Stephen King: The 'Art' of the Blurb

A fairly cynical writer acquaintance of mine, who has blurbed his fair share of novels both good and bad, says he has a hard-and-fast rule: ''Never blurb a book you've read and never read a book you've blurbed.'' One can hope he was joking, because the blurb has its place. Just not a very honorable one.

I've only blurbed three or four movies in my time, but I've lent my name to perhaps a hundred books. The first one, I'll admit, wasn't very good (in fact, it was pretty terrible), but that was over 30 years ago and I was flattered out of my socks just to be asked. Since then, I've done it only for books I honestly loved, and for a very simple reason: Early on, nobody blurbed any of mine. Carrie, 'Salem's Lot, and The Shining were published before the art of blurbing had been perfected. In the old days, children, the back cover of novels was usually reserved for a black-and-white photograph of the author (often holding a cigarette and trying to look cosmopolitan). Nowadays, the back cover tends to be Blurb City.

And really, maybe that's not so bad. Young writers and filmmakers need a hand up, because it's a hard world out there. That alone doesn't justify a blurb, but in most cases, good work does. It isn't just about the artist, either. A blurb is sometimes a better way to point people toward the good stuff than a 2500-word review. It's certainly more direct.

Still, the subject makes me nervous, which is probably why I chose to write about it. The downside, even when the praise is honest, is that consumers aren't stupid, and they've grown increasingly cynical about the dubious art of the blurb. After you've been tricked into paying for a couple of really bad movies because of one, you realize the difference between real praise and a plain old con job. Every good blurb of bad work numbs the consumer's confidence and trust.

And yet there's good stuff out there, and I've always been an evangelical when it comes to popular art; have never lost my urge, after I've read a good book or seen a good movie, to leap up on my soapbox and yell, ''Here! This! Come quick, before it's gone!''

And you can trust me a little, I think; I never called Untraceable ''The Silence of the Lambs for the Internet age!'' That was some other guy.

Originally posted Mar 21, 2008 Published in issue #983 Mar 21, 2008 Order article reprints