September 29, 2009



Mmmmm...Don't know if it's what you want to hear, Mark, but it depends on the status of the blogger. Just as publishers don't bother quoting reviews that aren't in some way positive, they won't quote bloggers until they're sure there's a payoff.
a. You've arrived
b. You're right

Robert McGuire

My response hinges on the phrase "on a par."

If Sholis uses that phrase to imply that TEV is inappropriately compared to other publications in terms of quality, then my response is similar to yours.

But perhaps he only means to say that we ought to have typographical/design elements that indicate differences in agreed fact (This is a book; That is a blog) regardless of value judgments. It is true that, even without a prejudice against the quality of work on blogs, anyone unfamiliar with the online world who saw that blurb would assume you are the author of a published book-length volume titled The Elegant Variation, probably a novel since there is no subtitle to indicate the subject. And they would be mistaken in that assumption. The typographical element for the time being would mislead them. After all, the point of including anything after your name is to authorize your credentials to anyone who doesn't know your name, and now a casual reader is confused about what that credential is.

Part of the problem is that, while the name TEV by itself sounds like a book, the better comparison is to periodicals which would also be italicized. Periodicals are usually recognizable by their names -- X Picayune, Journal of Y, Z Magazine. Even if they aren't, we tend to make it clear on our own initiative. I don't know the formal official name of BOMB Magazine. It may just be BOMB. But I bet if a review in that periodical were referenced on a book jacket, it would say BOMB Magazine. Not because of a value judgment that it needs its credibility built up but just for the sake of plain clarity.

The parallel in this case would be to follow the name TEV with the tag : A Literary Weblog, which is something equivalent to a subtitle and what you actually do have in the subhead a the top of your page. You do that I assume not to help people make a value comparison to print publications but just to make clear what this site is.

So the question for me isn't why is TEV sharing the typographical conventions reserved for periodicals but why isn't the subtitle included?


A blog review absolutely belongs on the cover of a book. Critical authority has been tethered to print media for some time, and the only 'harm' might be making the work of being a critic, and criticism itself more equitable.

It's probably uncomfortable for traditional critics because blogs, and the public space of the internet itself, is undeniably being made more legitimate in the traditional literary community by such Very Serious Appearance on the covers of books.


I'm with Andrew on this. I think it depends on the status (or popularity) of the blog(ger). I've seen blog blurbs on books, but they just showed the URL. In this case, I can see why they attributed it to The Elegant Variation; marksarvas.blogs.com is clunky and tells us nothing about the source. (This isn't to imply there's something wrong with your web address.) The Elegant Variation just sounds better and more authoritative.

On the other hand, I think this can be sort of misleading. It wrongly assumes that everyone knows what TEV is. Robert is right; there should be some indication of where the blurb source came from. For all we know, it could just be something made up by the publisher for a front cover blurb. The best thing to do, I think, would be to include the site URL somewhere by the blurb.


Why didn't they credit Harry Revised? You meet the 'published author' criteria 'on par' with print journals etc. Was it because the quote appeared on the TEV (rather than submitted as a requested personal blurb)? Would you have preferred to have the novel credited?

Certainly self published works have credibility issues. Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, Kleist, Dostoevsky, Proust and many other prominent writers self published some of their most famous works. In fact, Kleist and Dostoevsky wrote what could be considered proto-blogs (Kleist's writing in the Berlin Abendblatter, a paper he edited and published and Dostoevsky's Diary of a Writer, a periodical he produced). These enterprises didn't seem to have the stigma blogs have today. To say that 99% of blog writing is poor is not saying much. 99% of published writing is poor as well.

John Shannon

Hate to be a spoilsport here, but clicking on the image doesn't enlarge it and I can't read the blurb. So I have no opinion.


I couldn't enlarge the image either! But I assume it's an excerpt from your review in your "Recommended" column, which is why they listed TEV instead of your novel -- which they did correctly since it wasn't a blurb. I agree though that they should have somehow noted TEV is online in case readers weren't familiar with it.

As for the authority issue: I know in my field, dance bloggers' reviews get quoted all the time by dance companies and performance venues on their "press" pages and the same type is used as with the print publications (although, if it makes sense, they'll put the URL; but if not, they just put the name of the blog same as the print pub). Blogs are definitely considered authoritative sources nowadays, particularly the more established ones.

And as for the editing, I don't think a lot of newspapers even edit much these days, so there's not really a big difference. Also, I noticed that a Huffington Post review was quoted from on a poster advertising one of the films showing at my local theater. And those reviews aren't much edited...

Brady Westwater

The authority should lie with the appropriateness of author, not the medium.


The value of the blurb from a blog absolutely depends on the reputation of the blogger, just as a blurb from an author depends upon his or her reputation as a writer. Is a blog writer inherently less credible than a published author, possibly by the very fact of the evaluating and editing process? We've all read some awful books, so that argument doesn't sway me too much.


Congratulations! Yet another literary/journalistic convention has been overcome. I think the blurb is fine as it is. Anyone curious about the source need only google TEV. I agree with Andrew and Brady.

Brian Sholis

Thanks for picking up on my open-ended question. I think that Robert McGuire, in comment number two, has most closely elaborated on my post as I originally intended it. I know Mark's work on this website; in fact, my memory of his recommendation here is why I picked up the Riemen paperback at McNally Jackson--before I saw that recommendation quoted on the front cover. I also know Mark's work for print and am aware of his novel. As someone who was the editor of a magazine's website for more than four years, I appreciate the difficulty online venues can have in gaining respect for their efforts, and didn't mean to make any invidious distinctions in my short post.

Mark, you're right to point out that my comparison of the front- and back-cover blurbs on Riemen's paperback confuses the issue--one was unsolicited while the others were obtained by request. But while I am someone attuned to both the world of literary nonfiction and the literary blogosphere, and I would like to think that I understand something of the ecology of each (and of Mark/TEV's place in them), I don't believe the average bookstore browser would have the same knowledge. That's why my question was (a) ambivalent and (b) turned on a design/style guide issue, rather than one of editorial quality. (Though I acknowledge again that my wording didn't help.)

As a book reviewer for both online and print venues and as the operator of my own website/blog, I remain curious about the problem of visually distinguishing the sources of blurbs and review quotes.

With best wishes,

Robert Wolff

I definitely think your blurb deserves the cover--I'm a regular reader of your blog, and you are the one who prompted me to buy and read Nobility of Spirit, which in turn caused me to go back and ponder Thomas Mann, as well as other books...the whole avalanche that started with your highlighting the book. (I also read The Mystery Guest on your recommendation, which I otherwise would never have heard of.) I'm sure that Yale University Press realized that your enthusiastic comments brought readers to the book over these past months--and it will continue to do so in the future. As for the question of authenticity, you've earned the honor--and I'm willing to bet that you put more time and care into your words than the literary all-stars on the back did.


Brian -

You're tortuous response avoids the real issue that you raised: Why do we need to distinguish, visually or otherwise, that a blurb is from a blog rather than from print media? You keep talking around this issue, but you can't seem to come up with any objective reason for this distinction.


For the same we reason we've always distinguished, visually or otherwise, that a blurb is from a book or a newspaper. Traditionally, one source name was italicized and one was placed between quotation marks. No aspersions cast; just an attempt to help identify the sources.


I've purchased many books due to a blurb from a source I was unfamiliar with. The credibility didn't matter. Their words did. And in the end that has sold me more than any writer's stature or publication ever could. This is precisely what the editor at Yale wrote in his response. If I picked up this book in a store and read that blurb along with the general premise of its contents I would be highly intrigued and likely make the purchase. In the end that is the point of the blurb. I don't think many readers who might enjoy this book would be scared off by "the most stirring redoubt against the ascendant forces of know-nothingness that we've come across in a long time." I realize this isn't the issue initially raised in this thread. But it seems like it really should be the only issue, and that the raised issue is rather boring and unimportant, like a professor who constantly reminds his students that he's to be called Dr. and not Mr. due to his own insecurities. An odd discussion to have over a blurb for a book yearning for a time of heightened dialogue about real and important issues.


James -

Actually, blurbs come from people, not publications. And I think the number of people who remember or care whether the title of one thing should be italicized and the title of another kind of thing not is vanishingly small. I think the point Shorlis was really trying to make was that a blog is somehow less reliable a source for blurb-pinions than more traditional print media. After all, he wrote:

a typographical designation for an unedited online venue that places it on par with an entirely different range of publications—doesn’t do more harm than good, and potentially confuse readers unfamiliar with the online literary world.

The "on par" is the give away. But this is a non-issue, unless Shorlis, or someone else, can explain what concrete damage might be done by such confusion. The answer to that question can't be "Improper use of italics!". Unless we all suddenly stepped into a Monty Python skit.

And "readers unfamiliar with the online literary world" (both of them?) won't even know what a blog is in the first place, and so will face no confusion of any kind.

tiffany lee brown / magdalen23

The fun thing about self publishing, blogs, the independent media revolution, and the whole danged Internet: they call into question the notion of authority. Some responses above mention "appropriateness" and "respect" for bloggers whom one might deign to quote on a book cover.

By creating our own media, we have long questioned the appropriateness, respectability, and authority of traditional publishing hierarchies. It creates confusion, but this is a by-product of change.

Quibbling over a publisher's house style regarding quotation marks or italics for various forms may be quite fun for us publishing nerds, but it essentially glosses over the real issue: our cultural reluctance to grant blogs and bloggers authority.

(fyi i work in independent media, i blog, and i freelance for Real Publications and Newspapers and Books edited by Fancy People with Appropriate, Respectable Cred. personally, i dislike the style --- and it is just a style guide thing, not a law! --- of putting periodical names in quotation marks; i'd much rather see them italicized. ditto film titles. blogs? italicize away!)

Brian Sholis

Fair enough, Niall. I think my response to your first comment (@10:18) would be akin to the one James provided. Each detail about a blurb--front versus back cover, its author, the venue in which the commentary first appeared (if indeed it was not solicited by the publisher)--communicates specific information, and I was curious about how best to distinguish the information that gets communicated. For me it's an issue of clarity, not one of evaluation. (I did, after all, buy the book in large part because of Mark's recommendation.) But as you point out the language of my initial post might betray a subconscious judgmental or evaluative bent.

I had begun to type another paragraph exploring the question further, but I erased it for lack of interest in seeing it through to completion. I appreciate everyone's comments on my initial post and will read any others that appear here.

With best wishes,


Do you really buy books based on their blurbs?


I used to, back when I still bought books ...

Andrew Ross

nice job, mark! this is the future of lit. soon 90% of blurbs will be from blogs. the shift is happening...faster than any of us know.


Andrew -

I've already started writing the monograph, "Blurbs in Crisis: Italics and Intertextual Suspicion in Late Capitalism". Watch for it.

Ele Munjeli

Print will die, as will all inefficient physical media. A blogger's blurb on a book cover is the edge of the transformation. In a few years, paper books will be collected like vinyl, and all writers will be digital. How can we even be surprised at your inclusion? Are there still typewriters? What's the difference of process in writing versus publishing, or criticism?


So glad to see a quote from a respected blog used in this way. As print media dies and publicists have a really hard time securing print reviews, many writers find that their finest, most nuanced reviews come from the blogosphere.


I don't know that this is relevant to the discussion but many commenters have referred to its absence. Here is the blurb in question.

"... the most stirring redoubt against the forces of know-nothingness that we've come across in a very long time."

- Mark Sarvas, The Elegant Variation


We come across stirring redoubts so rarely these days, don't we?


I've already started writing the monograph, "Blurbs in Crisis: Italics and Intertextual Suspicion in Late Capitalism". Watch for it.

I'd buy that. Of course, I'd prefer to provide a blurb for it and so read it for free.

I should also mention that the editing-nerd aspect of this discussion is really the only interesting one. Of course it's appropriate to put a comment from an identified lit blogger "on par" with one from a print source.

I used to work for Amazon, and I remember an early company meeting where Jeff Bezos spent a fair amount of time trumpeting the first appearance of an officially Amazon-generated blurb appearing in a book--I think it was the interior of the paperback of Into Thin Air.--speaking at length about how this put Amazon's editorial voice on par with the established media.


But aren't blog blurbs already old news? Isn't this whole discussion so 2006? Is this how far behind you print media guys are? Come on, try to keep up. We need to start thinking about when blurbs come from Twitter. Then the crisis of legitimacy in Spaetkapitalismus will have reached its bleak peak.

PS - "editing-nerd": Surely a redundancy?


My strong suspicion about the publisher of the Riemen book: the fact that a buyer unfamiliar with TEV would *assume* from the blurb that TEV is some kind of print lit journal is an *advantage*.

This is the key issue, right, that they are lying by omission?

I don't think the publisher would have wanted the cover blurb to a "(whatev).com", because it would suggest that no print publication gave as favorable as a review

I mean, am I super off the mark here? It's just ever so slightly underhanded of them; 'We'll take the knockout quote, but why go to the trouble of calling attention to the fact that it's a blog?'

So yes, I say a web-blurb is generally less valuable than a review in a newspaper or magazine, and harmful if it's the only blurb

David Kipen

As the SF Chronicle's erstwhile book critic, I'm just thankful any time a blurb gets a byline. Just you wait, Mark. You'll really know you've arrived when some publisher blurbs The Elegant Variation, and leaves your name out of it completely...


I found my blurb (taken from a blog post) on the back of a collection of short stories (shortlisted for Frank O'Connor this year). I would have gladly have given permission for its use (as it was, I wrote my review with care), but I felt very hurt that the publisher did not even bother to lift up the phone to ask me if he could use it.

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  • The Elegant Variation is "Fowler’s (1926, 1965) term for the inept writer’s overstrained efforts at freshness or vividness of expression. Prose guilty of elegant variation calls attention to itself and doesn’t permit its ideas to seem naturally clear. It typically seeks fancy new words for familiar things, and it scrambles for synonyms in order to avoid at all costs repeating a word, even though repetition might be the natural, normal thing to do: The audience had a certain bovine placidity, instead of The audience was as placid as cows. Elegant variation is often the rock, and a stereotype, a cliché, or a tired metaphor the hard place between which inexperienced or foolish writers come to grief. The familiar middle ground in treating these homely topics is almost always the safest. In untrained or unrestrained hands, a thesaurus can be dangerous."


  • The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald


    Penelope Fitzgerald's second novel is the tale of Florence Green, a widow who seeks, in the late 1950s, to bring a bookstore to an isolated British town, encountering all manner of obstacles, including incompetent builders, vindictive gentry, small minded bankers, an irritable poltergeist, but, above all, a town that might not, in fact, want a bookshop. Fitzgerald's prose is spare but evocative – there's no wasted effort and her work reminds one of Hemingway's dictum that every word should fight for its right to be on the page. Florence is an engaging creation, stubbornly committed to her plan even as uncertainty regarding the wisdom of the enterprise gnaws at her. But The Bookshop concerns itself, finally, with the astonishing vindictiveness of which provincials are capable, and, as so much English fiction must, it grapples with the inevitabilities of class. It's a dense marvel at 123 pages, a book you won't want to – or be able to – rush through.
  • The Rider by Tim Krabbe


    Tim Krabbé's superb 1978 memoir-cum-novel is the single best book we've read about cycling, a book that will come closer to bringing you inside a grueling road race than anything else out there. A kilometer-by-kilometer look at just what is required to endure some of the most grueling terrain in the world, Krabbé explains the tactics, the choices and – above all – the grinding, endless, excruciating pain that every cyclist faces and makes it heart-pounding rather than expository or tedious. No writer has better captured both the agony and the determination to ride through the agony. He's an elegant stylist (ably served by Sam Garrett's fine translation) and The Rider manages to be that rarest hybrid – an authentic, accurate book about cycling that's a pleasure to read. "Non-racers," he writes. "The emptiness of those lives shocks me."