mood Master of the Art

by Sarah Schweitzer

Published in Issue No. 267 ~ August, 2019

I work for an author. I can’t tell you her name, so I’ll call her Madame. I’m quite certain you know her work. She practically resides on the Times’ best-seller list. No doubt you read her last book, which caused a stir. Almost certainly you’re familiar with her break- out bildungsroman that became a touchstone of a particular generation.

If you haven’t read Madame’s books, then you’ve read her blurbs. Across genres and disciplines, she blurbs continuously, effortlessly, impactfully. She is a master of the blurb.

Which is to say I am a master of the blurb. I am her blurb writer.

Madame is my principal client, though I have a steady stable of authors. I pride myself on blurbs that defy convention. Neither “lyrical” nor “triumph” has appeared in any blurb I had written since 2001 when I got my start. Back then, I never thought I’d blurb full-time. It was a lark. Courtesy to a friend — an earnest workshop graduate who was “paralyzed” when blurb requests came in after her coast of Maine romance was accepted by a major house. “I can’t reduce a book to a ‘magical voyage!’” she said one night over sushi. I explained to her it didn’t have to be that way. She asked, “How?” On the back of a napkin, I jotted some ideas. Soon, I was writing all her blurbs.

When I meet prospective clients, some feign shock. “I can’t do that!” they gasp. Only to add, “Can I?” I remind them that if they want their books to journey smoothly, vitally, to their readers, they must trade in the commodities of the literary marketplace – favors. And don’t they think their words are precious, much better reserved for their art? With that, they quietly sign the contract.

My services extend beyond just blurbing. Equally, I advise my clients on whom I should blurb on their behalf and why. I provide a complete package if you will. I can’t go into detail, but I will say that for a modest fee, I employ a proprietary algorithm that predicts with startling precision the books that will provide the most blurb-bang for my clients. So spot-on are my choices that a client once told me that I was “a cultural aesthete with the predictive powers of a Greek chorus.” (Which sounded like a lousy blurb for a literary flame-thrower, but I didn’t say so because she meant well.)

I live in a brownstone in an American city where most of my clients live. At times, I make my way to the vacation homes of my clients. I particularly like an author’s cottage in a northern burg where I take inspiration from locals who speak with an authoritarian rightness (“Anyone who tells you other”… ), which obviously aids in the tonal aspects of my work.

Of course, the job has its challenges. There are times I find myself speaking in blurbs. Like the other day, a friend was telling me about how her boyfriend had proposed, a rather intricate affair on a sunset cruise that involved ganache in some way, and I blurted out: “Romance’s surprise meets the tender forever of love!” She kind of looked at me funny, but the next day, I noticed she had posted it to Facebook.

Once clients sign on with me, I find they can grow — how shall I say this delicately? — needy. Here’s the little secret of those of us who blurb and blurb well: Once clients sign on, they have no choice but to stay. Why? Because they can’t write their own blurbs; their blurbs wouldn’t sound like them anymore.

Sometimes, it generates a little resentment.

Take my recent meeting with a well-known children’s author at his studio. We’ve worked together for five years, and I’ve blurbed nearly a hundred books for him. Sales have slipped on his last two books, and he was pressing me to blurb a new author whose advance was rumored to be obscene. “I need her to return-blurb my book!” he said, his face reddening and puffing. I filled a glass of water for him (dehydration is a common state for my clients). He gulped as I explained that I had heard her book was to have two front pages devoted to blurbs. I told him that a blurb in a sea of blurbs would dilute the power of his endorsement. He begged, but I held firm. To which he responded, “Ursula!”

It took me a moment to realize that he was calling me the fat octopus in “The Little Mermaid” who steals Ariel’s voice.

I talked him down with praise that I hoped he wouldn’t recognize as a blurb I’d written for him (well, not for him, of course; as him for another author whose series, soon after that blurb appeared, took off on the children’s charts, leaving my client fiendishly depressed for a few months). He didn’t remember, and he apologized, profusely and lavishly, and I promised him I had in mind a sure-thing blurb.

Back to Madame, though. She’s the reason I’ve stayed in this business, truth be told. There is a joy knowing my words enable her own. She is grace on the page. In person, she is charming, funny, clever. We meet at her downtown loft where she writes from noon to two on a black lacquer Louis XVI desk (paid for with the issuance in Denmark and Japan of her tenth book, a novel closely drawn from her unbound nights at a well- known nightclub in its heyday). When I visit, we talk about ideas for her next book. “Do you like?” she asks after she’s laid out a perfectly threaded narrative. I nod and say, “It’s beautiful.”

And it is, what we share.

So imagine my horror when she opened the door of her loft one afternoon holding a book, its flap positioned at my eye-level.

“What other books have I blurbed that I didn’t like?” she demanded to know.

I was speechless. Never in my career had a client – to my knowledge – read a book I had blurbed for them. That was the whole point. I read the books, so they were free to use their gifts for creation.

She blazed on. The book was flagrantly tasteless. It was the work of a doltish show-off interested in little more than trading on the psycho-babble porn of teen years spent in a psychiatric ward.

I thought of defending myself. The blurb had been one of my best. A gem that had lifted a publisher’s dream out of the gutters. Which only underscored her point, I realized.

She asked me to leave. I didn’t hear from her for weeks, and I assumed it was over.

I filled the time I had devoted to Madame with a new client, a charming YA author with a solid sales record. (Who still hasn’t connected the lead blurb on her second book as my handiwork.)

But of course, it wasn’t the same. Some days, I found myself walking past Madame’s building, wondering if I might see her through the window, seated at her black lacquer desk.

A few months later, Madame called. We exchanged pleasantries and then she said she wanted to know what I thought about a galley that was making the rounds. She had been asked to blurb it, she said.

As it happened, I had read the book the night before for another client. I asked her what she thought.

She paused, and I could imagine her tilting her head and smiling as if I were being silly and forgetting the rules of our relationship.

“Oh, Madame!” I thought. “I’ve missed you so!” And at that moment, I was overcome by the ethos of all that blurbing is meant to be: generosity.

I told her what I thought of the book.

She listened carefully, and I wondered if she was going to apologize, which I sort of thought she should.

Instead, she sighed and said, “That’s perfect.”

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Sarah Schweitzer, a freelance journalist based in New England, was a Pulitzer Prize finalist in feature writing in 2015. Sarah began writing short stories a few years back with the aim of learning the narrative technique to improve her journalism stories. Now she writes stories for the sake of writing them.