Tom Sutcliffe: Throw the book at clichéd blurbs

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The Independent Online

People have been having fun at the expense of a novelist called Nicole Krauss, who recently supplied a jacket blurb for the proof copy of David Grossman's latest novel and – by some distance – overshot the target all collegiate blurb writers must aim for, which is to deliver a sense of plausible enthusiasm while staying well on this side of outright hysteria. "Very rarely, a few times in a lifetime," Ms Krauss began, "you open a book and when you close it again nothing can ever be the same." And after that she took the brakes off: not only is David Grossman possibly the "most gifted writer I've ever read" (this may have come as a blow to Ms Krauss's husband Jonathan Safran Foer) but he is – in startlingly direct fashion – what Stalin called an engineer of the human soul. "To read it," Ms Krauss said of his book, "is to have yourself taken apart, undone, touched at the place of your own essence; it is to be turned back, as if after a long absence, into a human being." The perfect read then, if you're feeling in need of the spiritual equivalent of a 50,000-mile service.

If Nicole Krauss was a less serious writer (or a sworn enemy of David Grossman) you might suspect her of satirical intent here. It's also just possible, I suppose, that she is the victim of a hoax or – and this would be exciting – that Grossman's book really is as good as she says it is. But I think she's just inexperienced in this literary form, which requires a very judicious control of tone. I'm speaking only of fellow author puffs here – rather than review quotes. Because whereas the anonymous reviewer doesn't have to worry too much about thrashing through the well-trodden superlatives you can see that a named author wouldn't want his or her name appearing alongside an out and out cliché. They have to praise without resorting to the boilerplate – and they also have to remember that their judgement is on the line. And the thing can be done with some subtlety. Take Jonathan Franzen's blurb for Adam Haslett's novel Union Atlantic: "It's been a long time since we've seen an American novelist reach for so much and achieve so much of what he's reached for." An elegantly balanced sentence, I think you'll agree and broadly redolent of approval but also brilliantly non-committal. Was Haslett over-reaching in the first place and exactly how big is the gap between ambition and result? Only reading the book will tell you, and getting you to do that is the point of the exercise after all.

Or do it as Colm Tóibí*does it with Marina Endicott's book Good to a Fault, which he describes as "witty and wise, light and dark, with many unexpected moments". The least you could expect from a novel, you might think, but it doesn't sound like faint praise and could effectively be adapted for countless other books too. I've become fond of author blurbs, reading for the Booker this year, but I've also learned that they are no more reliable than any other form of jacket blandishment, despite the obvious calculation behind them, which is that another practitioner should know better than a mere reviewer. It's true that they sometimes tell you precisely what you want to know in a way not intended by their writers: Sophie Kinsella's phrase "Lisa Jewell's writing is a like a big warm hug" will no doubt draw in some readers but operated for me like the yellow stripes around a wasp. True too that the real informational content is often contained not in the quote but in the name. When Antony Beevor writes "I literally could not put it down" on the cover of Helen Dunmore's The Betrayal, you don't spend a lot of time picturing him hopping round the house with the novel inextricably glued to his hand. You simply think, "Oh... I liked Stalingrad... perhaps I'll try this one... she must have got the details right." But mostly you know they're there because those involved were too embarrassed – or too friendly – to say no when they were asked. That, perhaps, was Ms Krauss's most embarrassing error. She thought it had to be heartfelt.

The simple art of spotting the difference

The National Gallery is running an excellent informal Spot the Difference game in its Fakes, Mistakes and Discoveries exhibition. There are beginner-level rounds – such as two images of an early 16th-century painting of a "Woman at a Window" that had been de-nippled and de-minxed to suit Victorian tastes, or the pre- and post-Restoration versions of the Portrait of Alexander Mornauer, which some less-than-scrupulous dealer gently nudged in a Holbeinish direction in the 18th century.

Neither of these would present much of a challenge to a six-year-old observer – since the alterations involve things like altered background colour, or hat shape, or facial features. But there are some graduate-level exercises in discrimination as well, involving copies made by the artists themselves. First-year students should begin with the two examples of Caspar David Friedrich's Winter Landscape, which appear identical at first glance but reveal subtle differences in technique and finish.

When you've mastered that, move on to the toughest challenge – to identify the differences between two versions of Frans van Mieris the Elder's lovely painting of A Woman in a Red Jacket Feeding a Parrot, one painted on copper, one on wood. Compositionally, there's barely a brushstroke between them – but one looks as if the dimmer switch has been shifted a fraction higher, or as if your glasses prescription has been tweaked. And, paradoxically, looking at two pictures simultaneously means one picture comes into focus more sharply than ever.

Raise a glass for Richard Francis

Reading Richard Francis's excellent novel The Old Spring the other day I found myself thinking of under-represented fictional spaces. Francis's book is about a pub – observed over the course of one long business day – and while it's true that this isn't a completely untouched territory for the novel, it's still the case that there's a mismatch between the amount of time people actually spend in pubs and their representation in contemporary literature. Perhaps this is because people who spend a lot of time in pubs don't spend a lot of time writing novels (though it's easy to think of several bohemian exceptions to that rule). But it might also be because public spaces in general are under-represented by literary fiction. The novel lives predominantly in domestic settings – venturing outside for significant excursions, but usually returning home at some point, to a private space in which feelings can be plausibly unfurled. That's fine as far as it goes, but it misses out on one significant virtue that Francis's novel has taken advantage of – the fact that public spaces bring very different kinds of people into contact with each other. I suppose it might be quite tricky to set an entire novel in a supermarket or doctor's waiting room or even an office (though there have been writers who've tried). But any writer looking for a bit of fallow ground should think about it.