In 1984, George Orwell created newspeak, a language "whose vocabulary gets smaller every year."
While newspeak exists only in fiction (or does it?) an even more pervasive, destructive language-killer has infiltrated the newspapers, news sites, and literary blogs of the world — reviewerspeak.
The purpose of reviewerspeak is to force every free-thinking book, movie, and art reviewer into the submissive parroting of only a handful of approved reviewer words to describe any item that may come their way. Call it laziness, call it the incessant demands of the ever-wakeful internet, call it fear of the wrath of Harold Bloom, but reviewers — particularly book reviewers — spew out these same, tired old clichés with the force and regularity of Linda Blair in a scene from The Exorcist.
The problem of reviewerspeak is not a new one; Strunk and White addressed the bane in The Elements of Style:
- The world of criticism has a modest pouch of special words (luminous, taut), whose only virtue is that they are exceptionally nimble and can escape from the garden of meaning over the wall. Of these critical words, Wolcott Gibbs once wrote: '…they are detached from the language and inflated like little balloons.' The young writer should learn to spot them — words that at first glance seem freighted with delicious meaning but that soon burst in air, leaving nothing but a memory of bright sound.
But how to identify, and avoid, these little balloons of bright sound? Let's take a look at the 20 most annoying clichés book reviewers use (and I am a chief offender here, though I am entering rehab even as we speak) as a substitute for original and substantive thought:
2. Poignant: if anything at all sad happens in the book, it will be described as poignant
4. Nuanced: in reviewerspeak, this means, "The writing in the book is really great. I just can't come up with the specific words to explain why."
5. Lyrical: see definition of nuanced, above.
6. Tour de force
9. Deceptively simple: as in, "deceptively simple prose"
10. Rollicking: a favorite for reviewers when writing about comedy/adventure books
11. Fully realized
12. At once: as in, "Michael Connelly's The Brass Verdict is at once a compelling mystery and a gripping thriller." See, I just used three of the most annoying clichés without any visible effort. Piece of cake.
14. X meets X meets X: as in, "Stephen King meets Charles Dickens meets Agatha Christie in this haunting yet rollicking mystery."
16. Sweeping: almost exclusively reserved for books with more than 300 pages
17. That said: as in, "Stephenie Meyer couldn't identify quality writing with a compass and a trained guide; that said, Twilight is a harmless read."
19. Unflinching: used to describe books that have any number of unpleasant occurrences – rape, war, infidelity, death of a child, etc.
The problem with these words is that, when reviewers use them to death (as they have), book reviews cease to have any purpose or meaning.
Here, I'll show you. This is a review of my favorite book of all time, Connie Willis' To Say Nothing of the Dog, using all 20 book reviewer clichés (actually, To Say Nothing of the Dog is tied with Doomsday Book for the first spot on my list of 50 favorite books):
Connie Willis' To Say Nothing of the Dog is a science fiction tour de force: it is at once a rollicking comedy, a fully realized fantasy, and a highly readable yet nuanced page-turner. Willis' deceptively simple prose follows a group of futuristic time-travellers as they attempt to recover "the Bishop's bird stump" for their patroness, Lady Schrapnell, and get embroiled in a riveting adventure in the process. The sweeping story dips into the Victorian era, Medieval Britain, and World War II in a haunting yet timely look at the consequences of tampering with the fabric of history.
To Say Nothing of the Dog takes its title from the subtitle of the Victorian comedy tome, Three Men and a Dog, and Willis' compelling and lyrical writing reads like Jerome K. Jerome meets Dorothy L. Sayers meets P.G. Wodehouse. It is not as poignant and unflinchingly powerful as Willis' previous effort, Doomsday Book; that said, it is a gripping addition to the science fiction genre.
How many book reviews have you read of this ilk, and I'm not just talking about the blogosphere here, but reviews penned in the rarefied atmosphere of the New York Times Book Review? If you're a book lover (or book lush), probably quite a few.
Now tell me — can you identify what that book was about from what I wrote? Why I love it above all others? Whether you would like it yourself? How it compares to other science fiction books — or even any other book on the planet?
Reviewerspeak isn't just annoying: it's a black hole that sucks in meaning faster than I can down a gin martini (no vermouth, three olives). And in an economy with publishers cutting employees quicker than you can type "stimulus package" and book sales diving to Hades, it's time that book reviewers everywhere delete the clichés and start giving readers the unvarnished truth.
I have lavishly and recklessly used almost all of the 20 clichés in the past (thank God I never used tour de force or sweeping or fully realized; then I would really be on suicide watch), however, I've officially sworn off all 20 of these brain-draining clichés and have posted a copy of them directly over my computer where they can stab me in the eye each time I am tempted to describe Nicholas Sparks as readable or Jeffrey Archer's Paths of Glory as gripping.
I hereby extend a challenge to all readers: if you ever see any of these clichés in my writing, let me know immediately and I will buy you a pitcher of Guinness (or whatever adult beverage you prefer). If, however, I catch any of you using one of the clichés in a comment designed to cut me down to size, you will be responsible for my drinks tab. And believe me, I can hold one hell of a lot.
Did I leave out your most hated book reviewer cliché? Let us know — leave a comment and I will add it to my list of Things To Never Type Again.