The Dreaded Ask
by Joan Frank
strange happened when I sent out a handful of respectful queries,
some months ago, to writers I knew—and to some I didn't—hoping
they'd consider blurbing a new novel of mine.
The novel will be my fifth work of literary fiction. I also review
literary fiction every month for a major west coast newspaper. I've
won grants and awards—I await verdicts, as a nominee, for many
others. Do these elements count? Enhance anything?
Hard to say. Some of the writers I petitioned, thank heaven,
consented happily. (To them, I pledge lifelong gratitude.) Some
declined, with polite regret. Fair enough.
of whom I knew—never
answered at all.
This was a first.
Yes, these authors are perennially buried, under pressure,
buttonholed with similar requests by bazillions of others. Three
words would take care of it—sorry;
the petitioner's effort.
silence. Its knee-jerk translation, to the recipient, is
unprintable. The more troubling literary version might be: You
routinely experience this kind of rebuff, of course, from editors,
agents, and publishers. But from writer to writer, it strikes
me as bad-smelling news. It means we
practice a brand of survivalism wherein we step over (or upon)
anyone not bearing gifts.
the industry speak of this. But requests for blurbs, mused one
notable author I spoke with, "seem to bring out the worst" in
face, the logic's clear. Blurbing is generally viewed as that
slippery thing, a professional courtesy: one more item in the
hierarchy of duties incumbent on recognized names. Apart from
performing personal favors, few may relish the prospect of giving
time and energy to read something they may not, frankly, much care
Nonetheless, I felt stunned. The authors I'd asked had surely, at
some point, experienced my end—the
the same predicament. Mightn't they guess the effect of their
stonewalling? The petitioner will never know: was he out of line to
ask? Did he go about it wrong? Or was he just too obscure?
outcome is one reason most writers dread—with
all the air in their lungs—having
to ask for blurbs. But at some moment in their working lives (unless
they're perched at Olympus height, where minions presumably do it
for them), most writers have to ask. For better or worse—and
however much blurbing is dissed as false advertising—it helps
sell books. As a reader, I track them with care. (I am at once
interested in work blurbed by names I admire. If it turns out they
have lied, I'll approach their later endorsements with caution.)
covers everywhere showcase thoughtful quotes from worthy names. All
of it, one way or another, was solicited.
despite this vast commonality—even
unease of asking doesn't go away. The writer feels a little greasy
doing it, creepy and low. She also feels as if she's gambling a bit
desperately, wagering a faked or borrowed confidence: I'm betting
this material will please you enough
won't waste your time.
I admitted—in the
course of asking one Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist—that
I hated having to do it, she wrote back at once, and quite sternly:
don't worry about asking—you should. One should always do what they can for their career."
Her words forced me to rethink the project. I had to redefine it.
In essence, seeking blurbs simply courts another form of rejection.
And if writers who've begun waltzing (or sitting out dances) in the
great, noisy ballroom of publishing have learned anything, it's how
to transcend rejection. For heaven's sake, I once published a long
essay on the art of harnessing rejection—of
ultra-fine net to sift up that single seed of a magical yes.
The difference, this time, is in simply finding a way not to be
floored by the fact that the decline comes from a fellow artist,
someone technically in the ranks with you.
Deplore it, grieve for it, be boggled or baffled by it: In the words
of a modern existential slogan (that some people hate), it is what
Therefore: If, even feebly, we can re-straddle the old hobbyhorse
called professionalism—though I've never liked that word, redolent
as it feels of sales conferences in shabby hotels—we comprehend that
a writer's only clear recourse, in the face of one more rejection,
is to suck it up. After all, we've toughened ourselves to Great Wall
thickness against indelicate behavior from the industry's
So if the blurb quest parallels all the others we've taken up in the
business of writing—the task becomes simply that of seeing the
Ergo, an attitude adjustment.
A famous adage about attaining the bliss-state satori states
that before and after, nothing changes externally. "Chop
wood, carry water."
One resumes. Send the requests; keep the records—silences included.
And internally? The wounded ego will knit up, as it's managed to do
following every other slammed (or uncracked) door. If a friendship
was forfeited in the slamming, then it couldn't, alas, have been
much of a friendship. Though I admire the authors I query, I am not
looking to marry them. It would've been swell to create a special
bond, but if not, tant pis, as the French say. Non-response
serves better as category than as judgment. Enter the names. Find
others. Move on. Chop wood, carry water.
Now: while all that's very pleasant and sensible on its surface—you
may be scratching your head here; you may also be reaching into the
highest cupboard for the good bottle—might one be forgiven an
occasional spasm of secret revenge-fantasy?
As in, one day, boy, will those guys ever be sorry?
Absolutely! But as most writers know—from uncountable visits to that
muddy barrel-bottom—there are always, always better things to do.
First among them? What else: getting back to the writing.
is the author of four books of fiction: her most recent, a story
collection called IN ENVY COUNTRY, won the 2010 Richard Sullivan
Prize in Short Fiction (University of Notre Dame Press). She is a
MacDowell Colony and VCCA Fellow, Pushcart Prize nominee, winner of
the Dana Award, Michigan Literary Award, Emrys Fiction Award, and
Iowa Writing Award, two-time finalist for the Northern California
Book Award in Fiction, and recipient of grants from the Ludwig
Vogelstein Foundation and Barbara Deming Fund. She lives in Northern