Sid Rosenzweig on blurbing

530 Magazine June 1, 1981

Sid during his time as film critic for Channel 13’s 530 Magazine. Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, June 1, 1981.

Jan 22, 1987

Democrat and Chronicle, Jan 22, 1987

Casablanca and Other Major Films of Michael Curtiz (Studies in Cinema, No. 14) , 1982

Casablanca and Other Major Films of Michael Curtiz (Studies in Cinema, No. 14, 1982) by Sidney Rosenzweig.

Rochesterians know Sid Rosenzweig as film maker, critic, reviewer, introducer (at theaters and festivals all over town), children’s drama author, as well as the longest standing member of SUNY Brockport’s Department of English.  Few know that Sid is also a blurber.

For decades, Sid has written the short promotional pieces found on the back or rear dust-jacket of a book.  A blurb can be any combination of quotes from the work, the author, the publisher, reviewers or fans, a summary of the plot, a biography of the author or simply claims about the importance of the work. (Wikipedia)

SIDNEY

From Sid’s days as writer at the Rochester Children’s Theater. (top, left to right) Democrat and Chronicle, Nov 22, 1991 and Dec 13, 1991; (bottom, left to right) Democrat and Chronicle, Sep 23, 1992 and Aug 27, 1992

As Sid is the only blurber or dust jacketeer we know, Talker inquired about this underappreciated, usually nameless and faceless craft.

Talker:  How many years have you written blurbs? On what topics? What are some memorable blurbs?

SR:

Talker: The blurb can be an elusive genre to define. The blurb is not an advertisement, a review, an academic précis or preface. How do you describe the form of the blurb and the role of its writer?  Is the blurber expressing a personal opinion or endorsement?

SR:

Early to mid-2000s. (left) Lynda Howland; (right) Sidney Rosenzweig. [Photo: Carol Kramer]

Early to mid-2000s. (left) Lynda Howland; (right) Sidney Rosenzweig. [Photo: Carol Kramer]

Talker: A blurber must master a range of styles and tones.  For example, you’ve said you sometimes mimic the voice of the author.  Upon what writerly skills does successful blurbing rely?

SR:

Talker: Is there an ethical element to blurbing? Will you blurb for a book you consider to be inaccurate or biased? At what price will you sell your literary integrity?

SR:

Talker: Somewhat randomly, I chose two books from my shelf.  One, Roland Barthe’s S/Z (translation, 1974), a dense but brilliant literary/philosophical treatise, became an academic sensation. The other, Leo Rosten’s Hooray for Yiddish (1982), was a best-selling, mostly humorously composed encyclopedia of Yiddish words, sayings and idioms.

Roland Barthes, S/Z, (translation, 1974)

Roland Barthes, S/Z, (translation, 1974)

Roland Barthes, S/Z, (translation, 1974)

Roland Barthes, S/Z, (translation, 1974) [From David Kramer’s collection]

Leo Rosten, Hooray for Yiddish, 1982

Leo Rosten, Hooray for Yiddish, 1982

Leo Rosten, Hooray for Yiddish, 1982

Leo Rosten, Hooray for Yiddish, 1982 [From Eugene Kramer’s collection]

From your professional perspective, in comparing and contrasting the two blurbs and accompanying material, what strategies, techniques and approaches to audience stand out? In S/Z, Richard Howard writes both the blurb and the Note. How often does a blurber get mentioned by name?

SR:

According to “Forget The Book, Have You Read This Irresistible Story On Blurbs?” (NPR, September 27, 2015), one of the first — and if not the greatest — blurb was by Ralph Waldo Emerson to Walt Whitman on Whitman’s self-published Leaves of Grass (1855):


Concord, Massachusetts, 21 July, 1855

A shot of the 1856 edition of Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass, with Emerson's blurb on the spine. Courtesy of the Drew University Library

The 1856 edition of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass with Emerson’s blurb on the spine. Courtesy of the Drew University Library

DEAR SIR—I am not blind to the worth of the wonderful gift of “Leaves of Grass.” I find it the most extraordinary piece of wit & wisdom that America has yet contributed. I am very happy in reading it, as great power makes us happy. It meets the demand I am always making of what seemed the sterile & stingy nature, as if too much handiwork or too much lymph in the temperament were making our western wits fat & mean. I give you joy of your free & brave thought. I have great joy in it. I find incomparable things said incomparably well, as they must be. I find the courage of treatment, which so delights us, & which large perception only can inspire. I greet you at the beginning of a great career, which yet must have had a long foreground somewhere, for such a start. I rubbed my eyes a little to see if this sunbeam were no illusion; but the solid sense of the book is a sober certainty. It has the best merits, namely, of fortifying & encouraging.

I did not know until I, last night, saw the book advertised in a newspaper, that I could trust the name as real & available for a post-office. I wish to see my benefactor, & have felt much like striking my tasks, & visiting New York to pay you my respects.

R. W. Emerson

Talker: How would Emerson’s blurb perform today? Still a winner?

SR:

SEE ALSO

A look inside the “readers’ page” from NYTimes Letter-to-the-Editor editor Tom Feyer

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