The Literary Blurb Economy

It is a virtual truism that the field of contemporary fiction is too vast and complex to grasp, too dynamic and fluid for the would-be cartographer.1 In the United States alone, 50,000 works of fiction are published each year, a fivefold increase since the 1990s. Even as literary coroners regularly announce the imminent death of the serious novel and its reader, the field of "literary fiction" nonetheless continues to grow. In consequence, scholars of contemporary fiction are often left trying to make sense of a literary landscape comprised of far more potentially interesting works than any one person can read, let alone classify.2

For authors and publishers, the growth of the literary field entails increasingly specific means of differentiating one's work and capturing the prospective reader's attention. The rise of the literary blurb in the twentieth century from occasional to ubiquitous is one of the more conspicuous developments in the industry's expansion of instruments of distinction. In soliciting public endorsements from fellow writers, authors and their publishers wish not only to borrow symbolic capital from recognized authorities but also to situate their work within an affiliative matrix of aesthetically, generically, or thematically similar artists. The motive is distinction, but few works are advertised as sui generis; instead, they are compared to the work of other writers ("Nabokovian"), producing distinction as a relative position within a field of qualitative possibilities. For the solicited author, provision of an endorsement may seem a relatively negligible task beyond the time necessary to read the work and craft the blurb, but they are themselves affiliating their name with that of another author and putting themselves in the often uncomfortable position of marketer. It is therefore unsurprising that the rise of the literary blurb has been accompanied by a wide range of attitudes toward and practices of blurbing among authors of literary fiction.

The blurb, then, is at once an instrument of distinction and affiliation, hierarchization and classification. As such, the blurb economy the system by which symbolic capital is distributed in the form of paratextual endorsement is also a kind of map of the literary field. Given that we tend to define contemporary "literary fiction" negatively literary fiction is not "genre fiction" or "young adult fiction" or "women's fiction" it is difficult to imagine how the world of literary fiction is internally structured and where its boundaries (separating it from the "non-literary") lie.3 Rather than think about this problem primarily in terms of textual features which, as Katherine Bode has recently argued, tends to dematerialize and decontextualize works of literature we should also consider how the field of literary fiction is constructed relationally by authors and publishers.4 The world of contemporary Anglophone fiction, a totality no less crucial to literary history for being imaginary, is not organized by formal qualities alone but by institutional, social, and commercial relations that, for example, may bind two aesthetically dissimilar authors or dictate whether literary fiction about women is recognized as "women's fiction." Authors shape the interior and exterior contours of literary fiction both how we classify different coteries or subgenres and whom we deem "literary" or "middlebrow" through the exchange of blurbs.5 Within the matrix of literary endorsement, the textual features of literary works play an important but non-determining role in shaping the literary field, as aesthetic similarity mediates and is mediated by social, institutional, and other forms of relation. While the practice of blurbing has been virtually ignored by even materialist scholars and dismissed as sheer cronyism by critics, paying serious attention to blurbing as a means of affiliation and endorsement reveals the ways in which authors construct and position themselves within the field of literary fiction, ultimately shaping our understanding of writers and their work.

When the blurb is mentioned in critical discourse, it is generally the subject of complaint or amused derision, a conspicuous metonym for the nepotistic culture industry literature has become.6 From Flaubert's "disgust" with the "manner of recommending a book to the public" to the present, many authors have themselves maintained a disdainful, prototypically modernist attitude toward what Annie Proulx calls the "hateful and inextricable tangle" that binds writers through the coercive need to request and bestow endorsements.7 Although the virtual enforcement of blurbing is worthy of suspicion and critique, accounts that emphasize only these coercive aspects fail to examine the complexities of peer endorsement or register the ways in which the exchange of symbolic capital affects our apprehension of the field of literary fiction. Instead, I consider the blurb as an established practice through which to examine the various modes in which authors position themselves within the literary field and exchange symbolic capital with their peers. First, I examine the history of authors' attitudes toward and practices of blurbing, establishing some of the norms of public endorsement and the distinctive character of the solicited peer blurb. In the second section, I use network visualizations to analyze the literary blurb system macroeconomically, exploring the affiliative networks that connect and differentiate contemporary authors. This essay demonstrates that insofar as these networks join both aesthetic and historical relationships between writers, they offer powerful heuristic tools for understanding the structure of the literary field and authors' active role in that construction.

A History of the Solicited Peer Blurb

Though I am unaware of any detailed history of the solicited peer blurb, the tale of the first instance in American literature is well known. Walt Whitman mailed a copy of the first edition of Leaves of Grass (1855) to Ralph Waldo Emerson, probably Whitman's greatest influence. Emerson replied with enthusiastic feedback: "I find it the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom that America has yet contributed."8 Galvanized by Emerson's response, Whitman brought out a revised second edition of Leaves of Grass in 1856, with the following excerpt from later in Emerson's letter printed in gold leaf on the book's spine: "I Greet You at the Beginning of a Great Career. R.W. Emerson." Emerson was not pleased to have involuntarily become one of American literature's first recorded peer blurbers.9

"Blurb" is an imprecise term, denoting many various paratextual elements. The word can refer to the jacket copy (information about the book usually written by the publisher or author, but unsigned), excerpts from previously published book reviews, or brief, signed statements of endorsement by other people, usually fellow writers and generally appearing for the first (and only) time.10 It is this last meaning of blurb that I will be focusing on here: specifically, solicited peer blurbs. "Solicited" in the sense that the overwhelming majority of peer blurbs that are used to advertise a book are obtained at the request of the author, publisher, or agent Whitman's case is peculiar in that he never actually obtained Emerson's permission.11 I use "peer" in the sense that the authors of the blurbs are colleagues, fellow writers of fiction and not critics or other non-writers.12 Two crucial features of blurb relationships are that they are voluntary and often uneven. The blurber voluntarily uses her name to help promote another author's work; this distinguishes the solicited blurb from the pull-quote excerpted from a peer's review of a book, the use of which the reviewer generally cannot control. By uneven, I mean that a blurb is a transaction of symbolic capital often, but not always, between authors with disproportionate amounts of symbolic capital and/or symbolic capital that carries value in different cultural realms. The most obvious example of unevenness is the established author blurbing another author's first book, as with Leaves of Grass, Whitman's first collection of poetry. This is a case of blurbing down, an author endorsing an author with less symbolic capital than himself. Another, more complex example is, say, Alan Furst's endorsement of John Banville's Christine Falls (2007; published pseudonymously, though not in secret, under the name Benjamin Black). Here we have an established genre author blurbing an established literary fiction author's first foray into genre fiction. In this case, symbolic capital cannot be measured according to a single scale but must be considered as value within an adjacent but distinct economy. Lateral blurbing authors with approximate symbolic capital blurbing one another is also a common practice. However, based on the thousands of books I have looked at, blurbing up is virtually nonexistent, as the blurbing author has no value to add.

Whitman's endorsement from Emerson remained an exceptional case into the early twentieth century, at which point advertisements in newspapers and on dust jackets became more aggressive. The term itself is attributed to the American humorist Gelett Burgess who, in his Burgess Unabridged: A New Dictionary of Words You Have Always Needed (1914), defined blurb thusly: "1. A flamboyant advertisement; an inspired testimonial. 2. Fulsome praise; a sound like a publisher." He goes on to poke fun at the book jacket clichés in fiction, their "agile adjectives and adverbs," tracing the blurb's source to the circus advertiser.13 As the definition suggests, Burgess was primarily satirizing the jacket copy written by the publisher rather than allographic quotations, but the term was soon used in reference to promotional text in general. According to Google Books' Ngram Viewer, the word's appearance in print increased rapidly between 1920 and 1935 and then, after plateauing, has steadily increased since around 1970. "Puffery," a term that predates "blurb," but is sometimes used interchangeably, also appeared in print more frequently during the 1970s.

While the blurb tends to be associated primarily with the hardcover dust jacket, this is not its only medium. Blurbs have long appeared in advertisements for books as well as on promotional material sent out to early reviewers. The blurbs that appear in these mediums are not always the same, either, such that the blurbs that appear on the jacket do not necessarily exhaust those that were collected and appeared elsewhere. Moreover, the introduction of the paperback led to blurbs appearing on the (non-detachable) covers of books and, eventually, often expanding to the first couple pages before the copyright material. Since the advent of the Internet in the late twentieth century, booksellers have essentially unlimited space to list a book's blurbs online, which again often do not correspond exactly to the blurbs that appear on the physical book. Finally, the emergence of ebooks has further complicated the presentation of blurbs. Many ebooks contain only miniature versions of the physical book cover, sometimes making it impossible to read the blurbs that appear on them; the blurbs that appear inside are usually replicated accurately, however.

The two nearest kin to the solicited peer blurb, as instruments of endorsement, are the peer book review and the introduction. The former would seem to be more vulnerable to ethical complications. Whereas the solicited blurb makes no special claim to impartiality, readers expect the review of a book not to have any conflicts of interest or relationship with the author. However, friends have long reviewed each other's books in national publications, either as a form of logrolling (quid pro quo) or a conscious effort at promotion. For instance, in anticipation of the publication of his close friend Andrew Lytle's first novel The Long Night (1936), Allen Tate offered either to blurb or to "review the book in a New York journal" the two forms of endorsement were understood as alternative (though mutually exclusive) options.14 Perhaps more common than such collusion is the exchange of positive reviews among peers. In the late 1980s, Spy Magazine began running a recurring feature, "Logrolling in Our Time," which "exposed" writers trading either positive reviews or blurbs (though without differentiating between the two). For instance, the November 1989 number prints glowing pull-quotes about Philip Caputo's writing from William Styron, Tim O'Brien, and Nicholas Proffitt alongside pull-quotes from Caputo about a book from each of the other authors. Such backscratching was presented without comment, but it publicized the reciprocal economy of peer endorsement.

On the other hand, while we generally think of the introduction (or preface, foreword, afterword, or what have you) as qualitatively distinct from the blurb, we might instead consider the peer introduction as merely an extended and more prominently positioned endorsement. Indeed, there have been cases wherein the difference is merely nominal. When Dorothy Canfield Fisher provided a blurb for Richard Wright's Black Boy (1945), Wright's editor Edward Aswell decided that "Instead of putting it on the jacket, I should like to insert it as an introductory note in the book itself, thus making it a permanent part of the book."15 Similarly, the back cover of the dust jacket for Robert Penn Warren's All the King's Men (1946) is dedicated entirely to a rather long blurb from Sinclair Lewis that could have easily been positioned as a prefatory note. Admittedly, many peer introductions serve what Genette calls an "informational function," containing personal, anecdotal, and contextual information that is rarely found in blurbs; however, the author's name generally functions in a way identical to that of the blurber: a cover that reads "with an Introduction by T.S. Eliot" as is the case with the first and many subsequent editions of Djuna Barnes' Nightwood (1936) is approximate in effect to a cover containing a blurb attributed to Eliot.16 So, while a peer introduction is generally more substantive than a blurb, the primary function of each is endorsement, and they situate an author within an affiliative matrix in a similar manner.

Perhaps the most significant thing to recognize about the peer blurb is that the name of the author matters far more than the content of the blurb itself; the speaker trumps what is spoken. There are certainly exceptions, but the fact is that the vast majority of blurbs, whether excerpted from reviews or solicited from peers, are formulaic. When "Suspenseful. -Stephen King" appears on the cover of a book, the primary value added is that Stephen King is endorsing the book; the cover might as easily read "Recommended by Stephen King," so long as the idea that the book is suspenseful is communicated elsewhere (as in the cover art or plot summary or review blurbs). For this reason, in what follows I often pay more attention to the blurber than the blurb itself.

Recent scholarship has shown that modernist authors, far from maintaining a position of strict autonomy from the market, were in many cases remarkably savvy self-promoters; this account is borne out in modernist writers' pioneering, creative, and often self-contradictory approach to blurbing.17 Ernest Hemingway's first major work, In Our Time (1925), boasted a jacket that took the peer blurb to a new extreme. The front of the jacket features a grid divided into nine rectangles with author and title in the center and six solicited blurbs from Sherwood Anderson, Ford Madox Ford, Waldo Frank, Donald Ogden Stewart, Edward J. O'Brien, and Gilbert Seldes in surrounding boxes. The back cover includes a blurb from John Dos Passos. The blurbs themselves are fairly long (and are extended on the inside flap and jacket) and generally gushing Ford calls Hemingway "the best writer in America at this moment." It is a striking initiation of a literary career, and immediately positions Hemingway alongside a number of avant-garde mainstays of multiple generations. However, the collection did not sell particularly well, and Hemingway partially blamed the cover blurbs, claiming that they "put the reader on the defensive"; F. Scott Fitzgerald agreed, advising potential buyers to "Disregard the rather ill considered blurbs upon the cover."18

When Scribner's reissued a slightly revised edition of the book in 1930, by which time Hemingway had become widely renowned, the cover was stripped of peer blurbs and boasted instead superlative review excerpts of his other work and a new introduction by Edmund Wilson (intended primarily to justify its reappearance). If the 1925 edition had attempted to coerce readers, perhaps too aggressively, into taking a chance on an unknown entity, by 1930 the evidence of his critical reputation was enough to market the same book.

The practice of solicited blurbing became increasingly common in the field of literary fiction after World War II, coinciding with the increasing professionalization and celebrity of fiction writing and the mass publication of books. To give one conspicuous example, Charles Scribner's Sons ran a full-page ad in the Saturday Review of Literature promoting James Jones's From Here to Eternity (1951). Underneath a large head shot of the young, handsome Jones appear solicited blurbs from Norman Mailer and John Dos Passos, representing two generations of war fiction. With Wolfe and Fitzgerald gone and Hemingway struggling to produce new material late in his career, Scribner's went all out to launch Jones, and the novel proved a commercial and critical success.19 That said, Mailer's blurb is, from a present-day perspective, strikingly measured (Mailer had asked that it not be cut down, and Scribner's complied): "It's a big fist of a book with powerful virtues and serious faults, but if the very good is mixed with the sometimes bad, those qualities are inseparable from the author. Jones writes with a wry compassionate anger which is individual and borrows from no writer I know. I think his book is one of the best of the 'war novels,' and in certain facets is perhaps the best."20 Mailer, who inherited Hemingway's competitiveness with other writers, was begrudgingly admitting that From Here to Eternity was "in certain facets ... perhaps" better than his own highly heralded "war novel." In this case, Mailer's mixed praise produces a kind of sincerity that is, at least to me, more persuasive than other blurbs' unmitigated acclaim.21

Indeed, contemporary blurbs, solicited or unsolicited, are almost entirely devoid of reservation.22 Review blurbs are cut down to the superlatives and the solicited blurbs that make the jacket seem to recommend the book wholeheartedly. As a case in point, the trade paperback edition of Chang-rae Lee's debut Native Speaker (1995) presents on its front and back cover sixteen review blurbs of no more than three words each: "Splendid. -New York Newsday"; "Tremendous grace. -VLS." Two other review blurbs are presented in slightly longer form, as is the lone solicited blurb on the cover: "A novel of extraordinary beauty and pain ... nothing less than brilliant. -Frederick Busch."23 This is not to say that the content of contemporary blurbs are meaningless or necessarily insincere, but the prevailing norms disallow any kind of critical or nuanced engagement with a book from appearing, even if the conclusion is positive. Comparing two books, an interested reader is left to decide whether "fantastic" or "splendid" connotes greater enthusiasm. The blurb is a transaction of symbolic capital that is also an attempt to augment the blurbed author's economic capital that is, to sell books. However, no one seems to know how important peer blurbs are to book sales, partly because it is difficult to isolate the one variable from countless others.24 That said, the fact of the peer blurb's ubiquity in contemporary literary fiction suggests either that publishers believe they can make a difference, or at least that their absence could be harmful to a new author's sales.

Many prominent novelists have eschewed the peer blurb on the grounds that they are not helpful to sales. In preparing for the publication of The Great Gatsby (1925), F. Scott Fitzgerald advised to his editor Maxwell Perkins, "This time I don't want any signed blurbs on the jacket not Mencken or Lewis' or Howard's or anyone's. I'm tired of being the author of This Side of Paradise and I want to start over." Lest his direction go unheeded, Fitzgerald reminded Perkins again two months later: "Please have no blurbs of any kind on the jacket!!! No Mencken or Lewis or Sid Howard or anything. I don't believe in them one bit any more." However, the fortunes of Fitzgerald's career and self-confidence were reflected in his softening toward the matter when he was readying for the publication of Tender is the Night (1934). Asked for blurbs to accompany the novel, Fitzgerald suggested that "I think there should not be too many" but sent along nine for Perkins to choose from. He continued:

As to T. S. Eliot: What he said was in a letter to me that he'd read [The Great Gatsby] several times, it had interested and excited him more than any novel he had seen, either English or American, for a number of years, and he also said that it seemed to him that it was the first step forward in the American novel since Henry James.

I know him slightly but I would not dare ask him for an endorsement. If it can be managed in any way without getting a rebuff, even some more qualified statement would be the next best thing to an endorsement by Joyce or Gertrude Stein.

Of course I think blurbs have gotten to be pretty much the bunk, but maybe that is a writer's point of view and the lay reader does not understand the backscratching that is at the root of most of them. However I leave it in your hands.25

When Tender is the Night was published, the back copy featured blurbed praise for The Great Gatsby from Rebecca West and Gertrude Stein (excerpted from The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas), as well as Eliot's now well-known claim that Gatsby was "the first step forward in the American novel since Henry James."26 Although Fitzgerald still exhibited ambivalence about the practice and was as exacting about the way his books were presented to the reader as ever, it is clear that he was willing to allow peer blurbs on his book in order to remind readers that his last novel, nine years previous, had a high reputation among his modernist colleagues.

As solicited blurbs became increasingly common throughout the late twentieth-century, most of the high-profile literary authors maintained an economy of scarcity by blurbing others only rarely. From a Bourdieuvian standpoint, refusing both to request and to give out blurbs is one way of maintaining a relatively autonomous relationship or the illusion thereof to the market. William Gaddis, for instance, long resisted any form of blurb transaction, which he explains rather candidly in a letter to his friend David Markson, who had asked Gaddis to blurb his novel Going Down (1970):

My feeling essentially is that a book really goes out on its own, for the human remains that wrote it to run along after it is suicidal since there's clearly no separating them until the mortal partner drops. I don't think "one decent blurb or two" is going to alter [Markson's editor] Asher's promotion at all, I don't think lack of them is going to deter it; and the whole God damned area is to me like trying to make magic that will shape a course already implicit and then, if the course takes the feared-for direction, blaming the ex post facto magic, or the lack of it. I've never had my name on anybody else's book jack [sic] or ad that I know of, I honestly do not think it would help sell a copy, it reeks a bit of self-advertisement though perhaps, out of a deep mistrust for human motives or rather of them and the abyss between them and their expression this is merely an extreme inverted vanity on my part. Because on the other hand I do admire the generosity of people of stature like, say, Robert Graves, Norman Mailer, TS Eliot writing jacket blurbs for Faber, all of these people quite open-handed. I don't know.27

Gaddis is here obviously aware that his aversion to self-promotion can become, or have as its source, its own kind of vanity, but he maintained his position nearly his entire life, apparently relenting to allow blurbs on the jacket of A Frolic of His Own (1994).28

Oftentimes authors have come to a hard position on blurbs only after accruing enough status to no longer need them. When Vladimir Nabokov's Pnin was published in 1957 before Lolita had reached the United States the jacket carried blurbs from John Cheever, Mark Schorer, Randall Jarrell, Edmund Wilson, and Graham Greene. In his review of the novel, Richard G. Stern ridiculed what he took to be excessive puffery, objecting to "the barrier I had to cross before writing down Pnin as a third- or fourth-rate book."29 Yet in 1963, when Evan S. Connell, Jr. wrote to Nabokov's editor seeking the now famous novelist's endorsement, Nabokov replied that while he enjoyed the book, "I am emphatically against blurbs penned by friendly fellow-writers ... Incidentally, my latest books are as free of these ornaments as were my very first ones."30 Similarly, Gérard Genette notes that Flaubert's seemingly resolute scorn for peer introductions (quoted earlier) belies his earlier, albeit abandoned, consideration of prefaces for others' novels.

More common among top authors than extreme abstention is blurb parsimony. Even an ultra-reclusive novelist such as Thomas Pynchon has blurbed around 25 works of fiction throughout his career, a small enough number that his endorsement might be perceived as genuine rather than de rigueur. Thus, when George Saunders's first collection of stories CivilWarLand in Bad Decline was published in 1996, Pynchon's endorsement ("An astoundingly tuned voice graceful, dark, authentic, and funny") was probably a selling point for those readers who enjoy Pynchon's work and rarely notice him sticking his neck out to vouch for another author, let alone a new one.31

Ralph Ellison provided brief blurbs for James Baldwin (Go Tell it on the Mountain) and Richard Wright (Black Power), and later Cormac McCarthy (The Orchard Keeper, and re-printed on subsequent books) and James Alan MacPherson (Hue and Cry), but declined requests from Gwendolyn Brooks, Claude Brown, and George Lamming, among others. Ellison's attitude toward blurbing highlights an ethical quandary of the practice. As described by his biographer Arnold Rampersad, Ellison was annoyed to be overwhelmingly associated with other black authors; he "was happier when a publisher asked him for a blurb for a translation of one of Ignazio Silone's novels."32 Insofar as a blurb transaction is a form of categorical attachment, placing a writer within a context of similar authors, blurbs can have the effect of narrowing an author's attachments to an identity-based field, rather than an aesthetic or social field. While Invisible Man was published without any solicited blurbs, Ellison's essay collection Shadow and Act was accompanied by endorsements from white intellectuals (and friends) Robert Penn Warren and Daniel Aaron. Of course, skewing too far in this direction can risk appearing as a desperate effort to demonstrate the approval of a white patriarchal establishment this is an agenda that peers like John A. Williams attributed to Ellison. The aforementioned example of Chang-rae Lee achieves a good mix of these strategies: veteran white novelist Frederick Busch describes Native Speaker in universalist terms ("extraordinary beauty and pain"), while Asian American author Gish Jen locates the novel as "a tremendous contribution to Asian American literature."33 Rather than be slotted into either "contemporary fiction" (which often signifies "white") or "Asian American fiction," Lee's novel appeals to both audiences.

Generally speaking, the number of solicited blurbs decreases as an author publishes more books and establishes both a reputation and a reserve of quotable praise for their previous work. So, a typical author's debut novel might sport five blurbs, their second book, a collection of short stories, two blurbs, and then just one, perhaps recycled from a previous work, on their third book. The most frequent exception to this rule comes in the form of the celebratory late-career book. In some cases, such as Joy Williams's recent The Visiting Privilege: New and Collected Stories (2015), the intention is to solidify a reputation in the form of a definitive volume. Appropriately, the front of the hardcover's dust jacket presents blurbs old and new from Jay McInerney, James Salter, and Raymond Carver attesting to Williams's general greatness, supported by Jim Shepard and Thomas McGuane blurbs inside. A slight variation on this phenomenon is exemplified by the tiny Green Writers Press's publication of Clarence Major's Chicago Heat and Other Stories (2016). Major's work has never gained a very large audience, but the press attempts to drum up his status among peers in featuring blurbs from Toni Morrison, Charles Johnson, Richard Price, Russell Banks, Gish Jen, Madison Smartt Bell, and others.

In most cases, though, blurbs have their greatest impact on the marketing of young or early-career authors. In some instances, blurbs can dictate whether a book gets published in the first place: in recent years, authors have been encouraged by their agents to collect blurbs for a manuscript as leverage for selling the book to a publisher; in such cases the blurb functions as a letter of recommendation. Selling debut works of fiction is difficult for obvious reasons. Most people gravitate toward authors with whose work they are familiar or who have gained a reputation over time. Debuts might be expected to have the unpolished finish of an apprentice work and, besides, one can always check back in with the author in five years if their potential has been borne out in the form of subsequent books. The first hardcover run is usually too early for the book to have been nominated for or to have won a prize, and advance book reviews are usually limited (Kirkus, Publishers Weekly) and not a differentiating factor anyway, as pretty much all literary fiction presents itself as having received good reviews. Solicited blurbs, then, are among the only potentially differentiating markers of quality a new book by a new writer can offer. Psychologically, the peer blurb does a certain amount of work regardless of name: even if I have never heard of "Laura van den Berg, author of Find Me" or "Charles Frazier, National Book Award-winning novelist," I acknowledge that this writer has professional support from fellow authors (and one who has won a prize, no less!). At a more concrete level, the endorsement of a book by an author whose work I enjoy might mean something to me. I am probably more likely to recognize the name of an author than a critic, and even if I know better than to think such solicited blurbs are hardly disinterested, I can always hold that author's judgment in less esteem if the book turns out to be no good.

At a broader level, peer blurbs situate an author within a tradition, movement, or genre. Just as Gish Jen explicitly positioned Chang-rae Lee within an Asian American literary tradition and Frederick Busch within a broader realist one, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's debut novel Half of a Yellow Sun (2006) carried a blurb from Chinua Achebe, encouraging readers to understand Adichie's work in the context of a Nigerian literary tradition. In other cases, blurb networks help to reify groups of authors as an aesthetic collective or movement. To take one example, a set of authors including David Shields, Maggie Nelson, Ben Lerner, Sheila Heti, and others has been grouped together by critics and readers under various headings, particularly "autofiction" or "reality hunger." The perception of these authors as forming a movement is undoubtedly aided by their own self-association in the form of blurbs: Lerner blurbed Nelson and Lin; Nelson blurbed Michelle Tea; Tea blurbed Nelson and Sarah Schulman; Miranda July blurbed Tao Lin, Elif Batuman and Sheila Heti; Heti blurbed Batuman and was blurbed by Shields. This is no conspiracy many of these authors voice appreciation of one another in interviews and to various degrees identify as part of an aesthetic trend but it is important as a form of literary historical group identification and a paratextual factor in interpreting their work, priming the reader to interact with and think about texts in certain ways rather than others.

The Literary Blurb Economy

The foregoing anecdotal history of the literary blurb illuminates a handful of well-known authors' various approaches to the practice of blurbing, underscoring the ways in which writers (and their publishers) construct an affiliative matrix for their work. This is microeconomics. In order to understand the literary blurb economy "at scale," however, it is necessary to zoom out from the individual author and bring into view the larger field they have collectively constructed through their cumulative exchange of symbolic capital. This interactive map of the literary blurb economy is structured by the exchange of over 12,000 blurbs by 2,519 authors. From Lynne Tillman to Glenn Beck, the majority of contemporary fiction writers of note are represented, though most of the authors will not be familiar to even the most eclectic of readers.34 For the purpose of clearly demonstrating the heuristic value of the literary blurb economy to scholars of contemporary literature, though, I will also be referring to a more selectively "curated" map of 528 authors (see Figure 1), the observations about which are consistent with the unabridged blurb economy. Gone, here, are hundreds of obscure authors as well as most writers of genre fiction; most of the writers who remain approximate what scholars normatively recognize as "contemporary fiction," authors whose work receives serious critical and scholarly attention. In essence, this version of the literary blurb economy represents a compromise between our relatively small, sketchy cognitive map of literary fiction and the unmanageably vast "real" structure of relations among all authors.35

Allow me to clarify the conditions of inclusion for this more curated representation of the literary blurb economy. I settled on a corpus of 528 authors, the vast majority still living, and pretty much all having published their most significant work after World War II. The focus is on Anglophone authors, though there are a handful of foreign language authors who appear on the map because they have established blurb relationships with certain Anglophone authors.36 After beginning with the authors who appear in anthologies, have won major awards, and are the subject of considerable scholarship, the primary criterion for inclusion was that an author have blurb relationships with at least three other authors in the network; in all, the majority of authors have at least eight blurb relationships, and the total number of blurbs represented in the network is 2,944.37 A bit of demographic information is worth going over. In terms of gender based on self-identification to the extent of my knowledge 230 (44%) authors are female, 298 (56%) are male. Taking into account the perils of categorization based on ethnicity, 143 (27%) authors are nonwhite and 385 (73%) white (including Jewish authors). Needless to say, both white and male authors are overrepresented compared to the current United States population.38 While this might well reflect my own limitations, this overrepresentation may instead reflect real ethnic and gender imbalance within literary fiction.39 It is also possible that, within the blurb economy, white male authors are more likely than others to give and/or receive blurbs from well-known authors: if true, the blurb economy would have to be considered diachronically as a recursive loop in which white male authors with significant symbolic capital help to reproduce inequality by endorsing white male authors more than others. Even if this is exaggerating the importance of peer blurbs relative to other instruments of valuation, the blurb should still be considered as one element among many in the distribution of symbolic (and economic) capital.

Fig. 1 The curated representation of the blurb economy above includes 528 authors. Only a selection of nodes are labeled for ease of reading. Node size is determined by the number of blurbs provided to other authors in the network. Node color represents an algorithmically generated classification of authors into nine different groups based on shared connections. An interactive version of the above network can be accessed here.

Now, a quick guide to reading the blurb economy. Nodes (representing individual authors) closer to the center can be thought of as relatively cosmopolitan, with connections to various different social-aesthetic subgroups. Jennifer Egan, for example, occupies a position near the center, as she has connections which range from Robert Stone (located in the relatively realist neighborhood of authors in the upper left section of the network) to Emma Straub (located in the lower right section among other genre-curious literary authors). Nodes farther from the center, in contrast, tend to be connected to a relatively restricted set of writers. Nelson Algren's position at the top of the network, for instance, is an effect of his blurb associations being restricted to a tight group (including the slightly lower, and therefore more diversely affiliated Kurt Vonnegut and Terry Southern). The network is simultaneously an economy and a map; exchange is the basis of proximity, and the solicited peer blurb economy is not an open market authors do not read every manuscript and then decide to endorse the ones they most enjoy; nor do incipient authors solicit blurbs only from the five or ten most prestigious writers. On the contrary, the economy is controlled, in part, by a number of factors ranging from the qualitative character of the work (authors may enjoy fiction utterly unlike that which they write, but they are more likely to be solicited to endorse work comparable to their own) to their personal and institutional affiliations. The literary blurb economy thus allows for a view of the world of contemporary fiction that reveals the complex web of connection binding nearly every significant author of Anglophone fiction.

A macroeconomic view of the literary blurb network brings into relief the extent to which a sociology of the literary field must account for the complex mélange of social, institutional, generic, and aesthetic relations between authors. By way of illustration, it has been common in recent years to affirm the polarization of the literary field represented by Jonathan Franzen's anti-postmodern essay "Mr. Difficult" and Ben Marcus's defense of experimentalism in response.40 In 1996, Franzen published a brief piece in the New Yorker relating an episode in which he'd been asked by the small press FC2 to consider blurbing Evan Dara's The Lost Scrapbook (1995) but mistook the package for a bomb. The punchline was the contrast between an explosive device and a postmodern novel: "I was left with a yellow-and-lavender copy of 'The Lost Scrapbook,' to which adhered, like a nostalgia, those moments when a book had seemed to me potentially explosive."41 Marcus observed in his response to Franzen that this gratuitous shot at a struggling press was a kind of warm-up for his subsequent critiques of literary postmodernism and its equation of difficulty with political resistance. It is tempting to read Franzen's devaluation of William Gaddis and elevation of Paula Fox as a straightforward move in a war of positions, distinguishing himself once and for all from experimentalism. And yet for all the differences between Franzen's bestselling The Corrections (2001) and Marcus's aggressively non-mimetic The Age of Wire and String (1995), the two authors occupy strikingly close positions within the literary blurb economy, with a number of connections in common. Franzen may have snubbed Dara and FC2, but nonetheless provided Diane Williams's Romance Erector (2001), published by Dalkey Archive Press, with the following blurb: "Diane Williams is one of the true living heroes of the American avant-garde. Her fiction makes very familiar things very, very weird." One of the other two blurbs on the back cover is from Marcus, and the recognition of both authors continues to be used to market Williams's work up through her Collected Stories (2018). Similarly, in his 2011 introduction to the re-issue of Donald Antrim's The Hundred Brothers (1997), Franzen declares that it is "probably the strangest novel ever published by an American" and lauds the novel as a "work of art that seduces you with its beauty and power and then maddens you with its craziness."42 In spite of the seemingly reactionary rhetoric of "Mr. Difficult," it is apparent from his practice of consecration that the target of his ire was not avant-garde writing tout court but the specific kind of postmodern fiction (and the mode of reception surrounding it) that he perceived to garner an inordinate amount of symbolic capital. Given Franzen's favored evaluative terms, it would seem that he felt that postmodernism, once peculiar, had become familiarly strange.

Of course, in many cases the means through which authors become affiliated are often inextricable: institutions foster social interaction, social relationships can lead to collective aesthetic projects, and so forth. For instance, Donald Antrim and Rick Moody are longtime friends, were both undergraduate students at Brown, are both clients of agent Melanie Jackson, and their novels share a number of aesthetic tendencies. It is not surprising, then, that Antrim has blurbed Moody's work and that they sit very near each other in the network, as the number of different associations likely has an additive effect on proximity. It is the broadly intuitive topography of much of the network that lends the more unexpected aspects of the structure legitimate intrigue.

To the extent that blurbs function positively to affiliate authors and negatively to distinguish them from others, the blurb economy manages to capture the multifaceted connections that shape the way we think about contemporary fiction. Attempts to map literary fiction on a predominantly formal basis inevitably result in contextually impoverished points of view. There is little in common, aesthetically speaking, between Ishmael Reed and James Baldwin, but their proximity in the network makes sense given a shared context of writing fiction that (among other aims) represented and responded to the racial crisis of postwar America. On the other hand, the literary blurb economy reveals latent ties between authors and literary factions that official literary history tends to ignore or overlook. Even Mark McGurl, who persuasively charts the structural propinquity of minimalism and maximalism, resorts to a tendentious account of the conflict between postmodernism and "dirty realism" in the 1980s. Although William H. Gass pulled no punches in his polemic against "that major social and artistic malaise called minimalism," there was hardly an unbridgeable gulf separating the two camps.43 McGurl represents Barth as dismissive of the minimalist school despite the latter ending the cited essay expressing pity for those who are too committed to either minimalism or maximalism to enjoy the other.44 In fact, Barth taught two of the premiere dirty realists, Mary Robison and Frederick Barthelme, at Johns Hopkins and Barth's endorsement of their works stands as a material trace of their association and mutual appreciation. A figure such as Gordon Lish, who McGurl presents as an avatar for minimalism, further complicates the divide.45 Though Lish is best known for editing and teaching many of the major minimalists, he also edited, taught, and/or promoted such decidedly non-minimalist authors as Don DeLillo, Sam Lipsyte, and Ben Marcus. Perhaps in order to avoid charges of nepotism, Lish does not have blurb relationships with most of the minimalists he touted, but his location in the economy next to DeLillo and other first-generation postmodernists is an ostensible quirk that in fact points to his complex position in recent U.S. literary history.

In addition to representing authorial connections spatially, we can ask what the field looks like at the group level. By measuring the modularity of a network, x number of communities can be distinguished within the whole depending on the resolution parameter, or degree of differentiation. Figure 2 represents one of twenty clusters detected within the curated economy. This group seems comprised of authors who, with varying degrees of literary ambition, incorporate elements of genre or the fantastic into their fiction. This ranges from bestselling authors such as George R.R. Martin, Neil Gaiman, and Lev Grossman to genre-curious literary novelists like Colson Whitehead and Jonathan Lethem.46 A figure like Gaiman functions as a broker one who connects groups of authors otherwise separate from each other between sides, bringing, for instance, Martin within two degrees of the more literary, relatively less popular Kelly Link. This self-positioning, associating himself with both the popular and the prestigious, not only reflects but is a key component of Gaiman's status within academia at present, an author whose work seems to straddle the edge between receiving broad scholarly attention and being relegated to genre publications. Most curious, perhaps, is the inclusion of Norman Mailer within this group. The association stems from Mailer's provision of blurbs for Samuel R. Delany's sexually transgressive novel Hogg (1995) and Gaiman's comic book Season of Mists (1992; part of The Sandman); the latter owed much of the highbrow attention it would eventually receive to Mailer's announcement on its cover that it was "a comic strip for intellectuals." While Mailer is generally remembered for the psychological realism of his early novels and the sweeping rhetoric of his mid-career reportage, it is worth recalling that he later dabbled in the fantastic and strange with Ancient Evenings (1983), a novel Gaiman admires.47 This aspect of Mailer's art and biography remains to be fully appreciated.

Fig. 2 Pictured above is one of twenty groupings determined algorithmically based on common connections. The network has been force-directed in a circular shape for ease of reading.

In light of the proximity of certain literary novelists to authors of genre fiction, the blurb economy allows us to examine the extent of the "great divide" alleged to exist between high and mass culture, literary and popular fiction. Figure 3 shows the unabridged 2,519-author network coded for authors who since 1988 have reached #1 on the New York Times Adult Hardcover Bestseller List (red), received the Pulitzer Prize or National Book Award for Fiction (blue), or both (purple). The graph is, in its general axes, consistent with Pierre Bourdieu's diagram of the French literary field in the second half of the nineteenth century.48 In Bourdieu's figure, the primary axes are degree of autonomy from the market (negatively correlated with economic profit) and degree of consecration (positively correlated with the age of its producers). In the blurb economy, there is a fairly clear polarization in the distribution of sales and prestige, broadly understood.49 The majority of the bestselling authors are clustered in the western portion of the network, and the greater share of the award winners positioned in the east. Practically speaking, this suggests that there is relatively limited interaction in the way of public endorsement between authors high in literary prestige and authors high in economic capital.

Fig. 3 Blue nodes represent authors who have won either the Pulitzer Prize or the National Book Award for fiction since 1988. Red nodes represent authors who have reached the top position on the New York Times hardcover bestseller list since 1988. Purple nodes represent authors who have achieved both.

However, one cannot fail to notice that the borders of the divide are rather ambiguous, with bestsellers like Alice Sebold and Wally Lamb occupying positions west of award winners Junot Díaz and Edward P. Jones. Although Sebold is best known for her hit novel The Lovely Bones (2002), she received her MFA from UC-Irvine and her association with airport fiction has not prevented such literary novelists as Colm Tóibín and Kevin Powers from requesting her endorsement of their books. Edward P. Jones, on the other hand, is drawn east by his blurbing of an author such as Marita Golden, whose affiliative matrix places her among black authors such as Pearl Cleage and Jewell Parker Rhodes who have had more economic success than institutional recognition.

There is perhaps some validity to reading the network linearly from highbrow to middlebrow to lowbrow, so long as we keep in mind that such labels apply not to the fiction itself but the affiliations the authors have formed. Six of the seven authors who have published both a bestselling novel and won a major award in the last thirty years are near the horizontal center of the network, befitting their combination of economic capital and peer recognition. Other centrally-located novelists such as Richard Russo and Geraldine Brooks have won the Pulitzer Prize but are rarely mentioned in literary scholarship, occupying a strange zone that might be called the literary middlebrow. That interpreting the network hierarchically from high to low must be understood in terms of authorial self-positioning is evident from the case of Franzen, whose location seems an approximate reflection of his notorious contretemps with Oprah Winfrey's Book Club. Whereas it is unlikely to surprise or much perturb anyone when an author such as William H. Gass (located near Gaddis in the far west) distances himself from popular fiction, Franzen's public fear of association with Oprah and the bestselling authors she typically endorsed seemed at odds with the popularity and accessibility of The Corrections. As Evan Brier has observed, "Franzen seemed to be trying to have it all ways, pronouncing himself too good for the book club but not renouncing it or its commercial benefits."50 Although Franzen was eventually uninvited from the Book Club and his stance was widely criticized, he has in some sense succeeded in having it both ways his subsequent novel Freedom (2010) was named an Oprah Book Club selection and became a #1 New York Times bestseller, and yet he continues to limit his endorsements primarily to figures of the "high-literary tradition" he was originally so concerned with preserving.

Insofar as most of the authors within the contemporary blurb economy are natives of the Program Era, we might reasonably expect the most significant mediating institution to be the university. In point of fact, the blurb economy is appreciably mediated by relationships based on university affiliation. For example, Jesmyn Ward, Charles Baxter, Peter Ho Davies, Jess Row, Celeste Ng, and Nicholas Delbanco have all exchanged at least two blurbs between them, and what binds this aesthetic medley of authors is their having taught or studied at the University of Michigan; however, while such a clustering appears primarily institutional, one could imagine reading this set of authors' work for traces of thematic or aesthetic commonality born of their social and pedagogical contact. Another possibility is to probe the degree to which two different cultures of Creative Writing Programs have developed in contemporary fiction. In Figure 4, authors who received their MFA at Columbia (28 total) are represented in red and those who received their MFA at Iowa (52 total) in blue. It is immediately apparent that the graduates of these respective schools generally occupy two different regions of the map. True, there is a relative mix near the center, but it seems clear that the graduates of the two programs generally endorse and are endorsed by different authors. While this might seem to add credence to the "Two Cultures" thesis put forward by Chad Harbach in MFA vs. NYC, the network actually suggests that the most centrally connected authors are MFA and NYC.51 Consider: the authors with the five most transactions are Gary Shteyngart, Sam Lipsyte, George Saunders, Edmund White, and Jonathan Franzen. Shteyngart and Lipsyte both teach at Columbia, Saunders teaches at Syracuse, and White teaches at Princeton; only Franzen breaks the mold. While Creative Writing Programs continue to expand across the nation and globe, the center has begun to shift from Iowa City to Manhattan.52

Fig. 4 Red nodes represent authors who received an MFA at Columbia University. Blue nodes represent authors who received an MFA at the University of Iowa.

Mapping the literary blurb economy further allows for critical insight on the ethnic composition of the literary field. When the authors are coded in terms of ethnicity (Figure 5), the centrality of whiteness in literary fiction becomes starkly apparent. The majority of nonwhite authors are clustered at the fringes of one side of the network; the center is overwhelmingly composed of white authors, and in terms of statistical centrality, only 2 of the top 33 Junot Díaz and Salman Rushdie are nonwhite.53 If we look closely, we do find certain nonwhite authors in the predominantly white neighborhoods (a graphic metaphor that itself brings home grim parallels with the spatial distribution of ethnicity in the social world). Zadie Smith, Tao Lin, and Adrian Tomine can be found at the opposite end of the network, connected to white authors such as Chris Ware, Miranda July, and Clancy Martin. Genre seems to trump ethnic identity in the case of Charles Yu, who can be found in the neighborhood composed mostly of white science-fiction authors. Native American authors James Welch and N. Scott Momaday have closer ties to white Western American novelists such as Larry McMurtry and Wallace Stegner than the authors in the nonwhite neighborhoods. On the other hand, white author Paul Harding shows up in a nonwhite neighborhood, due to his affiliation with the University of Iowa and his endorsement of MFA graduates Ayana Mathis, Yiyun Li, Justin Torres, and Chinelo Okparanta. The nonwhite authors who reside near the center of the network are, logically enough, those who are have blurb relationships with mostly white authors. ZZ Packer's Drinking Coffee Elsewhere (2003), for instance, was blurbed by John Barth, George Saunders, Margot Livesey, and Stuart Dybek.54 Such an assemblage suggests that although most of Packer's characters are black women, her collection was marketed within an affiliative matrix of mostly white authors (and Creative Writing professors) whose imprimatur promises a general mastery of voice and craft.

Fig. 5 This figure represents the blurb economy in terms of racial and ethnic identity. The color coding is as follows: Arab in Purple, Asian in Green, Black in Red, Hispanic and/or Latinx in Blue, Native American in Yellow, and White in Black.

Examining the relations between nonwhite authors of different ethnic backgrounds (Figure 6), it appears that while many nonwhite authors exchange blurbs with authors of other nonwhite minorities (speaking to the coherence of "ethnic fiction" as a catch-all term), there is obviously a substantial amount of clustering within individual races and ethnicities. Two distinct generations of black authors appear adjacent but separately along the western side of the nonwhite network, while the small group of Hispanophone novelists are clustered dense in the southeast. Brokers play a compelling role here. Junot Díaz, who in 1999 cofounded the Voices of Our Nations Arts Foundation (VONA), which provides writing workshops for writers of color has clearly put the ideals of VONA into practice through the endorsement of books by writers of various ethnicities. Both the size of his node and its centrality on the map reflect a dedication not simply to advancing fellow Latinx authors but to promoting writers of color more generally and forming bridges between authors from diverse identity groups.55

Fig. 6 This figure represents the 528-node network with white authors (and the few nonwhite authors without any nonwhite connections) removed. Node size represents number of blurbs provided to nonwhite authors.

One inference that can be drawn from these examples speaks to a recent point of debate between Díaz and Kenneth W. Warren. In a widely-circulated 2014 New Yorker article, Díaz reflected on his experience at Cornell's MFA program in the 1990s, criticizing the overwhelmingly white composition of the faculty and student body.56 The following year, Warren argued that Díaz failed to note that the figure he cast as the counterforce to Cornell's problems Helena Maria Viramontes, hired after Díaz had graduated was herself a product of the Creative Writing Program (at UC-Irvine).57 Drawing on McGurl's work, Warren's point was that the system of creative writing has long relied on student diversity (in the production of a "high cultural pluralism" aesthetic) and "the program" can be expected to autonomously produce a more diverse faculty over time. Analyzing the blurb economy, it would seem that the expansion of the Creative Writing Program has indeed produced more diverse relationships between authors in recent years. The younger authors of color including those who produce "high cultural pluralism" as well as those who do not tend to be connected to more and more diverse range of authors than those of older generations. It stands to reason that Angela Flournoy would not be connected to authors as various (aesthetically and ethnically) as Daniel Alarcón, T.C. Boyle, and Tony Tulathimutte if not for the mediation of the University of Iowa and the University of Southern California. Obviously, a blurb relationship is only a proxy, here, for implied contact and engagement with heterogeneous authors and their work.

Whether the blurb economy reveals the world of contemporary literature to be more segregated or more connected than initially expected is a matter of perspective. We can isolate patterns that suggest the role institutions or ethnic identity play in determining connections, and yet the network's very condition of possibility is that all authors are, however indirectly, connected to one another. Indeed, the most degrees separating any two nodes in the curated network is, fittingly, six. The network diameter (this longest distance) is between Ralph Ellison and Eleanor Catton, authors separated by gender, nationality, race, genre, and 71 years (Ellison died before Catton reached ten); and yet, even this path is fairly brief (Ellison --> Charles Johnson  --> Robert Olen Butler --> Sam Lipsyte -->Wesley Stace --> Joshua Ferris --> Catton). No other 2 nodes among the 528 are separated by more than 5 degrees. Thus, two authors that might seem antithetical (and indeed appear on opposite sides of the network), Cormac McCarthy and George R.R. Martin, are but five degrees of separation from each other (McCarthy --> Barry Lopez --> William Kitteridge --> Ron Carlson --> Stephen King --> Martin). The world is vast, but there are few monads.

The various representations, static and interactive, of the literary blurb economy presented here are merely a handful of perspectives on the field of contemporary Anglophone fiction unavailable either to the assiduous close reader or the formalist distant reader. In drawing on an assemblage of social, formal, generic, and institutional affiliations, the literary blurb economy calls attention to surprising patterns of disparity and similarity, and nuances current conceptualizations of the black box of "literary fiction." Many authors have expressed the desire for greater artistic autonomy, that their work might reach their readers with only their own name to recommend it, but such a dream was difficult to maintain by mid-century and is nearly impossible today for all but the most established writers. A greater number of books means finer forms of differentiation, and consequently the peer blurb has come to play a major role in specifying the character and value of a given work. The macro-analysis of this economy demonstrates, for one, that blurbs play an important part in reinforcing certain generic and social categories, but also that such divisions are more heterogeneous and porous than we might have supposed. The literary blurb economy foregrounds the history of deeds by which authors constructed, endorsement by endorsement, the inner and outer contours of the literary field. Whether viewed as "a hateful and inextricable tangle" or a gift economy necessary to the survival of new authors, this network of endorsement-based relations plays a crucial role in the constitution of how we think about "literary fiction" from within and without.


Michael Maguire is a Postdoctoral Teaching Fellow at Penn State University, where he completed his Ph.D. in 2018. He is currently completing his book project, Now Then: A History of Contemporary Literature in the University. The author would like to thank Benjamin Schreier, Kathryn Hume, and the anonymous reviewers at Post45 for their help in improving this essay.



  1. While I borrow the term "literary field" and such concepts as "symbolic capital" from Pierre Bourdieu, my analysis does not depend on or subscribe to Bourdieu's strong theory of the field and its wars of position. Later in the essay, I analyze evidence that both supports and challenges Bourdieuvian literary sociology. For a primer on these concepts, see Pierre Bourdieu, The Field of Cultural Production (New York: Columbia UP, 1993). I use "field" and "world" here interchangeably as metaphors for the imagined structure of literary fiction upon which any thought about the relations between more than one work or author depends.[]
  2. On the number of published books, see Matthew Wilkens, "Contemporary Fiction by the Numbers," Post45: Peer Reviewed, March 11, 2011. For a list of "30 times the novel has been declared dead since 1902," including many instances from the last few years, see Kelsey McKinney, "30 Times the Novel Has Been Declared Dead Since 1902," Vox, March 12, 2015. Scholars have responded to the problem of numbers in various ways. Franco Moretti launched his project of "distant reading" as a form of analyzing what he calls, quoting Margaret Cohen, the "great unread." Franco Moretti, Distant Reading (New York: Verso, 2013). Moretti's quantitative methods have been adapted by dozens of scholars, though their application to contemporary literature has been slowed by copyright law and more books than any present bibliography has been able to enumerate. Recently, however, enough contemporary novels have been scanned and rendered OCR-readable for scholars such as Richard Jean So, Andrew Piper, and Matthew Wilkens to perform text-based analyses and mappings of the field. Another tack, demonstrated by scholars such as Kathryn Hume and Caren Irr, is to read more, and expand the conventional archive of the monograph from, say, 10 novels to, in the case of Irr's Toward the Geopolitical Novel, over 125 books. See Kathryn Hume, American Dream/American Nightmare: Fiction since 1960 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2000), and Caren Irr, Toward the Geopolitical Novel: Fiction in the Twenty-first Century (New York: Columbia UP, 2014). One further alternative is suggested by Pierre Bayard, who defends the practice of active non-reading, that is, skimming or acquiring superficial knowledge about as many books as possible. Pierre Bayard, How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read (New York: Bloomsbury, 2009).[]
  3. On defining literary fiction negatively, see Gerald Howard, "Publishing," n+1 4 (Spring 2006).[]
  4. Katherine Bode, "The Equivalence of 'Close' and 'Distant' Reading; Or, Toward a New Object for Data-Rich Literary History," Modern Language Quarterly 78 no. 1 (2017): 1-26. For an exploration of the boundaries of literary fiction based primarily on textual qualities, see Matthew Wilkens, "Genre, Computation, and the Varieties of Twentieth-Century U.S. Fiction," Journal of Cultural Analytics, November 1, 2016.[]
  5. For example, when Kurt Vonnegut's The Sirens of Titan was first published in 1959, it was marketed as a pulpy work of science-fiction. With Cat's Cradle (1963) and God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater (1965), Vonnegut began to gain "serious" critical acclaim and peer endorsements from the likes of Graham Greene, Terry Southern, and Warren Miller. Consequently, when The Sirens of Titan was republished in 1966, its cover proudly bore Graham Greene's (unsolicited) remark that Vonnegut was "one of the best living American writers," and the back cover offered an excerpt from a Life review of Rosewater vouching for the author as "a man disposed to deep and comic reflection on the human dilemma."[]
  6. For typical examples of the discourse around blurbing, see Camille Paglia, "The Unbridled Lust for Blurbs," Publishers Weekly, June 3, 1996, and Herbert Mitgang, "The Secret of Those Rave Reviews, Or, the Confessions of a Pen Pal," New York Times, November 16, 1976. The few scholarly treatments of the blurb have generally analyzed the blurb as one element of a larger context, and/or with respect to a case study of a single author or book. For the former, see G. Thomas Tanselle, Book-Jackets: Their History, Forms, and Use (Charlottesville: The Bibliographical Society of the University of Virginia, 2011), and Dwight Garner, Read Me: A Century of Classic American Book Advertisements (New York: Ecco, 2009). For the latter, see Tore Rye Andersen, "Judging by the Cover," Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction 53 no. 3 (2012), 251-278, and Duncan White, Nabokov and His Books: Between Late Modernism and the Literary Marketplace (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2017), 155-162. Surprisingly, Gérard Genette's Paratexts does not analyze the blurb, the most likely reason being that, as Genette remarks, the practice is (or was in 1987) much more common in the United States than in France. Gérard Genette, Paratexts: Thresholds of Interpretation (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1997). For informative non-scholarly articles concerning blurbs, see Rachel Donadio, "He Blurbed, She Blurbed," New York Times, August 15, 2008, and Colin Dwyer, "Forget The Book, Have You Read This Irresistible Story On Blurbs?," NPR, September 27, 2015. On literary prizes, a form of symbolic exchange analogous to blurbs, see James F. English, The Economy of Prestige: Prizes, Awards, and the Circulation of Cultural Value (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2005).[]
  7. Quoted in Genette, 273. Annie Proulx, "Blurbs & Pufferies," Annie Proulx, March, 2003. Retrieved from Internet Archive.[]
  8. Quoted in Jerome Loving, Emerson, Whitman, and the American Muse (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1982), 91-2.[]
  9. Ibid., 96.[]
  10. Occasionally, jacket copy is itself written by a fellow author. The most well known case is T.S. Eliot, who composed unsigned copy for numerous books while an editor at Faber & Faber. For an account of this history, see Ronald Schuchard, "T.S. Eliot at Fabers: Book Reports, Blurbs, Young Poets," Areté 23 (Autumn 2007): 63-87.[]
  11. Over time, it has become customary to designate the source of a quotation by a peer if it is excerpted from a review or essay, probably in order to distinguish it from the solicited blurb. However, this practice has not always been followed, and so there is always a possibility that what appears to be a solicited blurb is in fact unsolicited.[]
  12. Genette uses the term "allographic" to denote paratextual elements written by someone other than the author or publisher; I use "peer" here in order to distinguish the author's professional relation. While most blurbs for literary fiction are written by peers, critics (such as H.L. Mencken), artists in other creative fields (such as Lena Dunham), and even politicians (President James Garfield's apparently unsolicited praise for Lew Wallace's Ben-Hur, used in advertising copy) are occasionally appealed to as influencers.[]
  13. Gelett Burgess, Burgess Unabridged: A New Dictionary of Words You Have Always Needed (New York: Frederick A. Stokes, 1914), 7.[]
  14. The Tate-Lytle Letters: The Correspondence of Andrew Lytle and Allen Tate, eds. Thomas Daniel Young and Elizabeth Sarcone (Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 1987), 375.[]
  15. Quoted in John K. Young, "'Quite as human as it is Negro': Subpersons and Textual Property in Native Son and Black Boy," in Publishing Blackness: Textual Constructions of Race Since 1850, eds. George Hutchinson and John K. Young (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2013), 86. Moving Fisher's endorsement from the dust jacket to between the covers did not secure its permanence, however, as later editions have cut Fisher's introductory note.[]
  16. Genette, 265.[]
  17. On modernism and self-marketing, see Lawrence Rainey, Institutions of Modernism: Literary Elites and Public Culture (New Haven: Yale UP, 1998), and Catherine Turner, Marketing Modernism Between the Two World Wars (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2003).[]
  18. Ernest Hemingway, Selected Letters: 1917-1961, ed. Carlos Baker (New York: Scribner, 1981), 173. F. Scott Fitzgerald, "How to Waste Material: A Note on My Generation," The Bookman (May 1926), 265. Several reviews of In Our Time mentioned the blurbs. One reviewer for the Plaindealer responded in the way Hemingway had suggested: "We come somewhat tardily and with a measure of trepidation to this volume by Ernest Hemingway. It has received praise beyond that usually given from critics and writers of national fame. Donald Ogden Stewart unites with Sherwood Anderson to sing a paean, to its merits, and the chorus is completed by such eminent authorities as Edward J. O'Brien, Gilbert Seldes, Waldo Frank, and Ford Madox Ford. With encomiums from literary leaders staring at us from the dust jacket it is not without a sense of our own audacity that we venture an independent appraisal." Quoted in Michael S. Reynolds, Critical Essays on Ernest Hemingway's In Our Time (Boston: G.K. Hall, 1993), 20.

    Others, such as Herschel Brickell, simply poked fun: "Mr. Hemingway's book carries on its dust-covers the enthusiastic recommendations of nearly everybody except Mayor Hylan." Hershell Brickell, "Tales Galore by Writers from Lands Far and Near," New York Evening Post Literary Review, October 17, 1925, quoted in Robert O. Stephens, Ernest Hemingway: The Critical Reception (New York: Burt Franklin, 1977), 7.[]

  19. Hemingway, meanwhile, was furious with Scribner's promotion for Jones, who Hemingway took for a younger rival. James R. Mellow, Hemingway: A Life without Consequences (Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press, 1993), 577. Surely Hemingway could have provided the most valuable blurb for the younger generation of postwar writers, but he felt antipathy toward Jones, Mailer, and Irwin Shaw for treading on "his" ground.[]
  20. Norman Mailer, Selected Letters of Norman Mailer, ed. J. Michael Lennon (New York: Random House, 2014), 75.[]
  21. For a similar example, see Sinclair Lewis's blurb for Robert Penn Warren's All the King's Men, which curiously ends with the complaint that "I wish Mr. Warren could have seen the Southerners who are called 'colored' as clearly as he did the poor whites, but even in Balzac you can't have everything." While it is possible that Lewis demanded his blurb not to be cut or altered, the publishers might simply have considered the slight reservation a token of authenticity. Unsurprisingly, Lewis's blurb does not appear on any later editions of which I am aware.[]
  22. As an exception, Ishmael Reed made creative use of negative (mostly unsolicited) blurbs for the first hardcover edition of Mumbo Jumbo (1972). The jacket's back cover boasts that "'The Work' of Ishmael Reed is a 'Laying on of hands' for American writing. He unites divergent factions," followed by nine deprecatory blurbs excerpted from reviews of Reed's first two novels. As with the case of Mailer, the hyperbolic language of the blurbs causes one to take notice; The Journal of Black Poetry calls Reed "crazy" while The New Yorker complains that "such gratuitous viciousness is not called for." The single peer blurb, origin unknown, comes from black musician and writer Julius Lester, whose contribution seems trimmed down to its most insulting form: "Cute ... sophomoric ..." Readers of the novel will of course recognize that the paratextual quirk is both formally and thematically consistent with the novel itself, though it has gone curiously unremarked on. For an analysis of the novel's innovative use of paratextual citation, see Beth McCoy, "Paratext, Citation, and Academic Desire in Ishmael Reed's Mumbo Jumbo," Contemporary Literature 46 no. 4 (2005), 605-635.[]
  23. Busch is thanked in the novel's acknowledgements, suggesting a prior friendship. The book contains a second solicited blurb, from Gish Jen, in the extended blurb section on the novel's first pages.[]
  24. Somewhat experimental conditions for assessing the monetary value of blurbs were created once, at least, in the case of Derek Van Arman's thriller Just Killing Time, when the novel's value dropped $420,000 on re-auction after blurbs from John le Carré and Joseph Wambaugh were revealed to be fabricated. Richard Curtis, This Business of Publishing: An Insider's View of Current Trends and Tactics (New York: Allworth, 1998). More anecdotally and nearer to literary fiction, Mat Johnson credited the relative success of his early novel Hunting in Harlem to its blurb from Walter Mosley after having been told by many readers that Mosley's recommendation had persuaded them to buy it. Jeffrey A. Trachtenberg, "What's an Author To Do With No Blurb On the Book Jacket?," Wall Street Journal, July 30, 2003.[]
  25. F. Scott Fitzgerald, F. Scott Fitzgerald: A Life in Letters, ed. Matthew J. Bruccoli (New York: Scribner, 1994), 140.[]
  26. It appears that Fitzgerald paraphrased Eliot's endorsement from memory, and I believe the original letter from Eliot to Fitzgerald is lost. To my knowledge, however, Eliot never denied the quotation.[]
  27. William Gaddis, The Letters of William Gaddis, ed. Steven Moore (Champaign, IL: Dalkey Archive Press, 2013), 272.[]
  28. A blurb from Gaddis's friend Louis Auchincloss appears on the front inside flap of the first hardback edition's jacket. In addition, blurbs from Don DeLillo and Mary McCarthy appear on the back, though these are excerpted from the Proceedings for the American Academy of Arts and Letters without attribution.[]
  29. Richard G. Stern, "Pnin and the Dust-Jacket," Prairie Schooner 31 no. 2 (1957), 162. When Stern's first novel, Golk, was published three years later, it boasted a flattering blurb from Saul Bellow on the front of its jacket.[]
  30. Vladimir Nabokov, Selected Letters, 1940-1977, eds. Dmitri Nabokov and Matthew J. Bruccoli (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1989), 343. See also White, Nabokov and His Books.[]
  31. Taken together, the blurbers for CivilWarLand themselves represent a fairly accurate index of Saunders's distinctive style. Besides Pynchon the back cover presents blurbs from Tobias Wolff (Saunders's former teacher and colleague at Syracuse University) and Garrison Keillor. In The Program Era, Mark McGurl describes Saunders's work as a "crossing of Carver's lower-middle-class 'loser' aesthetic with some of the surreal craziness and violent public-sphericity (if I may) of Donald Barthelme," though he might have easily substituted Wolff for Carver and Pynchon for Barthelme. Mark McGurl, The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2009), 403. The addition of Garrison Keillor, however, points to how considerably funny Saunders's stories are, more blatantly and accessibly so than the work of Pynchon or Barthelme. Though the publisher's blurb does not compare Saunders to any of his blurbers, the appearance and juxtaposition of their names implicitly communicates Saunders's literary influences and peers.[]
  32. Arnold Rampersad, Ralph Ellison: A Biography (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2007), 281.[]
  33. Lee is Korean American (born in South Korea but moved to the U.S. at an early age), and Jen is a second-generation Chinese American. While Asian American is a broadly accepted generalized identity both in society and literary studies, the association of writers from different ethnic and national backgrounds can have the inadvertent effect of erasing those differences under the sign of "Asian American," or in cases where one minority author blurbs an author belonging to another minority, "Ethnic." Of course, this erasure might be desired from a marketing standpoint.[]
  34. This network is composed of every author who has blurbed or been blurbed by at least three other authors in the network, drawn from the over 16,000 blurbs I compiled. The blurbs were collected manually using various means, including publishers' websites, Amazon and other online retailers, physical books, scholarship, and author bibliographies. I am not aware of anything approaching a log or index of blurbs beyond certain single author bibliographies. The data sets used for this article along with an updated set containing some 5,000 additional blurbs are available at All data visualizations were created using Gephi.[]
  35. One obvious limitation of this model is that it represents a diachronic phenomenon synchronically. Thus it cannot account for structural or positional changes over time, nor does it register the difference between, say, a blurb J.M. Coetzee contributed before he won the Nobel Prize and one he contributed after, his symbolic capital considerably augmented. The most significant distortion is caused by the expansion of the literary field and the increase in blurbing in recent decades. Because most authors born early in the century, such as Nelson Algren and Terry Southern, were most active during a period when blurbing was relatively less common and restricted to fewer authors, these authors tend to cluster together largely because they have more association with any authors of their generation than whatever aesthetic analogues they might have in later generations. For this reason among others, the network represents a synchronic snapshot of the present much more so than of fifty years ago. This was, for that matter, the primary intention. In addition, the literary blurb economy as represented here focuses on authors rather than individual works; consequently, the relations between works as such are mediated by relations between their authors.[]
  36. The oldest author represented is Wallace Stegner (b. 1909). The youngest is Brit Bennett (b. 1990). While the presence of figures such as Stegner or Ralph Ellison might work against the "contemporaneity" of the network, these authors insert themselves in the economy through their endorsement of younger authors who are still living and writing. The network's Anglophone (and, to a lesser extent, American) bias is the result of both pragmatism (my personal knowledge only extends reliably to Anglophone authors) and circumstance: as far as I can tell, the solicited peer blurb is far more common and has a longer history in Anglophone publishing than in other countries.[]
  37. A small number of the transactions represented are introductions rather than blurbs. As I discussed in the previous section, the presence of an introduction often functions in the same general way as a blurb in promotional copy. Occasionally, introductions are excerpted and become blurbs in later editions that lack the introduction itself. In addition, I generally avoided collecting blurbs for an author's non-fictional work. So, for instance, I did not collect blurbs for Denis Johnson's poetry or Zadie Smith's essay collections.[]
  38. The racial and ethnic composition is more specifically as follows, again with the caveat that I could be occasionally mistaken: 56 Black, 48 Asian, 23 Hispanic or Latino/a, 9 Arab, and 7 Native American. Jewish authors (other than a few like Walter Mosley and Jamaica Kincaid, who are both black and Jewish) were not included in the nonwhite coding primarily because there was no observable "effect" of Jewishness on an author's position in the blurb economy. This would seem to support the dominant narrative of Jewish American authors' absorption into the mainstream beginning around the 1960s; that said, when the network is expanded to comprise more authors, a clustering of Jewish writers generally ignored by academia (e.g., Rebecca Goldstein, Thane Rosenbaum, and Katharine Weber) becomes apparent. To be clear, the problem of overrepresentation cannot be solved for by simply adding more nonwhite female authors. Because an author must have at least three connections to be included, the addition of one author (say, Susan Choi) might require the addition of another author (e.g., Michael Cunningham) for the minimum connections to be reached. In such a case, the attempt at demographic inclusion is partially counteracted.[]
  39. I attempted to mitigate my own selection bias by drawing on a variety of criteria for inclusion, looking, for instance, not only at nominees for the major prizes but also winners of such diversity-promoting awards such as the Women's Prize for Fiction and the Hurston/Wright Legacy award. However, the gender (im)balance of the curated network is probably less severe than in actuality. Analyzing the available data on the fraction of fiction books written by women in the past two centuries, Ted Underwood, David Bamman, and Sabrina Lee found that perhaps as little as 20% of published books were written by women in the 1960s, with that proportion trending up but still less than 50% as recently as 2007. "The Transformation of Gender in English-Language Fiction," Journal of Cultural Analytics, Feb. 13, 2018. DOI: 10.31235/[]
  40. Jonathan Franzen, "Mr. Difficult: William Gaddis and the Problem of Hard-to-Read Books," The New Yorker, September 30, 2002, and Ben Marcus, "Why Experimental Fiction Threatens to Destroy Publishing, Jonathan Franzen, and Life as We Know It: A Correction," Harper's Magazine (October 2005), 39-52.[]
  41. Jonathan Franzen, "FC2," The New Yorker, March 18, 1996.[]
  42. Jonathan Franzen, "Introduction," in Donald Antrim, The Hundred Brothers (New York: Picador, 2011), ix; x.[]
  43. William H. Gass, "A Failing Grade for the Present Tense," New York Times, October 11, 1987, 32.[]
  44. McGurl, 293-294.[]
  45. For a recent study of Lish that represents and analyzes the aesthetic plurality of the writers with whom he has worked, see David Winters, "Theory and the Creative Writing Classroom: Conceptual Revision in the School of Gordon Lish," Contemporary Literature 57 no. 1 (2016), 111-134.[]
  46. Jeremy Rosen has recently emphasized the fact that many literary authors who incorporate forms of genre fiction including, from Figure 2, Whitehead, Lethem, and Emily St. John Mandel have attempted "to differentiate their work from the great majority of popular production." While the exemplification of such distinctions in novels such as Station Eleven and Michael Chabon's Kavalier and Clay are persuasive, many of these same authors have not been too anxious about their own literariness to contribute and solicit blurbs from authors of genre fiction. Mandel's Station Eleven is blurbed by fantasy novelists George R.R. Martin and Erin Morgenstern; Chabon's effusive endorsement of Stephen King's Lisey's Story (2006) appears on the back of the novel's dust jacket just above a blurb by Nicholas Sparks. Such paratextual transactions do not contradict Rosen's specific readings so much as they complicate the broader claim that such genre-curious literary authors are at pains to distinguish their work from popular fiction. Jeremy Rosen, "Literary Fiction and the Genres of Genre Fiction," Post 45: Peer Reviewed, August 7, 2018.[]
  47. Neil Gaiman, "Birthdays," Neil Gaiman, November 10, 2007.[]
  48. Bourdieu, 49.[]
  49. The vertical axis of the unabridged blurb economy seems to correlate broadly with the age of authors, such that the oldest authors appear near the top and the youngest at the bottomthe large swath of authors who have neither received major awards nor published bestsellers at the bottom is composed primarily of Millennial authors.[]
  50. Evan Brier, A Novel Marketplace: Mass Culture, the Book Trade, and Postwar American Fiction (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010), 157.[]
  51. Although the title of the original essay and the essay collection promote the Creative Writing and New York City as alternative and mutually exclusive career paths, Harbach partly deconstructs this divide and heralds the coming ascendancy of the MFA model over that of NYC. Chad Harbach, "MFA vs. NYC," in MFA vs. NYC: The Two Cultures of American Fiction, ed. Chad Harbach (New York: Faber and Faber, 2014), 9-28.[]
  52. This hypothesis is not based on the blurb economy alone. In my study of younger authors, I have found such programs as New York University, Hunter College, the New School, and Brooklyn College to be catching up with such non-Gotham schools as Michigan and Virginia in terms of ascendant fiction writers.[]
  53. The statistical centrality calculated here is called undirected betweenness centrality, which measures the number of shortest paths which pass through a given node. Statistical centrality tends to favor authors who have blurb relationships with a high number of authors, but an adjusted value can be determined by dividing betweenness centrality by number of blurb transactions. Within the 528-author network, Gary Shteyngart has the greatest centrality by both of these measures. He has developed (and fostered) a reputation as literature's most prolific blurber, and his blurb relationships range from the genre-curious (Lev Grossman, Paul La Farge) to Generation Jones veterans (Jay McInerney, Mary Karr, Mark Leyner) to fellow immigrant authors (Aleksandar Hemon, Monica Ali, Manil Suri). Within the unabridged network, Stephen King emerges as the supreme broker. King not only connects authors of diverse subgenres (horror, crime, science-fiction) but has endorsed the likes of William Kennedy, Salman Rushdie, John Fowles, and Jayne Anne Phillips as well. For an analysis of brokerage in the context of modernist poetry, see Richard Jean So and Hoyt Long, "Network Analysis and the Sociology of Modernism," boundary 2 40 no. 2 (2013), 147-182.[]
  54. Exceptions include Packer's blurbing of Sarah Shun-lien Bynum and being blurbed by Zadie Smith, though as established above, Zadie Smith is positioned far from the main nonwhite neighborhood.[]
  55. Though I wrote this paragraph prior to the allegations of sexual misconduct against Díaz by Zinzi Clemmons, a young black novelist, I believe Díaz's centrality in the blurb economy helps to explain some of the polarization in the response the allegations have received in the literary world, especially among nonwhite authors. Fellow writers Carmen Maria Machado, Celeste Ng, Jesmyn Ward, and Alexander Chee have publicly expressed their support for Clemmons, while Helena María Viramontes and Danzy Senna signed an open letter against the media's treatment of Díaz and the severity of the backlash against him. Given the extent to which Díaz has redistributed his own symbolic capital to a broad array of nonwhite authors (including both Senna and Chee), it becomes possible to understand the amount of both goodwill and sense of righteousness he has within the world of literary fiction. For the open letter signed by Viramontes and Senna, see "Open Letter Against Media Treatment of Junot Díaz," The Chronicle of Higher Education, May 14, 2018. For an open letter in response signed by a number of scholars, see "In Scholarly Debates on #MeToo, Survivor Support Should Take Precedence," The Chronicle of Higher Education, May 25, 2018.[]
  56. Junot Díaz, "MFA vs. POC," The New Yorker, April 30, 2014.[]
  57. Kenneth W. Warren, "You Tell Me It's the Institution: Creative Writing and Literary History," Los Angeles Review of Books, September 13, 2015.[]