Crowley On Ancient Blurb Technology and Le Guin

by John Holbo on March 8, 2018

I was most gratified when John Crowley showed up – easy as pie – in comments to my “Omelas” post. I will try to repay the compliment of this gesture (nigh-effortless to its author!) by linking to his new Boston Review piece, reminiscing on Le Guin and blurb technology of yore.

In 1973, when I finished my first novel, the difficulties of the blurb-solicitation process were enormous, or would surely seem so to writers now who send digital files effortlessly to famous people through websites and email. The great new advance then was the Xerox machine; you at least didn’t have to produce carbons (hopeless) or photostats (expensive) to send out. But still, as often as not—or more often than not—your solicitations weren’t responded to, which could seem like a foretaste of failure: perhaps readers wouldn’t respond either. Now and then a query would get a curt reply asking that the manuscript not be sent, that the recipient didn’t read such submissions.

For my first novel, I received a hand-written postcard from Ursula K. Le Guin welcoming me to the fold.

I once sent a large manuscript to Anne Rice, the vampire biographer­. What I got back was a postcard, filled edge to edge with typing, asking why I felt I had a right to send her this mass of paper, did I really think she had any reason to read it—she did not—and what was she supposed to do with it? I thought of writing her back to say that she might just toss it in the trash with the rest of the week’s paper, but I didn’t.

Then again, just imagine how hard it must have been even earlier. You are the author of Gilgamesh, say. You’ve cuneiformed it all on tablets. And you want to get copies made and sent out, for blurbing. It really puts the ‘chiropractical’ into the practical challenges of epigraphy, toting a camel-load of your new novel around the Mediterranean for months – maybe years – and then getting an angry rejection by some Sumerian Anne Rice.

And there aren’t even any Anne Rices, let alone Le Guins. You’re it. You’re first. It’s a paradox.



Gabriel 03.08.18 at 1:36 am

It’s interesting that this quote is singled-out by Crowley:

“His voice was thin, and he held his fierce lunatic head at an angle of bizarre arrogance.”

If I had written that for a workshop (Clarion or MFA), it would have been immediately pounced on as a classic example of authorial overextension. Fierce? Lunatic? Bizarre? Please stop editorializing. A shift in popular prose style, no doubt. And I’m no better. In his second quote:

“The pictures passed around the table, and were examined with the noncommittal expression you see on the faces of people looking at pictures of somebody else’s family.”

…I think that’s a wonderful line marred by the completely unnecessary ‘you see on the faces’.

Shame about Rice. Stories like this abound with her, unfortunately: as another example, see her personal interaction with reviewers on Amazon some years ago.


ph 03.08.18 at 3:06 am

This is interesting. Rice is a gifted and has clearly undergone some life-changing experiences. While it might be ‘nice’ if artists and writers were supportive and generous, I’m not sure why they ‘should.’

I like Gabrial’s comment regarding ‘authorial’ over-extension. The same applies here. I like the cited sentences. was taught by professional writers that verbs matter more than adjectives, and that’s what I teach, especially for rewrites and edits.

Re: the op – our understanding of ‘yore’ differs regarding blurbs. I was hoping for a few more than a century old. Wah! The linked article was fine, but the new bland layout of the BR makes even good prose seem tepid — must work across platforms, so….we dumb everything down to the lowest common level of suck.


Doug T 03.08.18 at 1:21 pm

Scattershot thoughts:

1. I basically ignore all author blurbs when glancing at books in the library and trying to decide if a novel is worth checking up. I assume they are basically worthless, and it’s all a huge, corrupt, quid pro quo back scratching system where everyone gives breathless, over the top blurbs to each other. I only look for quotes from major newspapers/review publications, with extra weight given to a Library Journal or Kirkus “starred review”.

2. Your Gilgamesh riff makes me wonder about the ways communities of authors engaged with each other publically earlier in history, in particular before newspapers. I know pamphlets were a big thing in the early modern period, but I don’t know how much they were used for literary purposes, as opposed to religious and political debate.

I’d guess the main way one author could make any comment about another would be in their own work. How much did poets and playwrights do that, though? Aristophanes famously featured Sophocles and had some contemporary references–did he also call out other playwrights? And of course Dante gave some great blurbs for Virgil, although a bit late to help him very much.

Dante gave some great blurbs for Virgil, although maybe a bit late to help him.


maidhc 03.08.18 at 8:32 pm

I went to a book-signing with Anne Rice once and I was the only person who showed up. (It was very early in her career.) I got to spend a good while chatting with her until some other people arrived. She seemed quite nice, although of course it was a fairly superficial encounter.


Peter Erwin 03.08.18 at 8:36 pm

And there aren’t even any Anne Rices, let alone Le Guins. You’re it. You’re first. It’s a paradox.

Hey, there was Enheduanna! (Though she was probably pretty busy with her day job of High Priestess of Inanna. And if you annoyed her too much, she might ask her dad Sargon to conquer your city.)


Scott P. 03.08.18 at 8:58 pm

While it might be ‘nice’ if artists and writers were supportive and generous, I’m not sure why they ‘should.

They should because it’s nice?


ph 03.08.18 at 10:42 pm

@6 Professional training and feedback ordinarily comes at a cost, either in labor as a form of apprenticeship, or through formal education at a school. I have received excellent support while a student from experts in my field when asking questions about their work.
These same individuals, in some cases, stipulated clearly that they do not have the time to give my own research a careful reading. Journals continue to struggle to find readers. I was asked to prepare something recently which passed muster at all levels, but locating the external reader proved more of a problem and now we’re waiting, waiting.

There are normally excellent writer’s workshops in most areas if one is willing to search them out. Few accomplished authors, I suspect, are keen to read work that does not contain a recommendation cover letter of some sort, and even less likely to read a large manuscript. Rice at least took the time to respond, pay the shipping (we assume) and provide some guidance on how to next proceed. Bad her.


Frowner 03.09.18 at 10:09 pm

Is the expectation that Anne Rice be “nice” so powerful because she’s a woman writer, and women writers are expected to do a lot of social labor as well as produce books? I rarely hear people push male writers to be “nice”, especially in the “read this stranger’s manuscript regardless of whether it is of any interest to you or whether you have free time right now” sense.

I mean, it’s lovely when people are lovely, of course, but surely we all know enough delightful non-writers in private life that we can bear to let the writers alone?


F. Foundling 03.11.18 at 1:51 am

@Frowner 03.09.18 at 10:09 pm

I was beginning to miss this particular kind of insightful gender-conscious observations on CT, which usually came from a most delightful Australian lady. I feel (2 or 3 years) younger.

For my part, I will echo Scott P. by voicing the seemingly humanistic, yet de facto misogynistic position that humans in general should be nice, supportive and generous to each other by definition (by definition of the word ‘should’). Now, it’s true that if I were, say, a 9th century Norse pagan, my notion of ‘should’ would probably entail people’s slaughtering other people and burning and pillaging their settlements until they themselves are killed and go to Valhalla; however, since I happen to be, instead, a 21st century humanist, I think that people should be nice to other people. You can refuse to read a novel sent by a beginner writer without being rude or acting as if such a common request is preposterous.


ph 03.11.18 at 7:08 am

@9 Well, as you likely know, instances of recorded charity occurred well before and well outside the ‘christian?’ tradition. Christian writers provide us with written accounts of Scandinavian culture and tend to omit the inter-marriage, stability of social systems, ornate jewelry (well worth a look, btw), and the Scandinavians’ role as integral agents in promulgating cultural exchanges – trading in people and other products from the coast of Africa through the Mediterranean, across the Atlantic, through the Baltic, down to the Black Sea. So, there’s that. Charity comes in many forms, of course, and perhaps because I’m a fan I choose to give her the benefit of the doubt. By which, I’m prepared to believe that she does read work from strangers, but having no doubt been bombarded with requests to read work at book-signings, talks, from agents, and via friends, the author has developed over the years a screening system of sorts Early on one might well have found a more willing and receptive ear. Late in her career I wouldn’t expect her to expend any energy at all. She bothered to reply and that’s a lot more than a number of academics I know are prepared to do, and helping others is ostensibly at least part of their job. Not sure where free feedback and moral support fits into the author’s job description. I’d hate to think kindness is now a form of duty, not that I believe that to be your view.


F. Foundling 03.11.18 at 4:10 pm

@ph 03.11.18 at 7:08 am

Individual instances of all sorts of things occur in all sorts of times, but I’d say that emphasis on charity as a moral value in general was very weakly expressed in the West and the Middle East before Christianity, and even after Christianity was adopted, it still took quite a long time before this aspect of it began to have more than barely noticeable expressions. Needless to say, as an antitheist, I believe that charity only attains its pure form once freed from the primitive and distorting cocoon of religion.

About the Norse – the positive things you mentioned were not instances of charity. My views of their value system are not based on Christian writers, but on their own early literature, which is full of glorification of slaughter, pillaging and the right of the strongest. I’d say that anyone who, today, seriously wants to identify with the Vikings is either utterly cynical and evil (and a prospective Nietzsche fan, and no better than a Nazi) or a complete fool.

About ‘I’d hate to think kindness is now a form of duty’ – I think I have already made it clear that I do believe that a degree of kindness is, indeed, a moral duty; the general suggestion that it wasn’t, or that it is only demanded of women, is what I mostly reacted to. Now, there can also be a degree of kindness that goes well beyond one’s duty, so the question is whether not responding aggressively did go beyond it in this particular case. I think that a lot depends on how politely Crowley’s own request was formulated, but on second thoughts, I think I was more wrong than right as far as this particular case is concerned: people really shouldn’t be bombarded with spam / random requests for reviews and blurbs just because they are a famous author, and Rice’s irritation was understandable.

My knowledge of Rice’s work is limited to a film that I’ve seen on TV, and I didn’t like it; my impression was mostly of morbid BDSM pulp fiction and a natural precursor of Twilight and 50 Shades of Gray. In general, I find the glorification and glamourisation of vampires, Harry Potter wizards and self-congratulatory red-pill swallowers to be symptomatic of the elitist fantasies of our neoliberal times. My knowledge of Crowley’s work is limited to a plot summary that makes me think that I wouldn’t like it, either; it, too, leaves me with a general irritating impression of exclusive elitism and pointless mysticism. So I think that I am reasonably neutral between the two of them.


Josh 03.11.18 at 4:20 pm

Why couldn’t Rice just have a form letter?

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