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All praise for it

No publisher who knows which side his bread is buttered on will ever print an honest criticism of a book, writes Shobha Sengupta.

india Updated: Apr 20, 2009 23:08 IST

While selecting books to order for my store, I find myself (like every reader) reading blurbs at the back to find out who’s recommending a particular title and why. Perhaps because I do it in volumes, it is disconcerting to stumble across the same words. What do blurbs say? They don’t say, they gush.

Here is a list of samples: ‘A brilliant piece of fiction.’ ‘Groundbreaking’; ‘The greatest piece of popular fiction ever produced.’ This is the blurb of the graphic novel Watchmen. Sounds familiar? Exactly, you understand my sentiment — and my predicament.

Very often, the publisher or author has sent the book in question to another well-known writer — mostly, of an earlier generation — who, if facts are probed, is invariably the author’s mentor or friend. No publisher who knows which side his bread is buttered on will ever print an honest criticism of the book.

Sometimes, the blurb refers to the writer’s previous work. The reason: Either the publisher has not sent the manuscript to anyone for reading or, if he has, the referee has not obliged, or has not been able to read it in time.

So, as in the case of Tarun Tejpal’s The Story of my Assassins — which, by the way, I personally thought was truly ‘absolutely brilliant’, the blurbs are instead full of praise for his first book, The Alchemy of Desire. The upshot: my readers tend to ask for his earlier book, and copies of The Story... lie on shelves, mostly unsold, unread. All my persuasive powers seem to leave my customers cold.

Some books actually and presumptuously so, come blurb-less. Salman Rushdie’s hardback The Enchantress of Florence, has perhaps one of the prettiest jackets in book history, although the snapshot miniature from the Kamasutra on it doesn’t seem to entice anyone. It has no blurb. Perhaps it has been assumed that prospective readers will pick up a Rushdie simply because of the ‘brand’ Rushdie. Or they will not, again because it is a Rushdie. The blurbs do not really matter in his case.

The newly-available paperback edition has the Tatler and The Guardian gushing as usual in the blurbs: “A brilliantly fascinating, generous novel…wonderful,” etc. The Indian critics are, in such cases, largely ignored. If Indian writers in English have found their place in the sun, why not Indian critics? What say Indian publishers?

Shobha Sengupta is the owner of a bookstore-cum-art gallery.