QuestionMarkWoman1922I don’t envy the book publicist who’s trying to pull blurbs from the “Books of the Year” list in the latest edition of the Times Literary Supplement. There are plenty of raves among the 47 writers and critics listed there — one of them, in fact, is my favorite Tolkien critic, Tom Shippey, on Nancy Brown’s “Song of the Vikings” (what a great early Christmas present for her!) — but there are also plenty of tricky, backhanded ones.

Here are a few of my favorite, slightly unfriendly comments about books from the list of 47 critics, along with my suggestions to that fictional publicist who’s struggling to find something blurb-worthy for promotion.


Keith Miller writes, “Jonathan Meades writes with his mouth full, so to speak, and he looms out of the TV like a bailiff; but I loved his Museum Without Walls (Unbound)…”

Verdict: Easy. Cut the first half about his mouth being full! Use the second half about loving this book!


Jonathan Benthall writes, “Less suitable as a Christmas present is Disquieting Gifts: Humanitarianism in New Delhi (Stanford University Press) by the American social anthrolopologist Erica Bornstein.”

Verdict: No idea. Skip it. Unblurbable. Would you want to pick up a book that announces, on its cover, “less suitable as a Christmas present”?


Helen Simpson writes,  in reference to the performance of a play, “Caryl Churchill’s Love and Information (Nick Hern) at the Royal Court was a brilliant scattershot fusillade of fifty-plus fragmentary scenes which whistled past at such speed that I had to read the play as well as see it…”

Verdict: It must have been exhilarating to watch this play. That’s the sense I get. But that word “scattershot” sounds disorganized and messy. That can be a good thing in a work of art, and thank goodness there’s the word “brilliant” to rescue it. I don’t know: I’d let the publicist flip a coin on whether to use that quote or not.


Hilary Mantel writes, “[Edna O’Brien’s] Country Girl is not a great book or even a good one, but it has exerted this year a loathly grip on me.”

Verdict: Only a mighty Man Booker winner can dole out this kind of backhanded compliment. How do you blurb this? You can’t. It is utterly, completely blurb-proof. And scathingly funny, too. My favorite out of all of them.


  1. Thank you — I wasn’t planning to write anything about it, but then it seemed like quite a few critics couldn’t bring themselves to give an honest, simple compliment. Maybe they think it will be taken as a sign of intellectual weakness or something? I don’t know. appreciate it. Let me know what I should be reading on your blog!

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