I discovered my all-time favourite short story writer, Lorrie Moore, entirely as a result of a quote on the cover of her first collection, Self-Help. I just googled the book to find an image (see left), and was struck by the fact that every other edition has appeared with tasteful and sophisticated covers, whereas the one in my local bookshop… Dear god, that is so 80s. Would I ever have bought such a thing if it hadn’t come with an endorsement from one of my favourite novelists, Alison Lurie (incidentally, if you haven’t read The Truth About Lorin Jones, it’s a perfect exposition of the unreliability and subjectivity of the past, and the dubious motives of those who investigate it)? “Lorrie Moore’s wry poetic stories of love and loss make me want to laugh and cry at the same time”.
This is more than the sober judgement of a reviewer (though for all I know the quote was taken from a review), and far more than the “You listened to Godspeed You! Black Emperor recently. Want to try Crippled Black Phoenix?” algorithms of Spotify and its ilk. It builds on the sense of a shared sensibility with a writer whose books I love; it’s not suggesting that this new work is the same as or even similar to books I already know I like, but rather that someone whom, in a sense, I feel I know through her writing, thought this was the sort of book I might like. There is, I suppose, a sort of implicit claim to authority, that this is someone whose critical judgements ought to be taken seriously, but it’s grounded in Lurie’s own achievements (contrast the way that many reviews are cited by the newspaper or magazine rather than the reviewer; what matters here is the authoritative imprimatur of the publication), and leaves it open to the casual browser to feel that if Lurie likes it then it’s definitely not for them – in the way that I would never buy a book if I thought there was any risk that Jeremy Clarkson or Toby Young liked it, even if they hadn’t actually supplied a quote for the cover.
All of which leads me to wonder about the increasing prevalence of pre-publication blurbs on academic books; not the old practice of quoting from suitably positive reviews when the paperback edition appears, but – since so many books are published simultaneously in hardback and paperback these days – the quotes that come from people who’ve been sent the proofs to read so their glowing testimonials can be used for the initial publicity campaign. Am I the only person who finds this all slightly odd?
The immediate context for these thoughts is the fact that I received yesterday advance copies of my new book on Thucydides and the Idea of History, complete with blurbs from a number of highly-respected friends and colleagues – for all of which I am deeply grateful, albeit very embarrassed, and nothing I write here should be taken to disparage their comments: yes, you should buy this book if you have any interest in Thucydides or modern historiography, and it’s not just me saying that… However, this brought back to mind my feelings back in the autumn when I was asked to do the same thing for the forthcoming book on Thucydides by Geoffrey Hawthorn (see here) – and, yes, you should definitely buy this one. I was delighted to do this, not just in the hope of getting a free copy but because Geoffrey has been a staunch supporter of my Reception of Thucydides project, and it was extremely easy to think of positive things to say about it – but I still wonder about my intended role in the whole process.
After all, even in the limited world of the study of Thucydides I am scarcely a Lurie, or even a Clarkson. I find it hard to believe that there’s anyone out there who might pass Hawthorn’s work over, were it not for the fact that they once liked one of my books and so think they might find something similar here – and, given that I’ve written on ancient economic history as well as Thucydides, that might be a little like picking up an Alison Lurie recommendation only to discover that in her spare time she puts aside the carefully-observed comedies of human manners in favour of splatterpunk. So, if the endorsement is unlikely to be intended to be from me qua me, what’s the alternative? Is it my academic status, emphasising that this is a respectable scholarly work (but it’s published by CUP, for goodness’ sake, and it’s by someone whose academic record speaks for itself without any input from me, and anyway isn’t there a risk that having someone from the provinces could be read as a failure to get anyone from Oxbridge or London?). Maybe, given that Geoffrey is coming at Thucydides from a political theory perspective, what matters is that it’s been endorsed by someone from within classical studies – it’s okay, folks, this isn’t another of those scary Straussians or Neoconservatives – in order to allay the suspicions of specialists (in which case one might think of notable figures within classical studies who would be more, so to speak, reassuring to anyone with such delicate sensibilities).
I also wonder about the underlying personal dynamics of soliciting blurbs – as I say, I was happy to do this, but I can also imagine a situation where I would be less happy but feel under obligation, and then can’t help feeling nervous that perhaps this was the case for some of my own endorsers – and the image it may offer (or confirm) of academia as a morass of back-scratching, patronage and old-boy networks – the number of blurbs and the identity of their authors being no more than a measure of the main author’s connections. What about the authors – younger and/or outside the charmed circles – who can’t count on a set of prestigious friends and colleagues to write nice things about their books; are they then condemned to be neglected or ignored? Yes, those of us in more comfortable professional positions could do more to promote the work of talented junior colleagues (not least by putting it in student bibliographies rather than relying so often on the same old Great Figures of Scholarship), while struggling to work out how to do this without seeming patronising or condescending.
Final question: what does this tell us about the changing world of academic publishing? It’s not just new or smaller publishers who are doing this – as I said, Hawthorn’s book is CUP – but perhaps that’s where it started, as those challenging the authority of the established university presses sought to get a hearing for their own publications by emphasising the serious academic credentials of their authors through the blurbs. It’s certainly easy to imagine the ratcheting-up of such practices as a response to an ever more competitive market, in which case we have to expect further escalation over the next few years: every book will need to be endorsed by ever more eminent academics in ever more fulsome terms, from the current “this work says some really quite interesting things about the modern reception of Thucydides” to “this is the only book you will ever need to read on ancient historiography ever and will change your life”. I can’t help feeling that there must also be a connection somewhere to the equally recent phenomenon of certain ancient historians acquiring literary agents, though I’ve no idea what it is… Everything, it seems, is about the immediate buzz: by the time the reviews appear in the quality journals, so to speak, it’s too late to make a difference, and anyway some of them might be less than enthusiastic. Maybe we can look forward to the competition for readers becoming ever more explicit – “Forget Morley’s aimless speculations, Klaus Meister gives you the REAL reception history of Thucydides” – or a switch to more prestigious celebrity endorsers. The possibilities are endless…