The Dreaded Ask
by Joan Frank
Something 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.
But several—some 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; I can't—humanizing the petitioner's effort.
Instead, silence. Its knee-jerk translation, to the recipient, is unprintable. The more troubling literary version might be: You don't exist.
Writers 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 sensitive artistsnow practice a brand of survivalism wherein we step over (or upon) anyone not bearing gifts.
Few in the industry speak of this. But requests for blurbs, mused one notable author I spoke with, "seem to bring out the worst" in writers.
On its 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 about.
Nonetheless, I felt stunned. The authors I'd asked had surely, at some point, experienced my end—the petitioning end—of 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?
The above 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.)
Jacket covers everywhere showcase thoughtful quotes from worthy names. All of it, one way or another, was solicited.
Yet despite this vast commonality—even communality—the 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 that it won't waste your time.
But when 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:
"Please 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 harnessingrejection—of casting the wide, 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 it is.
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 gatekeepers.
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 process differently.
Ergo, an attitude adjustment.
A famous adage about attaining the bliss-state satori statesthat 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.
Joan Frank (www.joanfrank.org) 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 California.