28 Feb 2014

Gary Shteyngart on saving the novel – one ‘blurb’ at a time

Award-winning writer Gary Shteyngart is on a mission to save the novel – and he has the hundreds of author puffs to prove it. He tells Katie Razzall about his new memoir and the art of the “blurb”.

Gary Shteyngart is the prize-winning American novelist you may never have heard of. He’d certainly be up there as the wittiest writer to come out of the States. And, as he puts it himself, “if there was a Nobel prize for blurbing, I would win it.”

Shteyngart has turned blurbing (writing author puffs for other people’s novels) into an art form. He’ll give a quote for anyone who sends him their book: “I’m very discriminating. I’ve only done 240 books. You need two covers, a spine and more than 40 pages, and then I’ll blurb.”

Examples include: “If you like pugs, wine, and Greece, Vintage Attraction is for you. It’s so post-post-modern it’s almost pre-modern. I read it on a stone tablet and loved every word.” (Vintage Attraction, by Charles Blackstone).

“Suck it, Proust. This book about stuff is much better than those things you wrote” (How to be a Person: The Stranger’s Guide to College, Sex, Intoxicants, Tacos, and Life Itself, by Lindy West, Dan Savage, et al).

“The Nostalgist is the most important book to come out of the Isle of Man last year! It kept me up all night,” (The Nostalgist, by Griffin Handbury).

Photo above: Katie Razzall tries to match Shteyngart’s ironic eyebrow-raise

Above, Shteyngart blurbs his own appearance on Channel 4 News tonight. Can you do better than the blurb king? Send us your blurbs of Channel 4 News on Twitter or on Vine – and if it’s good enough, we’ll air it on tonight’s show.


Shteyngart is in Britain promoting his own book, a memoir called Little Failure, blurbed by the British novelist, Zadie Smith, as “a marvel of a story. His finest book yet”.

It tells his story of a childhood in the Soviet Union until the age of seven when his Jewish family emigrated to the US, which he describes as “stumbling off a monochromatic cliff and landing in a pool of pure technicolor”.

Suck it, Proust. This book about stuff is much better than those things you wrote. Gary Shteyngart

The story of his life is insightful, funny with more than a hint of tragedy (what memoir of Jewish Soviet origin could fail in that regard?). It includes details of hardcore parenting of the young Shteyngart that will shock modern day liberals (Little Failure is his mother’s pet name for him – “Failurshka”, a melding of English and Russian into a diminutive).

It’s also an attempt to tell the story of what Soviet Jews experienced in America. In Little Failure, he writes: “What happened here, this was nobody’s fault. We Soviet Jews were simply invited to the wrong party. And then we were too frightened to leave. Because we didn’t know who we were. In this book, I’m trying to say who we were.”

Shteyngart was a chronically asthmatic child growing up in a country which had no ability to treat asthma. His first stop on the way out of the Soviet Union is Vienna where a doctor prescribes an inhaler. “Talk about metaphor,” he told me. “The first day you leave for the free world, you can breathe.”

This writer knows how hard you have to work to sell a book. The hilarious trailer for Little Failure (see above) includes cameos from actor James Franco and author Jonathan Franzen and is worth watching. That’s also why Sheyngart blurbs.

“I want reading to survive, it’s so hard these days,” he told me. “Everyone’s tweeting and twittering all day long… I want novels to survive. That’s why I think, if I can sell another 100 copies for some young writer starting out, it’s worth it.”