I don't want to seem churlish about this, but I have to say I find Levi Asher's position on "explanatory text" bewildering:
. . .I still feel strongly that back cover blurbs and review excerpts are essential to the "selection process" every reader goes through when looking at a new book. A publisher who presents a blank back cover on a novel by an unknown author, in my opinion, must not be thinking about how potential readers are going to look at this novel. The purist approach. . .sounds admirable, but I don't think it translates into reality. I am simply not going to devote my time to reading a book without some idea why I should read it. A novel needs a road map, and to fail to provide some explanatory text when publishing a new author is, in my opinion, a fatal mistake.
Does a serious reader really make a decision to read or not to read based on blurbs and "review excerpts"? Don't we all realize by now that blurbs are simply advertising tags that often bear no relation to the actual quality of the book being blurbed? In Michael Martone's Michael Martone, we are told that "Michael Martone" was once a student of John Barth's at Johns Hopkins: "During that first class John Barth also offered to give all of his students a reader's comment or 'blurb' that each could use as each made his or her way in the world. Martone's 'blurb' reads as follows: 'Among our wealth of excellent new American short-story writers, Michael Martone is one particularly worth reading.' Martone has used the quotation, with deep appreciation, on each of his books. . .and on all the acompanying promotional material. Perhaps because of the abiding affection and regard he holds for his teacher's gesture, Martone loves the genre of the 'blurb' and is very happy to write one for anyone who asks." Barth's blurb is dutifully included on the back cover of Michael Martone, an example of this book's playful charm but also clear enough warning that we should indeed take the blurb as a formulaic "genre" that ought not to be taken seriously as literary criticism.
And why settle for "review excerpts"? Ought we really accept carefully edited excerpts as substitutes for more fully articulated commentary? If knowing what other people are saying about a particular book is important (and it sometimes can be), why not seek out the full-text reviews, either print reviews or blog posts about the book? Surely this can't be that time-consuming, and it seems a much better use of (and justification for) book reviewing than as the source of "excerpts."
Frankly, I almost always ignore not only this back-cover material, but everything that's printed on a book jacket, including the flap copy. My curiosity about what I will find in a given book is going to be satisfied only by reading a few paragraphs, a few pages, enough to inform me about the book's thematic focus and aesthetic assumptions. Sometimes it won't be safisfied until I've read the whole thing. (Sometimes it will be satisfied quite quickly and I'll decide it's not a book for me. But the blurbs and the review excerpts will have had nothing to do with it.)
I understand there's a limited amount of time and a seemingly unlimited supply of books out there. But I am troubled by what seems to be Levi's entirely passive approach to book selection: Tell me "why I should read it." Entice me with baubles and come-ons. Don't readers have some role to play in determining what will be worth reading? Elsewhere in his post, Levi writes of the book that occasioned his displeasure in the first place: "I quickly concluded that nobody will read this book, since the author is not a known name and the book package presents no compelling reason to dive in, and that was the end of my review." Is this what book reviewing has become? An attempt to gauge how popular the book will be? Quick dismissal of all writers "not a known name"? An evaluation of the "book package" rather than the book? Since Levi had been sent the book for possible review, couldn't he have been one of those who gave the book a chance and then let his readers know why they should read it or not? Wouldn't some genuine literary criticism be a more suitable response than criticism of the flaws in "packaging"?
Perhaps I'm just a blinkered "purist," but I've always thought books were published to be read, not to be scrutinized for their marketing devices.