What Does an Author’s Blurb Mean?

A few months ago I received an email from a reader who said she enjoyed my books but would no longer read them because I had endorsed a book with a scene that was very difficult to read because of the extent and type of violence involved.  I didn’t respond initially, because I didn’t see it as my place to try to convince her to continue to read my books (or those of other authors who also blurbed the well-regarded book in question).

But I found myself thinking about her note over the next several weeks.  What hat should authors wear when deciding whether to endorse a book?  I put on my reader hat.  If the book is good, I’ll say it’s good.  If it’s bad, I stop reading, because life is too short for bad books.  (If it’s not bad, but not especially good, I have a tendency to move it to the bottom of my long TBR pile and tell the author’s publisher I can’t get to it on their timeline, which is almost always the case anyway, even when I’m not white-lying.)

What I don’t do is ask myself whether I would have made all the same writing choices.  I also don’t ask myself whether people who like my books will necessarily like the one I’m reading.  The reader who emailed me seemed to think one of these should be the standard, but how would that work?  No two writers would write a book the same way, and I have no idea what makes my readers like what they like: the setting, the voice, the police details, the humor, a character’s love of Nutella?  All I can do is read the book and see if I like it.  Some readers will agree, for whatever reasons, but others won’t because the book’s too “fluffy,” or too violent, or set in the 1800’s, or involves ghosts, or has too much legal detail, or isn’t true enough to the law, or … you know, Book, I’m just not that into you.

Am I wrong?  What precisely does an author’s endorsement of a book say to you?

P.S. If you’re interested, here are excerpts from the reader’s email, followed by my response:

I just picked up [book] by [author], mainly because I saw that you recommended it as I am a devoted fan of your writings – I got to the [bad thing], put the book down and will never read one of his books again. The sad thing, as I am such a fan of yours and never miss any of your writings, is I will never pick up another one of your books, as several people at the company I work for will not, as anyone who can praise a writer that does so much [bad thing] and puts those thoughts into people to do, is not the kind of person that I want to read.  Once again, for people to understand, when we read stories we want to enjoy, [bad thing] is not enjoyment … [Goes on to say she will also not read an especially noteworthy author XX, who also blurbed the book] This cruelty was to the most extreme that I have ever read and by your praise you are saying that is ok too.  ..I will truly miss your writings as you are GREAT.

Most of my response:

…At every stage of my career, I have been so appreciative of the support I’ve received from other writers, so I do try to find the time to read the work of other writers who ask me to consider making a recommendation. When I read, I have to recognize that no writer will make the same choices I would, or else my beloved hobby of reading would become a miserable exercise in comparing my work against others’.  Instead, I decide whether to endorse a book by evaluating its overall merit.  Was it well written?  Will I remember it?  Do I think it brings something novel to the genre?  Based on those considerations, I concluded (as did many other writers and critics) that [book] was a book worthy of endorsement.   I don’t enjoy reading about [the bad thing], and certainly don’t approve of it (I don’t think the author was trying to say [the bad thing was okay]; the scene was intended to show the cruelty involved and the effect on a character).  I respect your personal decision simply not to read such things, but it’s a rule that I don’t happen to impose on myself as a reader.

Your note has me wondering whether readers construe an author’s endorsement to mean something other than, “I think this book is meritorious.”  If instead it’s a promise to ones own readers that every single one of them will absolutely love every single page, most writers would have to limit their endorsements to books that are extremely similar to theirs, and where’s the fun in that? Authors who avoid profanity in their own work would not endorse those who did.  Someone who writes “tough” books wouldn’t endorse lighter fare.  A writer who thinks the n-word is always unacceptable in his own writing would not endorse the work of someone who thought it could be used to help define a character who spoke it.  And a writer who loves [type of victim involved in bad thing] could not endorse a darn good book whose author believed as an artist that a grueling scene involving [bad thing] was a way to show the ability of human beings to be truly evil.   So, again, I do appreciate the note and the thoughts it has provoked for some weeks now.  I confess that I don’t understand the rationale of boycotting writers based on their endorsement choices — as opposed to the contents of their own books — but it’s not my place to argue.  I hope you won’t also stop reading all of the writers who have generously supported my work, or the writers who supported theirs. (***originally added then deleted: or else you will run out of books to read)

And P.P.S.  The [bad thing] was a scene that involved animal cruelty.  Does that make a difference?  I know some will say it does, but why?