Dreaming of my first book, I imagined the jacket blanketed in the plaudits of my favorite authors, their reputations alone granting me vicarious flair and gravitas. Every back cover boasts them -- the coveted endorsements known somewhat inelegantly as blurbs -- and yet when at last I had occasion to need a few, I stumbled upon one of those dirty truths that publishing seems to specialize in: I would have to go shopping for my own praise.
As much as I might fantasize about Junot Diaz or Mary Karr anointing my memoir the breakout book of 2009, how could I possibly expect them to even take note of its existence? There is no mechanism for enticing writers to evaluate a manuscript, no conduit or protocol really for getting it into their hands. Editors and agents can help, but more often than not, soliciting blurbs is a function of the author's temerity and persistence and, yes, connections -- except that even those connections have a way of leaving you desperate and bruised.
With an October publication date, I began compiling my roster back in February, about 40 of the most renowned and hopefully sympathetic names I could muster. Some, like Diaz and Karr (and Pico Iyer and T.C. Boyle and Buzz Bissinger), were pure folly, a wish list. I did not know them and they had no reason to know of me. I found myself trawling the Internet for their contact information, even paying a search agency for a home address or two; I wanted to be a peer but I was acting like a stalker. Others fell somewhere in the middle, the likes of Sandra Cisneros and Carlos Fuentes. I had at least met them before, in the course of my career as a journalist, but what did they remember, if anything, of me? Finally, there were my aces in the hole--former colleagues, college classmates -- writers with whom I had a shared history, shared sensibilities. If they were not good for a blurb, jeez: I might end up going to press with a quote from my mother.
To gird me for the task, my publisher sent me a document entitled "BLURB CAMPAIGN - how it's done." No offense to the talented hand behind it, but the scheme appeared to boil down to a Hail Mary: don't ask, just send. By seeking consent first, you succeed only in opening the door to rejection. Better for your prized creation to arrive without notice and to pray that the recipient takes a peek and maybe, against his or her better judgment, even reads a couple pages, "and then, hopefully," as my instructions put it, "they're hooked."
So as winter gave way to spring and spring began to creep up on summer, I waited and fretted. Mostly I heard nothing. I envisioned my manuscripts being shredded or torched -- or if lucky, recycled -- a two-and-a-quarter-pound slab of self-absorption that from the moment it was delivered had overstayed its welcome. Occasionally I sent follow-up e-mails to the folks I knew. Re: a humble plea. There was nothing humble about it. I was asking fabulously creative people to halt what they were doing, what they were writing, what they were already reading, and find time to articulate for the entire world just how fabulously creative I was, too.
When at last my first blurb arrived -- a thing of beauty, all mine -- it felt like I was being serenaded. Never mind that my blurber confessed to having read only half the book. Or that he misspelled my name. I loved the man.
There were, thankfully, more to come, a few surprises, a few near-misses. Bret Easton Ellis, who shared a mentor with me at Bennington College in the 1980s, seemed like one of my better bets. Although he eventually delivered a lovely encomium, he kept dragging his feet, begging out, insisting that as a chronicler of gore and glitz, he should be the last person reviewing a father-son baseball tale. Michael Connelly could have shined me on--he is a rock star, international--but decades ago we were both cop reporters at the L.A. Times, and though we have never discussed it, I know he knows. All it takes is a break.
I had my hopes set on one last candidate, as fine a wordsmith as I have ever known. After ignoring my entreaties for months, he wrote back with apologies. He professed to understand what I was up against. His first manuscript had been dismissed by the 20 or so authors he had originally approached. It had wounded him, but now that he was in their shoes, a bestselling author deluged with manuscripts, he got it. He was officially refusing all blurb requests, and if my memoir did as well as he hoped it would, he predicted I, too, would soon find myself torn between my work and the endless seekers of my accolades.
"Behold the book-writing future that awaits you, buddy," he told me. "You sure you want it?"