Greatest story ever told?

Jeremy Black is making a stand against the grandiose claims made by far too many blurbs on the back of academic books

September 1, 2011

Errors in students' exam answers have attracted wry reflection on the pages of Times Higher Education recently. However, they are as nothing compared with the misleading character of all too many of the pithy commendations that appear on the back of academic books.

In the case of my subject, history, there is a particular problem as books are so often presented as "definitive" when, of course, the inherent nature of the subject denies such characterisation. As an academic discipline, history is an accretional subject in which we benefit from, and contribute to, the work of others, knowing that our own work will be absorbed, built on and superseded in the same process.

That, of course, will not do for the vanity of some authors, the exigencies of publicists and far too many blurb writers. If you say a book is good and builds ably on existing views, you are apt to find your blurb edited or dropped in favour of those who will say that the work is "definitive", "outstanding" or "transformative".

At every stage there is the argument by assertion in pushing works. Take, for example, an interesting and well-written recent biography of George II. This work is a competent and fluent contribution to a large body of literature by many scholars over the past four decades that has argued for the importance of the king. That, however, in the hands of blurb writers becomes "a groundbreaking study of a neglected monarch...a fundamental reappraisal...? the definitive biography...a watershed in our knowledge and understanding of Hanoverian England".

And so on. All too often, the standards of blurb writers do not match what we expect from students writing bibliographical and historiographical assessments. Indeed, it would be amusing to present some blurb copy as if it were written by students and see what mark it would get.

And this matters, because the blurbs play a role in the power processes of the profession, establishing reputation through assertion and guiding reviewers.

Argument by assertion has been aptly characterised by the American historian Richard Hamilton as "truth by declaration". These processes repay examination because they are all too potent. At times, the self-serving hypocrisy of the "I and my friends write brilliant works of analytical synthesis; others merely produce textbooks" approach is laughable, but it is scarcely only that at a time when the resources of academe in terms of posts, time, research grants and salaries are limited. Blurbs are a public side of the more covert ways by which reputations are constructed and destroyed.

At the same time, blurbs overlap with the world of commerce. Thus, academics are sold in public using language that is also employed in the highly coded and tightly closed game of professional structures and politics that most people cannot relate to.

Too often, authors are given too little say in what happens to their text once it is handed over. Indeed, I once got so cross that I asked for my name to be replaced by that of the copy editor. Blurbs are sometimes added or catalogue copy written with little or no consultation. So it is worth being difficult and insisting on being more than consulted. Having just spiked the blurb copy for a forthcoming book that I was sent by the publisher, I'm well aware that the tension between commercial pressures and authorial views can be strong, but this is a field in which we must be firm if the public face of academic standards is to mean much.

I have no answers, but I think that the unsatisfactory state of the present situation requires debate. So, I invite readers to send in examples, not only of misleading blurbs, but also of the more egregious instances of personal links between book author and blurb writer. It would also be instructive to know whether particular subjects or specialities attract especially conspicuous examples. And what about particular publishers?

Calling your puffs

Times Higher Education invites readers to take up Jeremy Black's challenge and send in examples of over-the-top, misleading or otherwise egregious book blurbs. The reader who supplies the best example will be rewarded with a magnum of champagne.

Submissions should be emailed to John Elmes at john.elmes@tsleducation.com.

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