Stephen King on the ”art” of the blurb
I wanted to write a column on Jumper for this magazine, because I really liked it. The critics didn’t, but since I’m not one, that didn’t bother me. But one of the executive producers, Ralph Vicinanza, also happens to be my foreign-rights agent. This, I thought, was a concern my EW editor should address. Said editor mulled it over (that’s why editors get the big bucks; it’s called mulling pay) and told me my concerns were valid. He felt the relationship was too close. So I blurbed it instead. Maybe you saw it in your local paper: ”’This Movie Rocks!’ — Stephen King.”
The kind of favoritism my editor worried about is sometimes known as logrolling, and I’ve done it a couple of times in my career, but only a couple, and never without a feeling of shame. One of my favorite movie reviewers, The Filthy Critic (I urge you, urge you, urge you to check him out at least once a month), has a running feature called ”Quote Whore of the Week,” and I think of it every time some friend (or friend of a friend) urges me to blurb a movie, book, or TV show.
One of Filthy’s recent examples was from everybody’s favorite compulsive blurbmeister, Earl Dittman. ”Penelope,” Dittman raves, is ”Enchanting, charming, and hilarious!” He finishes by calling this film ”simply irresistible!” I felt an urge to e-mail Earl and tell him no, ”Simply Irresistible” is a Robert Palmer song, but I took two aspirin and the urge passed.
Dittman is a film critic for Wireless magazine…but there seems to be some doubt about whether or not Wireless actually exists (I find this hilarious, but my sense of humor is, admittedly, a little off-center). It’s supposedly been available as a free handout in movie theaters nationwide, but I have never seen it, and I go to the movies a lot. Other Dittman gems include ”An eye-popping, action-packed masterpiece” (The Adventures of SharkBoy and LavaGirl in 3-D), ”You’ll howl with laughter” (Scooby-Doo), and ”100% pure fun and excitement!” (Catwoman).
Dittman isn’t alone in his hyperbolic ecstasies, as any dedicated reader of the newspaper movie pages knows. There’s Pete Hammond, who used to write for Maxim (he has since parted company with that highly regarded bastion of American thought) and who in 2007 won something called the Michael Medved Bag of Douche Memorial Award. And there’s Larry King, who says he won’t rap films he doesn’t like, but who projectile-vomits praise upon the many he does (the King of Talk called De-Lovely ”Far and away the best musical biography ever made”…which suggests to me he might have missed James Cagney in Yankee Doodle Dandy).
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.