I have, I think, a realistic enough grasp of the many drafts needed before a piece of writing evolves into its finished form. I know the hard slog that’s required to get my initial thoughts and feelings into published lines of print — all those false starts, scribbles, scorings out. I sometimes get frustrated, wish it was easier, and harbour envy of those, probably non-existent, writers for whom no effort is required, who simply sit down and produce perfect prose the moment their pen connects with the page or their fingers hit the keyboard. But mostly I accept the work involved as a necessary part of the process and, indeed, some kind of guarantor of quality. I’d be suspicious of words that fell too readily into place without the usual tussle. Easiness would strike me not as any indication that I’d been visited by the muse, but rather as a sign that I wasn’t being sufficiently exacting.
There are some exceptions, though, types of writing where I feel I ought to get it right first time without the usual raft of revisions. With letters and emails to friends, for example, it would spoil the spontaneity and informality, not to mention being monstrously time-consuming, if they needed multiple rewritings before being sent. The fact that what I write in this context is rough around the edges seems apt rather than a failing. Personal correspondence allows – expects – communication in first draft form. With no intention that it should be read beyond the recipient, or retained beyond the moment, it is the most relaxed of forms, and can offer a therapeutic change of gear in the midst of more formal composition.
Some other sorts of writing should also, surely, be as effortless as letters, capable of being written straight off, at a single sitting, without any hesitation or redrafting. Chief culprit in my rogues’ gallery of writing-that-should-be-easy-but-isn’t is the author bio. The fact that I frequently stumble over these few lines of blurb seems lamentably unprofessional. They’re surely just a routine task of the trade, not anything to make a meal of. Yet not infrequently I spend far too long on them and end up feeling lost for words. When this happens it makes me doubt myself. Shying at such an easy jump suggests I must be woefully inept. Can I really be so lacking in writerly skill that I can’t whistle up a few apt sentences about myself?
I know my attitude to writing blurbs is unreasonable. What could be more straightforward than complying with an editor’s request to write something for the contributors’ notes? And yet I’ve come to see such requests as one of the stings in the tail of an acceptance (another, which bears a different sort of venom but arouses the same disproportionate loathing for a simple task, is filling in the dreaded W8-BEN to secure payment if the publication happens to be American).
Why do I dislike blurb-writing so much? In part because I think what matters is the piece of writing, not the writer. Beyond the most minimal details of name and other publications – in case a reader wants to seek out more – information about the author seems irrelevant. I also dislike being implicated in the kind of literary bragging matches that contributors’ notes can morph into, with authors boasting of the number of books they’ve written, the praises heaped upon them by reviewers, their prizes, fellowships, residencies, teaching on creative writing programmes, the endless (and of course ‘prestigious’) publications in which their work has featured. The lustre of their long lists of achievements dazzles with all the eye-catching sparkle of tinfoil wrappers in the sun littering a beauty spot; irritating distractions from what matters. I just want to read what’s written. I don’t want to be led to the canvas of an author’s work through some ornately grandiloquent gold frame whose whorls and embellishments, however impressive, get in the way of my seeing.
Am I alone in having developed a word-allergy to some of the overused locutions that ooze out of blurbs like a stale syrup of self-aggrandisement? ‘Award-winning’, ‘critically acclaimed’, ‘recipient of many honours’, ‘author of over a dozen books’, ‘internationally recognised’, ‘his/her publishing credits include…’. Such things leave me wanting a literary antihistamine to counter the itch of irritation they bring on. Or is it that I’m simply jealous?
Maybe I’m wrong to think that blurb-writing should be easy. After all, summing yourself up in a few words is quite a challenge. I’m reminded of one of the most difficult questions ever put to me at a job interview. On an occasion I still wince to recall, the opening gambit from the Chair of the selection panel was the seemingly innocuous: ‘Tell us something about yourself’. What was he expecting? Presumably not just a summary of the CV sitting on the table in front of him. A masterful on-the-spot self-portrait that would leave them all amazed? A witty tongue-in-cheek caricature that would have them laughing? Details of my favourite colour, hopes, dreams, fears, my literary proclivities? Alas, I displayed confusion rather than any executive concision, hesitation without any leavening of humour. As I finished stammering out whatever incoherence came to mind I knew I hadn’t got the job. Maybe I don’t like blurbs because they remind me of this ‘tell us something about yourself’ moment and how it left me stymied. How do you sum yourself up in a couple of sentences?
Despite my reluctance, of course I just grit my teeth and write them whenever asked to do so. To refuse to provide a blurb would seem a cross between arrogant and precious — and, in any case, disobliging editors is not a strategy any working writer should embrace. With journals, magazines, and books in which I have a chapter, I go for what’s brief and bland; something that will soon get lost amidst the glitter of the other contributors. For my own books I’m mostly happy to agree to whatever the publisher comes up with — anything to save me from the task.
Sometimes, though, I regret not having adopted a more creative approach. It would have been fun to have followed a deliberately subversive policy and written different blurbs every time one was requested. I could have changed my gender, date and place of birth, where I live, my interests, first language, literary influences. To invent, make up, embroider, vary, provide pictures of friends – or total strangers – when asked for an author photo, wouldn’t that have been more entertaining? Would anyone have noticed?
The other approach I warm to – but haven’t got the talent for myself – is to include some little eye-catching non sequitur in a blurb that has no obvious connection with the writing. Such non-typical statements derail the tedious style of standard author bios. Among those that have caught my eye are: ‘she enjoys winter more than most, though her plant collection does not’; ‘he feels a special bond with everyone who dislikes self-service checkouts’; ‘she’s desperate for approval despite rarely deserving it’; ‘he plays the guitar whenever he can and probably when he should be doing something else’; ‘she spends a lot of time meditating and walking the city without destination’; ‘he has a cat called Justice’. And, my current favourite: ‘someday she plans to walk through a bamboo forest. She dislikes loud sounds’. These quirky asides are, to me, far more appealing than long lists of literary accomplishments.
As I write the wretched things I can at least take solace in the fact that, for me, there’s a practical reason to supply them: I have a nominal identical twin who also publishes. We share the same full name exactly: we’re both Christopher John Arthur, and both use the same contraction. In library catalogues around the world, he’s credited with my books, or I’m credited with his. The only thing that distinguishes us to a cataloguer’s eye is our different date of birth. Blurbs help to watermark my work as mine, not his.
It used to annoy me to think of readers crediting the other Chris Arthur with what I’d written. But, in the end, who really cares? What matters is that what we write is read, that the published words upon the page connect with other minds and hearts, that unmet others will engage with the ideas we’ve worked hard to express. In a hundred years from now, when I and my namesake are nameless dust, it would be nice to think that our words might still attract occasional readers — perhaps other Chris Arthurs among them. But it will matter not one jot what any of them think about the author, or what the author said about himself.
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Chris Arthur speaks with Cherise Saywell about the essay as a multifaceted and ‘heretical’ form, the notion of a ‘dangerously failed’ piece of work, and the encouraging fact that ‘If you can find the objects that speak to you, essays will follow’.