You'd think blurbs must be as old as books themselves, but the actual word has existed for only 99 years. American humorist Gelett Burgess (best known for his very short fantasy verse about a purple cow) invented it in 1907 for an American Booksellers Association meeting. Everyone who attended got a copy of Burgess's latest book, with a special bookplate featuring gushing praise from "Miss Belinda Blurb". Somehow the name caught on. This is a true story.
My SF blurb collection includes this 1964 masterpiece of prophecy from Andromeda Breakthrough by Fred Hoyle and John Elliot: "This brilliantly conceived novel explores what happens when the computer is used to further the world ambitions of the dictator of a tiny desert state and of the unscrupulous commercial organisation INTEL." Amazing!
A blurb quote from A.A. Attanasio shows us how to praise particularly massive books: "Ricardo Pinto's The Chosen strikes the reader with great force." Anne McCaffrey's plug for the same novel went: "Pinto writes with an almost Donaldsonian/Feistian grip." Now is that an item of luggage or a secret handshake?
Gossamyr by Michelle Hauf has a carefully balanced comment from Susan Sizemore: "This book kicks butt – in a lush and lyrical way." Somewhat fainter praise, about as faint as you can get, appeared on David Bergamini's Venus Development in 1976: "Adventure beyond even Space: 1999!"
Horror blurbs usually promise to scare us rigid, like this classic from the Usborne Spinechillers series: "Full length spinetingling tales – too scary to read in the dark!" Sometimes, though, ungrateful readers may giggle instead of shivering. Fearbook by John L. Byrne was terrifyingly billed as "A horror tale of supernatural suburban terror in which a couple is stalked by a mail-order catalog with evil powers!" Perhaps the sequel introduces a malign copy of SFX.
Could any book live up to this blurb, and would we like it if it did? "A 'neuroscience fiction' novel, explosive with the force of a 4.5 billion of years of evolution behind it, guaranteed to liquefy and reform any brain with courage enough to venture within its depths." (David Jay Brown, Brainchild, 1988.)
Another puff promising more than can be delivered came from Time-Life Books, promoting their series Myth and Mankind: 'Fight with Lancelot. Feast with Arthur. Make love with Guinevere. And save 45% while you're at it.'
There's little room for scientific howlers in blurb copy, but this one stayed unchanged through six printings: "a tense and exciting adventure with subterranean reptile men – SILURIANS – and a 40 ft. high Tyrannosaurus rex, the biggest, most savage mammal which ever trod the earth!" (Malcolm Hulke, Doctor Who and the Cave Monsters, aka Doctor Who: The Silurians.)
Back in the world of myth, Book Club Associates make amazing claims for Robin Hood: the Man behind the Myth by "peerless historical sleuths" Graham Phillips & Martin Keatman: "In mythology, aristocratic Robin Hood became an outlaw in Sherwood Forest when Richard I was crusading. This riveting book shares new evidence that Robin was a Wakefield peasant who lived 1500 years later ... And that's just the beginning of the revelations ..." So, er, Robin Hood won't actually be born for several more centuries.
Psychic powers do unusual things in Christopher Stasheff's The Warlock Enraged: "On the magical planet of Gramarye, science coexists with witches and elves ... and telepathy is the most common means of transportation."
This blurb for David Leddick's 1999 novel The Sex Squad is mainly notable for the gay hero's name. "In the 1950s, seventeen year old Harry Potter moves to Greenwich Village, NY, to pursue a career as a ballet dancer ...' Even after changing the time to the 1950s and Quidditch to ballet, I'm amazed the author didn't get a midnight knock on the door from J.K. Rowling's lawyers.
Robert Silverberg had bad luck when introducing Warm Worlds and Otherwise by James Tiptree Jr. He wrote: "It has been suggested that Tiptree is female, a theory that I find absurd, for there is to me something ineluctably masculine about Tiptree's writing." Soon afterwards, of course, Tiptree was revealed to be the pseudonym of a talented lady called Alice Sheldon.
The best blurb I ever wrote myself was for David S. Garnett, who had asked everyone in British SF to plug his book Bikini Planet, sight unseen: "If science fiction's founding father H.G. Wells were able to read this astonishing novel, he would be alive today."
David Langford is trying hard to forget his 1980s blurb "The cosmic adventure of the ultimate soldier on a desperate mission beyond death!"