April 30, 2005, 8:14PM
''IN the blurbosphere," says Charles McGrath, recent editor of The New York Times Book Review, "has there ever been a book that wasn't acclaimed?" He considers that indispensable adjective of praise ó rooted in the Latin clamare, "to shout," also the root of "clamor" ó to be the key word in the publishing world's "language of hagiography."
Let's parse that. I define McGrath's blurbosphere as "the throbbing universe of book promotion," coined on the analogy of blogosphere, "the galaxy of Weblog commentators." Hagiography (not, as I first thought, the bio of Al Haig) is "writings about the lives of saints." Thus, in the straining-to-sell world of book marketing, we have a language that treats lesser-known authors like stars shooting toward the firmament of literary fame.
Acclaimed, in this fulsome lingo of book ads and catalogs, now means merely "the author received at least one good review." Widely acclaimed means "two or more, plus a cable-TV plug." Critically acclaimed means "it was decently reviewed in a specialized publication but didn't sell."
Long- is a beloved half-word adverb in the blurbosphere. The letters of Lytton Strachey, advertises Farrar, Straus & Giroux, regarded as one of the classiest publishers, is "a long-overdue collection." Whenever a writer has had a dry spell and taken forever to deliver, his book is hawked as long-awaited. On the other hand, if the author has a hot hand and sold well last time out, the adverb is switched and his work becomes eagerly awaited.
Sales problem: How do you blurb a dull book? Meticulously researched, or if you're really in trouble, definitive, exhaustive, spiced with profoundly insightful. Whatever covers a lot of ground and spans the millennia is a sweeping epic, which could soon be a major motion picture about three generations of janitors.
Brilliant, through overuse, has lost its sparkle. Fascinating has lost its charm, powerful is impotent and even towering achievement is getting shaky.
Liberals go for heart-shattering and deeply empathetic while conservatives are attracted to gripping and the hard-driving compelling.
For adventure novels, riveting is getting a rosy run, along with the hypnotic mesmerizing and the noun page turner. For novels in which characters determine the plot, San Francisco likes absorbing and satisfying, and New York pushes moving and masterly. Upbeat women's books take triple adjectives, with an adverb rhythmically punching the third: "Funny, ferocious, intensely likable" and "Droll, shrewd, irresistibly entertaining" describe the same Random House novel.
Originality rears its head: "a boggle-the-mind experience" propels one Booker Prize winner; "stampede reading" invites an all-nighter, and "at once realistic and phantasmagorical" appeals to the oxymoronic.
Desperate copywriters use the "in the tradition of" device, piggybacking on another writer's fame. This says "if you liked that best seller, you'll automatically love this," a marketing idea Amazon seized upon. In fact, it signals "we're using this best-selling name without permission to attract your attention because that author would never stoop to blurb this."
Literary editors have learned to be suspicious of all endorsements. Sam Tanenhaus, the current editor of The Times Book Review, says, "You're never sure what debts are being paid and what logs are being rolled." For years, The Times has forbidden all its writers from giving blurbs, a barrier that's sometimes a blessing because it's tough to turn down a pal.
How can a kindly person praise a friend's fairly good work without leaping overboard into the prepublication pool of prevarication?
Saul Bellow, Nobel laureate and surely one of the 20th century's greatest writers, who died last month at 89, showed me the way. A decade ago, a cloak-and-dagger novel of mine was roundly panned in the daily Times. (I did not wince nor cry aloud; in fact, when my espionage tradecraft was critiqued in another review by the incarcerated Soviet spy, Aldrich Ames, sales received a boost.)
Bellow, master of the art of fiction, sent me a note calling the review "offensive" and cheered me up with: "I thought your book was ingenious, diverting and even instructive. Nietzsche wrote somewhere that when you show people something true they sometimes behave as if it were old hat ó vieux jeu ó and accuse you of peddling platitudes."
That was a morale picker-upper, all right, not least because the adjectives he chose with his usual care to describe my book were neither excessive nor condescending. Ingenious dealt only with its complicated plot; diverting evoked a spirit of amusement about a work not to be taken seriously; and instructive described the informational use of spooky tradecraft.
Each adjective showed restraint in friendly comment, and in a private note not to be exploited. But taken together ó and with that Nietzsche allusion as well as a French vernacular version of "old hat" casually tossed in ó it was the most generous "acclaim" a journeyman novelist could hope for.
In case anyone complained about his use of "the toxins which" instead of that introducing the restrictive clause "that have infected our judgments," I noted that "you get Nobel prizes for literature, not grammar." Bellow promptly responded: "I'm only fair at relative pronouns. I do know the restrictive from the nonrestrictive. 'Which' sounded better than 'that,' and I do go by sounds as well as by grammar."
That I took as a lesson for the overheated minds in the endless struggle of Language Snobs against Language Slobs. Good writers are free to break the rules of grammar, but their freedom gains meaning when they know the rules and overrule them only for an artistic or polemical reason.
Safire is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist of the New York Times, based in Washington, D.C.