Do celebrity book blurbs ‘blackmail’ readers?

Man Booker prize judge Colin Thubron has complained this week that star endorsements bully readers into admiring books, but it’s long been standard practice.

Setting cats among pigeons has long been an unofficial part of the contract for judges of the Booker prize. Remember Chris Mullin’s insistence on “zip–along” novels, or, way back in 1992, AN Wilson’s condemnation of the prize itself as “essentially trivial”?

This year’s flurry of fur and feathers was provoked by a tirade from Colin Thubron on celebrity endorsements. Some blurbs, said the veteran travel writer, “almost blackmail” readers into feeling that “you’re either intellectually or morally incompetent if you don’t love this book or you’ve failed if you haven’t understood it”. Some people, he felt, “seem to earn their living … saying: ‘This is the most profound book of our generation.’”

While he’s right to point out that “blurbs are outrageous in certain places”, it’s hardly a new phenomenon. The novelist Nathan Filer confronted the issue with disarming honesty at a festival three years ago. In a blogpost about the incident, he recalled “a kindly interviewer”, who hadn’t had time to read his debut novel, quoting a rather better-known novelist, who had. Filer’s The Shock of the Fall was “engaging, funny and inventive”, the interviewer assured the audience, in the words of Joe Dunthorne.

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