’Twas Thrilling When Trilling Wrote a Blurb

Josh Lambert in JSTOR Daily:

You don’t have to dig deeply to discover the stress produced in many academics and writers by the constant stream of requests for letters of recommendation and book blurbs from former students, current ones, and colleagues.

These requests provoke anxiety not only because of the time they absorb, but also because of the ethical questions they pose: Can I in good conscience blurb this book despite the problems I have with it? Is it right that the students with the confidence to ask for letters get more support than the shy ones? Must I blurb this book effusively, simply because its author blurbed my own with enthusiasm? (The terror that a cycle of reciprocity might spiral forever upward is captured in a 1992 poem in The American Scholar, “A Farewell to Blurbs,” which ends with one poet asking another to just call the whole thing off: “I still ask you to agree / That if I say no more about your poems, you’ll do the same for me.”)

If such anxieties sound familiar, be glad that you’re not Lionel Trilling. When he was flying high in the 1950s, as possibly the most celebrated professor in the country, his recommendations held astonishing power. He knew they got results.

More here.