An accountant – call him Accountant A – occupied a modest office in a modest accountancy firm. Even though Accountant A’s office was one of the smaller offices, the Boss asked him if he wouldn’t mind allowing the new photocopier to be housed there.
‘Why does it have to go in my office?’ asked Accountant A.
The Boss explained that the new photocopier was too big to fit behind the reception desk.
‘You’d be doing us all a big favour,’ he said.
The large, bulky machine was placed in the corner of Accountant A’s office. Now, whenever he wanted to leave the room, he either had to go to the right of his desk and squeeze between the desk and the filing cabinet, or go to the left and walk between his desk and the machine. The latter route was easier, except when the one of the two receptionists – it was always the younger of the two – came in to use the photocopier; then there was even less room to move on the photocopier side than the filing-cabinet side. So if Accountant A wanted to leave the room when the receptionist was photocopying, he was, effectively, forced to go to the right. This might happen up to six times a day.
He could tolerate the physical discomfort of having to take the alternative route when the receptionist was in the room. What he found more troubling was the inexplicable tension between them. She hadn’t been with the company long, but she seemed to dislike him. She barely said a word to him, unless he asked her to post a letter or perform some other small task. Then she sighed and said, ‘Sure.’
Accountant A had sat behind that same desk in that same office with that same dull green filing cabinet for years, and now this enormous piece of hardware was taking up even more space. For years he’d worked patiently, not complaining, because he knew that the accountant who occupied the office at the end of the corridor – call him Accountant B – would be retiring before long. Accountant A had assumed that when Accountant B retired, he would get Accountant B’s office, which was significantly larger than his own. Having put in so many years of faithful service, Accountant A felt that the graduation to a more spacious office was no more than he deserved. He never complained when the Boss allocated him so much extra work that he had to spend evenings and weekends with spreadsheets instead of his wife and children. He didn’t protest when the Boss overlooked him for promotions. He barely questioned the decision to put the new photocopier in his office. Accountant A went about his work quietly and doggedly. Ultimately I’ll be rewarded, he said to himself; and if not in this life, then in the next.
But when Accountant B finally retired, the Boss didn’t offer Accountant A the larger office at the end of the corridor. Instead, he gave it to the retired man’s young replacement – Accountant C – who’d all but demanded the larger office even though he’d only just joined the firm.
So, not only was Accountant A denied the roomier office, but now the space in his existing office had been further diminished by the new photocopier.
‘Why can’t you put the photocopier in the bigger office?’ he asked the Boss.
‘Because yours is much closer. We can’t have the girls at Reception walking all the way to the end of the corridor every time they want to photocopy something. That’s patently ridiculous.’
Accountant A said nothing more. He knew it was too late anyway, because Accountant C was already ensconced in the larger office. They’d have to drag him out kicking and screaming. Accountant A decided that perhaps now would be a good time to look for a job in a firm where he’d be more appreciated.
In the meantime, he tried to make friends with Accountant C. They got on all right at first, but then Accountant A said something about God, which made Accountant C uncomfortable.
‘I’d better get back to work.’ Accountant C retreated to the generous dimensions of his office at the end of the corridor.
Even this, Accountant A could accommodate, but he desperately wished for an easing of the tension between him and the younger receptionist. It seemed to be getting worse. He sat at his desk. She stood at the photocopier. The room was cramped but they were miles apart.
He wondered why she disliked him. He was nothing but courteous and considerate, always taking the difficult, uncomfortable route from behind his desk to the door when she was using the photocopier. He squeezed himself between the desk and the filing cabinet, inhaling deeply so he could fit through the narrow space, all to spare her the inconvenience of having to move out of the way. He smiled at her when they passed each other in the corridor. She smiled back, but it looked more like a caricature of a smile than the real thing.
Once as he walked past the kitchenette, he overheard her talking with the older receptionist.
‘He’s all right,’ the latter was saying. ‘Just a bit quiet, that’s all.’
‘No matter how rudely I talk to him, he just takes it. Never gets angry.’
‘I think he might be religious.’
‘I feel sorry for his wife. Imagine being married to such a drip!’
‘You could do worse.’
‘I already have, believe me. Things are pretty rough at home right now.’
Accountant A crept back to his office.
Later that afternoon the younger receptionist was using the photocopier. Accountant A could no longer bear the silence.
‘If there’s anything you’d like to talk about,’ he said. ‘I’m… quite happy to listen.’
‘No, thank you.’
After a few more minutes had passed, he said, ‘I turn to God in times of difficulty.’
‘Please don’t impose your beliefs on me.’
A few days after that, Accountant A was at his desk, wrestling with a tax return. Nearby, the younger receptionist was leaning over the photocopier, mutely inserting documents into the plastic feeder. The machine tugged each sheet down into its guts, whirring and buzzing as it faithfully reproduced every page. It was giving Accountant A a headache. He laid his pen on his desk and waited, but the younger receptionist had a lot of photocopying to do that afternoon.
He decided to go outside for some air. But this time he chose not to go between the desk and the filing cabinet. Right now he didn’t feel like putting himself out for her benefit. He stood up, turned to the left and attempted to go between the desk and the younger receptionist, who was still leaning over the photocopier, feeding it paper.
‘Excuse me please,’ he said.
She sighed and straightened up slightly, but there still wasn’t enough room, and even though he pushed himself back as far as possible against the edge of the desk, his body brushed against hers as he passed. He left the building and went for a walk to clear his head. When Accountant A returned to his desk, she was gone.
Later that afternoon, the Boss phoned.
‘Would you mind coming by my office?’
‘Now would be good.’
As Accountant A entered, the Boss said: ‘We’ve got a bit of a… situation.’
Accountant A paused between the door and the chair near the Boss’s desk.
‘Mm. Mrs Ryan – Angela – has made a complaint. About you.’
‘Please take a seat. She claims you… behaved inappropriately. Touched her.’ The Boss cleared his throat and poured himself a glass of water from a jug sitting on his desk. ‘Water?’
‘No, thank you,’ said Accountant A. He suddenly felt cold.
The Boss sipped the water. ‘She says that earlier today when she was using the photocopier, you squeezed behind her, and as you did so you, er, rubbed against her.’
‘What? No, no. I was just trying to get past. There’s no room, you see, because of the photocopier. I had to squeeze past.’
‘Yes, well, be that as it may, she’s made this complaint and we have to take it seriously. So I think it’s best if you take some time off until… you know.’
‘But how long will that be?’
‘We’ll deal with it as quickly as possible, believe me.’
‘But… what am I supposed to tell my wife?’ Accountant A looked directly at the Boss and held out his right hand, as if begging for alms. ‘What am I supposed to tell my children?’
The Boss adjusted a framed photograph on his desk. ‘It’s not really my place to advise you on that.’ He looked at Accountant A. ‘This is the first time this has ever happened. Fifteen years and it’s never happened once! Fuck! Excuse me, I’m sorry.’
Accountant A shrugged, wondering what he was supposed to say.
‘Why did you have to squeeze past her? Why couldn’t you have gone the other way?’ The Boss passed a hand through his sparse hair. ‘This is all I need right now.’
‘She could have moved in a bit and let me pass.’
‘All I need.’
So Accountant A found himself driving home at three-thirty on a Wednesday afternoon. He could not recall having left work early before. As he drove, he thought to himself: if I was going to molest any woman, any woman at all, she’d be the last one I’d choose – the last one on earth.
Having permitted himself this moment of unkindness, Accountant A began to think about what he was going to tell his wife and children.
People who work in small independent bookshops often find themselves going to great lengths to satisfy customers, no matter how idiosyncratic their tastes might be. But the truly dedicated bookseller must even be willing to go beyond his or her jurisdiction and tackle non-book-related requests in order to please a customer, or potential customer.
Take the following case.
Some years ago I worked in a Perth bookshop which opened late seven days a week. Around 9.45 one Friday night, the shop was empty and I was in the middle of assembling a dump bin. This was in itself something of a challenge. The dump bin comprised two cardboard trays mounted, one on top of the other, upon a cardboard base. A number of hooks folded out of the base, their purpose being to lock into corresponding perforations in the trays and thereby hold the structure together. But every time I hooked one of these hooks into its slot, a hook I’d already hooked into a slot somewhere else invariably came undone.
As I wrestled with the dump bin, I happened to look up and notice a young man patiently watching. It seemed he’d witnessed the entire performance.
‘Having a bit of trouble there?’
I stood up. ‘Stupid things. Can I help you?’
‘Yeah. Do you have any shirts?’
‘Yeah – out the back or something.’
I explained that we didn’t have any shirts, and that he might want to try Myer when it re-opened for business the following day.
‘No,’he said.‘You see, me and my mate want to get into the nightclub up the road, but the bouncers won’t let my mate in without a proper shirt.’
It turned out they’d been up and down the street, trying to buy a shirt, but, apart from the bookshop, the only places open along the strip at that time of night were cafes, restaurants, and a cinema.
‘Where’s your mate?’I said.
He called out:‘Tony! Get over here!’
Tony appeared from behind some shelves. He was wearing an All Blacks top.
‘This is Tony. I’m Lachlan.’
There were introductions all round, and then Lachlan pointed to Tony and said:‘See? He can’t get in with that.’Tony looked suitably forlorn. I said that while I sympathised, we simply had no shirts on the premises.
We stood there trying to figure out how Tony might get hold of a shirt at five past ten on a Friday night in Leederville. Then Lachlan had an idea.
‘Hang on a sec, he said to me.‘You’re wearing a shirt.’
Being in no position to deny that I was wearing a shirt, I replied:‘That’s
‘And you guys look about the same size. How about we do a swap?’
‘Just for now. We’ll bring it back tomorrow. Plus we’ll throw in half a carton of VB.’
Although it was an unusual request, I felt no attachment to that particular shirt, which I’d bought at Target for $24.95 some months earlier. Besides, maybe my good deed would inspire them to purchase a book. So we adjourned to the rear of the store and exchanged garments. Tony and Lachlan, now both suitably attired for the nightclub, were exceptionally grateful and said I was a‘top bloke’.
‘While you’re here,’I said, as we walked back out into the shop,‘how about a book?’
‘Nah, that’s okay,’said Lachlan. ‘Maybe next time. But you’ve got half a carton of VB coming your way, all right?’
‘Don’t lose that jumper now, bro,’said Tony on the way out. The All Blacks top obviously meant a lot more to him than my polyester shirt did to me.
Or perhaps not. Lachlan and Tony didn’t return to the bookshop the following day, or at any time after that. Whether I was the victim of an elaborate scam designed to rob people of cheap casual menswear, or whether they’d simply overindulged at the nightclub and Tony woke up in a strange shirt with no recollection of how or why, will never be known for certain. All I could be sure of at the time was that I now had an All Blacks top in practically mint condition. I seemed to have come out ahead on the deal.
The All Blacks top is in my wardrobe to this day. Every now and then I put it on to commemorate the night I went above and beyond the call of duty in the name of customer service – even though this didn’t actually culminate in the sale of books.
But two questions remain unanswered.
(1) Whatever happened to Lachlan and Tony?
And more importantly:
(2) Where is my half a carton of VB?
So you have a question for me? I hope it’s about white goods. You are no doubt aware that I specialise in washers and, to a lesser extent, dryers. Look at my showroom – the poetry of all of those smooth surfaces! I believe in making things to last. People still appreciate quality. How else do you think I got where I am? But don’t imagine for a minute that it was easy! I started at the bottom, as they say. I came here with precisely fifty-four dollars to my name. I barely spoke the language. Ah, but do you know what transcends linguistic barriers, my friend? Love! That’s what! Love and, to a lesser extent, white goods. After I got married, I went to work for my father-in-law, who sold – yes – washing machines. In this way I found a completely new vocation, a new life. I was reborn, as they say. Fifty years have passed and there are still days when I must look in the mirror twice before I recognise myself: a successful businessman, a great-grandfather, a worthy citizen – if I may say so – of my adopted land. I have been blessed many times over, my friend. So tell me: what’s your question? … For Heaven’s sake! Why must you ask that? Why? I’ve already been asked that a hundred times and a hundred times I have given the same reply! We were at war, and when you’re at war different rules apply. They do and they must. War is a dirty business. But despite the dirt, I myself am clean. Clean! These people who go digging into the past, trying to make mud stick, as they say – these people are wasting their time. I am clean! I will maintain that until the very end. I will go to my grave without a stain. But for now the subject is closed. Please, ask me something about white goods – anything at all. Take a look through my showroom. Perhaps I can interest you in a nice washing machine?
If you can’t judge a book by the cover, can you judge it by the blurb on the cover? Whether supplied by a fellow author or lifted from a review, the blurb plays a critical role in the marketing of any title. The following introduction to the art of blurb writing (and blurb reading) will, to quote author and celebrated blurbist Oliver Herford, fill a much-needed gap.
A blurb’s primary purpose is to tell us that the book is good and we should buy it. One way of saying a book is good is to describe it as ‘readable’, as in ‘intensely readable’, ‘hugely readable’, or perhaps even ‘compulsively readable’. Clearly, ‘readable’ means ‘good’, even though you might think that being readable is the very least a book can do. If a book fails in this capacity, then there’s not much it’s good for, except perhaps propping up a rickety shelf. But it would be counterproductive to describe a book as ‘compulsively prop-up-a-shelf-able’, no matter how excellently it performs this function.
Perhaps a step up from ‘readable’ is ‘gripping’. The best way to convey that a book is gripping is predict the reader’s response to the actual pages in the book. Take these blurbs on Joseph Finder’s thriller Vanished. Note that they have been penned by other thriller writers.
‘I dare you to read the first page. You won’t be able to stop’ – Tess Gerritsen
‘Open one of [Finder's] books and you won’t be closing it until the last page is turned’ – James Rollins
It can be inferred that, while a readable book will stimulate you to turn the pages at a regular speed, a book like Vanished will compel you to turn the pages slightly faster. Blurbs on thrillers can be enhanced by inserting words like ‘chilling’ and ‘spine-tingling’, or asserting that the book involves a ‘web of intrigue’.
Still another way of praising a book is to employ the elegant phrase ‘life-affirming’. Philip Ardagh’s Guardian blurb describes young-adult novel Numbers by Rachel Ward (not the actor) as ‘Intelligent and life-affirming’. Another YA novel, Before I Die by Jenny Downham, is considered to be ‘Incredibly inspiring, uplifting and life-affirming’ (Exepose), ‘Incredibly life-affirming’ (lovereading4kids.co.uk) and ‘Ultimately… life-affirming and uplifting’ (JUNO). ‘Life-affirming’ can be interpreted in two ways: (1) having read this book, the blurbist has decided to go on living; or (2) the blurbist had already intended to go on living, but this book has reinforced that intention. Either way, it’s a useful phrase which can be applied to almost any book (think twice before using it on euthanasia manuals).
What about humorous books? How do we say a book is funny? There are two possible approaches. The first is to say: ‘I laughed out loud’. Sometimes this is written in upper-case letters, as in novelist Matt Dunn’s review of Robert P. Smith’s debut novel Up a Tree in the Park at Night with a Hedgehog: ‘I LAUGHED OUT LOUD, while cringing in guilty recognition.’ The other way is to describe the book as ‘wickedly funny’, as in ‘Augusten Burroughs’ new book is wickedly funny, painfully honest’ (you could achieve a similar effect with ‘painfully funny, wickedly honest’).
But what if you want to be a bit more imaginative with your blurb, and at the same time advertise your credentials as a serious reader? An effective strategy is to use what I call the ‘If’ technique. Here, the blurbist attempts to convey the flavour of the book by invoking the work of two or more other authors. Take this evaluation of David Guterson’s Snow Falling on Cedars from the Independent on Sunday: ‘If Truman Capote, Arthur Miller, Harper Lee and John Grisham all washed up on a desert island together, they might well come up with something like this…’
Here’s another from Sydney Morning Herald writer Erik Jensen on Kenneth E. Hartman’s prison memoir, Mother California: ‘If Charles Bukowksi had committed a murder and done time, this is what he would have written.’
Martin Amis himself has used this formula. Here he is on Will Self’s short-story collection, The Quantity Theory of Insanity: ‘If a manic J. G. Ballard and a depressive David Lodge got together, they might produce something like The Quantity Theory of Insanity.’
The benefit of this technique is that it enables you to show off your knowledge of other authors. The downside is that if the potential book buyer (PBB) has not also read those authors, they will be left none the wiser, and their resulting level of interest in the book – what can termed their post-blurb enthusiasm – will fall slightly below or at best remain equal to their pre-blurb enthusiasm.
A technique often used by master blurbists like Stephen King and James Patterson is the sweeping statement. Here, the writer uses simple wording to make a huge claim. The claim may be based more on personal taste than genuine authority, but it’s formulated in a way that leaves no room for argument. Below are two from Patterson. Pay careful attention to his use of the word ‘best’.
‘Her best yet’ (Look Again by Lisa Scottoline)
‘Koryta is one of the best of the best, plain and simple.’ (The Silent Hour by Michael Koryta)
Stephen King, perhaps one of the most prolific blurb writers in the publishing industry, uses the technique to great effect in this pronouncement on Neil Gaiman’s Coraline and Other Stories: ‘[Gaiman] is, simply put, a treasure house of story, and we are lucky to have him in any medium.’
King and Patterson harness the latent power of seemingly innocent phrases like ‘plain and simple’ and ‘simply put’ in a manner unmatched by anyone, anywhere, at any time.
But what about when a book is really, really good and you want to bring out the big guns? It’s difficult to go past ‘A tour de force’, or, even better, ‘an absolute tour de force’. On the other hand, is there a more unequivocal statement than ‘a classic’, except maybe ‘an instant classic’? ‘Extraordinary’ is also hard to beat (note the economy and power of a one-word blurb). However, most experts agree that you simply can’t top ‘a triumph’, except, once again, when it’s written in upper-case letters. The Guardian’s well-known review of Paul Torday’s The Girl on the Landing combined several of the above techniques (‘EXTRAORDINARY… A TRIUMPH’), guaranteeing huge sales.
Thus far we’ve examined the blurb as a straightforward endorsement. But every now and then the situation may arise where, for whatever reason, we are called upon to provide a blurb for a book we don’t really like. How do we tackle this problem? A neat example is supplied in the case of Will I Think of You?, a book of verse and photography by noted poet Leonard Nimoy, published in the 1970s. To begin with, the ‘blurb’ on the back cover is not attributed to any person or publication. Then the ‘blurb’ itself asserts that Nimoy’s book is: ‘…written with mature conviction and illustrated with extraordinarily appropriate photographs taken by the author himself.’ Note that it avoids any indication of whether or not the book has merit, focusing instead on the author’s good intentions; after all, any book, no matter how terrible, could be written with mature conviction. But the real stroke of genius is the phrase ‘extraordinarily appropriate’ to describe the photographs – not just because it diverts our attention from the poetry, but because it is a masterful example of a technique I call the ‘extreme cop-out’, in which the blurbist appears to be making a strong assertion while in fact saying nothing.
The technique is also used by Publishers Weekly in its assessment of Robert J. Sawyer’s sci-fi novel Wake as ‘wildly thought-provoking’. It disguises the cop-out ‘thought-provoking’ (translation: I can’t think of anything good to say about this) with an explosive adjective (see also: ‘compulsively readable’). Both are superb pieces of non-committal and yet extraordinarily appropriate blurb writing.
Returning to our study of unambiguously favourable blurbs, let me conclude with an absolute tour de force. I speak of Tom Clancy’s four-word masterpiece on Clive Cussler’s The Wrecker. It simply says: ‘The guy I read’. By making himself the blurb’s centre of attention, Clancy has not only torn up the rule book, he has taken to it with a blowtorch and stomped on the charred remains. It’s a risky move, and only someone of Clancy’s stature can pull it off. Whether or not Cussler is any good is beside the point; what matters is that Clancy reads him. And it cannot be overemphasised that Cussler is not just a guy Clancy reads, but the guy – the implication being that Clancy doesn’t read anyone else, at least no other guys. But even more importantly, we know from the sort of books Tom Clancy writes that he is an extremely tough dude. If he reads Cussler, then obviously he’s telling us to read Cussler, and I, for one, am not about to disobey Tom Clancy.