then that already seems worth the effort.

It may be true that there’s an overabundance of blurbs, and that a debut novel needn’t arrive laden with nine or ten of them. But the default assumption–blurbs are tacky, thus they’re useless–seems to miss the fact that there may very well be readers out there for whom an endorsement can legitimately make a difference. What do you think? Have I Gladwelled myself?

Alex: I mostly agree with you! Though I’m generally less optimistic—I’d go so far as saying they’re definitely not useless. They can’t hurt!

Or I should say, they probably can’t hurt. Blurbs exist to help legitimize a book and to provide a sense—a very, very vague sense—of what that book is like. Sometimes blurbs seem to be there because they seem like they should be, and I think that can sometimes not help. One thing a blurb can do is to create a knowledge gap—i.e. “I don’t know this writer or book but I know/like/respect/love these other people who say they love it!”—and that knowledge gap can work against you if you don’t know anybody involved. “Another book by a nobody, blurbed by nobodies” may work for some people, but it doesn’t do a lot for me.

Similarly, having the *right* blurbers makes a big difference. They need to fit the book’s target audience and speak to them—a big blurber can harm a good book if they’re the wrong blurber. Justin Bieber shouldn’t blurb Jonathan Franzen; Lee Child probably shouldn’t, either. (One weird exception to this: James Patterson, who blurbed The Art of Fielding, which helped signal the book’s very real, very wide appeal.)

But I think one mistake people make too often is choosing blurbers based on profile and not based on audience. Targeting your blurbers matters because it helps target your audience. (One thing that doesn’t matter? What the actual blurb says. Or at least, that doesn’t seem to matter most of the time, though I think a phoned-in blurb is may be worse than no blurb at all.)

Logrolling is what interests me the most though. People are very sensitive to logrolling, especially in publishing/media. That makes sense! I am sensitive to people cutting in line and I am envious of the success of others—logrolling speaks to both of those impulses, and I think that’s one reason why it takes hold with so many of us. But I think the real reason why it’s complicated is that it’s a blending of art and commerce that’s unfamiliar—the blurb is marketing that can never seem like marketing, which is an uncomfortable place to live for many writers. (This is yet another reason why not all writers should be entrepreneurs—or at least why they shouldn’t be writers/editors/marketers/publicists/designers.)

But we’re in broad agreement: I think blurbs matter more than many of us think they do, even if they’re complicated and fraught. Oh, I forgot the most important thing: the word “blurb” is terrible. It is a very bad word.

Mark: I agree. It’s a terrible, terrible word. Oh, but another thing blurbs are good for: SEO! Merely including the words “Justin Bieber” and “Jonathan Franzen” in the title of this post got us some clicks. Can you imagine what those names can do for a lowly book page?

The logrolling thing is interesting to me. It’s true that people are sensitive to it, and they’re right to be sensitive. When it comes to something as subjective as artistic merit–and as hard-fought as artistic success–one doesn’t want there to be the slightest hint of ill-gotten gains.

But with that said, I’m not sure how much logrolling can buy you once your book is out in the wider world. Readers are a tough bunch, and while it’s true that a book may appear on their radar thanks to logrolling (the reviewer in the local paper has a sister who has a friend whose first cousin wrote a very good debut novel that otherwise may not have gotten reviewed), quality and word-of-mouth trump all. It might be that there’s a bad novel being published today with some blurbs its author wouldn’t have gotten were it not for some favors he called in. But is that going to fool anyone? I doubt it.

To be clear: I’m not defending logrolling! (I can imagine Michael Schaub’s tweet now: “Krotov defends logrolling! Publishing is corrupt!” Actually, wait, that’s probably not something Michael would write. Also, he doesn’t write tweets that sound like 1920s tabloid headlines.) But I do think that we spend an awful lot of time worrying about a somewhat insular conversation, when the truly consequential things are happening at bookstores, on Twitter, in book clubs, and so on.

Alex: There are different rules for blurbs and for reviews—personal connections need to be disclosed in reviews—but these kinds of connections can be difficult to avoid in what is, and always has been, a pretty small world. In general, though, I think we need to spend more time trying to get the right blurbs—and getting the right people behind a book—and less time worrying about other stuff. (What other stuff? All the other stuff! I don’t worry about anything any more. Except blurbs.)

So my thoughts aren’t particularly complicated—get the right blurb from the right person because the right blurb from the wrong person and the wrong—i.e. milquetoast—blurb from the right person probably won’t do you much good—so I think it’s time for some classic hits. What do you say, Mark?

Mark: Here’s what I say: “Compulsively readable, Alex Shephard’s prose shimmers with the clarity of a polar sunset and staggers into the world like a wounded rhinoceros–glorious, haunting, brutal. His musical contributions, however, leave something to be desired.” –Mark Krotov, co-author of Two for Tuesday

Alex: And here is what say about Led Zeppelin:

Very rarely, a few times in a lifetime, you put on a record and when it stops nothing can ever be the same again. Walls have been pulled down, barriers broken, a dimension of feeling, of existence itself, has opened in you that was not there before. Led Zeppelin is a band that does this because Led Zeppelin has fucking huge killer magnitude. Jimmy Page may be the most gifted songwriter AND guitarist ever because he shreds, but he shreds in a way that fits the song fucking perfectly, in a way that fucking destroys every time, except for when he plays acoustic guitar, when you’re like “Holy shit, this is the most beautiful thing I have ever heard, now I am crying everywhere”; gifted not just because of his imagination, his energy, his originality, but because he has access to the unutterable, because he can pick up a guitar and fucking wail on it so hard that you think the walls of Nassau Coliseum are going to come crashing down around you because “When The Levee Breaks” is just too fucking heavy and you are stoned out of your goddamn gourd. For the last fifty years Led Zeppelin have been the greatest band ever and that’s because they spent like over a decade making songs about what it is to be a human and an elf and a hobbit and a dragon lord and a dude who just wants to get it on but why don’t you want to get it on as badly as he wants to get it on? Led Zeppelin is so fucking powerful and magic and awesome, they are wizards, they are heavy, they are gods, but like cool, heavy gods—Norse gods—not the Greek ones who just wanted to turn into horses and frolic in the fields. Did I mention they’re wizards? To listen to them is to have yourself taken apart, undone, touched at the place of your own essence; it is to be turned back, as after a long absence, into a cool guy who loves killer riffs. And katanas.