Circle of clichés (Filed: 08/08/2004)
Tom Payne’s guide to the words that reviewers and publishers love too much
When did you last come across the words “coruscating” or “magisterial”? It’s unlikely to have been in a holiday brochure or a recipe. Surely it was on the back of a book or in a book review.
The book world has a language all of its own. I hadn’t noticed it much before 1998, but then I joined The Daily Telegraph’s books team. I had not been long at the desk when I found some cuttings by a prospective reviewer, and a note under it from my predecessor, who liked what the writer had to say but deplored the “reviewese”. The dialect had been identified before: Raymond Queneau’s Exercises in Style, which tells a two-paragraph story 99 different ways, has a study in reviewese. The story is retold as a book review, and in Barbara Wright’s English translation the story’s author is commended for bringing it off “with a rare felicity”.
Reviewese isn’t confined to book reviewers; it pervades the literary world. A lot of it comes from book-jacket blurbs, which produce a repertoire of sentences that publishers would like to see in book reviews. This literary lingo consists of words, constructions and formulations few English speakers use, but that sound true if used about books. I started to notice it everywhere, and began keeping a list of phrases that recurred and jarred. Later, I discovered that people on the books desks of other papers did the same. The Times Literary Supplement has a list of the top 20 phrases without which they could live, and its editors update it annually.
All trades have some kind of professional jargon – hacks must have their spikes, and cobblers their lasts – but there’s something different about the patois of Grub Street. Admittedly, it relies on the same sorts of abbreviations as other trades: “I couldn’t put it down” becomes “unputdownable”; “It was so funny I laughed out loud” becomes “laughoutloud funny”. Publishers and critics need these terms like they need terms for genres, such as chicklit, ladlit, bonkbusters, sexandshopping and killerchillers. Somehow, the way we talk about writing has become rich in clichés. It affects the way we publish books, the way we cover them, and the way we consume them. You could devise a circle of clichés, starting (because we have to start somewhere) with the publishers. Publishers have to tell journalists, shopkeepers and readers what a book is like as quickly as possible, so find themselves using an immediately recognisable language. There is no counting the books that have subtitles beginning with the words “the extraordinary true story of”, or the times when the story is untold and the truth shocking. One publisher told me that a book was a “lie-in-the-bath-with-a-glass-of-wine” kind of book; another that a work was “Alan Bennett meets Victoria Wood”. (I wish I’d stopped myself from suggesting that they might have met already.)
The “x meets y” construction is an invaluable way of summarising a book whose disparate elements might call for lengthier description. Another is to talk of an author’s progeny – he or she could be the bastard offspring, or bizarre lovechild, conceived in a crack house by the union of Marcel Proust and Jeanette Winterson. Yet another is the culinary image: take Tobias Smollett, stew him in his own juice, reduce, mix in some finely chopped Poe, season with Patti Smith and serve with late Henry James.
I have read this kind of thing from publishers often, and critics occasionally; but then, critics are apt to talk of the resulting stew, or broth, or heady mix. And we critics love to concatenate names and drop them from the heavens: in his novel Who’s Sorry Now?, Howard Jacobson describes a critic “famous for the number of books on any subject he was able to review in one week, and for the number of mentions of writers other than the ones reviewed he was able to squeeze into 600 words”.
The namedrop is an effective shorthand, and flatters the reader too. Let me drop another, then: in Enemies of Promise, Cyril Connolly writes that “journalism must obtain its full impact on the first reading”, and adds: “Carelessness is not fatal to journalism nor are clichés, for the eye rests lightly on them.” Connolly found a way of excusing the argot that irked me for four years of a mostly heavenly job. I had thought that literary journalism should be better than other journalism, because it was about literature – in the words of Ezra Pound (clank), “news that stays news”. Let other scribes begin every feature published shortly before Christmas with the words ” ‘Tis the season”; let those more on the qui vive tell us what just got hot. But if Connolly is right, I missed the point: “Journalism is loose, intimate, simple, and striking; literature formal and compact, not simple and not immediately striking in its effects.” Literary journalism, I had to remember, was still journalism.
By the time I left the books desk, my list had become vast and sprawling. It included the phrase “vast and sprawling” (which is often followed by the words “epic” or “tome”). It contained words I was fed up with seeing next to one another, and it started to create problems. Journalists who saw the list found it stopped them feeling able to put any words together at all: how could they be sure they weren’t writing something someone else had written? So the time has come to celebrate this ready-made vernacular in all its richness, and to show the world what prefabricated phrases exist to assist our discussion of any book that comes our way. Here are some of the tropes you’ll need if you want to talk about literature quickly and without having to worry about it too much.
anything-fuelled – narratives of a new, edgy type of fiction sometimes called Britfic tend to be fuelled by a range of uppers – amphetamines, caffeine, cocaine, Robbie Williams
as good as any novel – why should writers of fact aspire to the standards of novelists? Cf the truth is often stranger than fiction, infra
at its core, **** is a deeply moral work – a handy way for a critic to say that those who don’t like the shocking book under review simply don’t understand it
breakneck speed – no successful thriller will go any slower
bursting to get out – of novellas in vast, sprawling epics
by this stage, I was ready to hurl the book across the room
cocktail – the result of stirring one author in with another: “a cocktail of Hergé and the Marquis de Sade”
coruscating – to be confused with “excoriating”
cracking pace – slower than breakneck speed; too slow
darkly comic (cf wickedly funny)
deceptively simple – the simplicity of the phrase itself belies how complicated it is. Is the book/poem/style simple or isn’t it? Or does it remind us that to mere readers, something might look simple, and that they need clever critics to undeceive them?
divided like the state of India itself – useful way of describing confused characters in post-colonial novels
editor should be shot – wouldn’t it be better to shoot those who write “the editor should be shot”? The phrase normally appears in connection with a list of minor quibbles. But to punish editors with this ultimate sanction would lead to a smaller number of editors, not only through their execution but also by discouraging people from becoming editors in the future. The grim consequence of this would be a major increase in minor quibbles
epic – as if synonymous with “long”
event – “a new epic by Homer is always an event”
exhaustive, not to say exhausting
feisty – of heroines, usually with mention of hair colour – “step forward, feisty redhead DI Dubrovnik”
fluent prose – cf Molière’s Le Bourgeois gentilhomme: “Good heavens! I’ve been talking in prose for more than 40 years without realising.”
has it all – as a rule, chicklit stories should feature a twentysomething heroine who has it all, with the customary exception of Mr Right
has **** written all over it
heady mix – cf cocktail, supra
high-octane – of the fuel needed to keep thrillers going at breakneck speed
hits the ground running – of stunning debuts
icon – as if synonymous with anything famous or even recognisable
in an iron grip (holds the reader’s attention)
in his inimitable style – incidentally, inimitable people often turn out to be quite imitable: “the inimitable Sean Connery”
in true postmodernist fashion he/she constantly invents and reinvents him/herself
it reads like a Who’s Who of contemporary poetry/fin-de-siècle Vienna
laughoutloud, as in laughoutloud funny. – Ohmygod. Come to think of it, reviewese could soon become a completely textable language, with:-) or:-( to indicate whether or not a book is good. At the time of writing, though, reviewese still uses laughoutloud as an adjective rather than an interjection
leafy – not strictly reviewese, but curious: I once saw Harlesden described as leafy
lightness of touch
like William S Burroughs on acid
magisterial (of non-fiction) – any two-volume biography or history can be called magisterial. For single-volume works to qualify, they must reach 700 pages not including notes, bibliographies and appendices
**** meets **** – the most quoted example of this construction was the work of Arrow’s publicity department: they described Come Together by Emlyn Rees and Josie Lloyd as what could happen if “Bridget Jones met Nick Hornby at a party given by the housemates of This Life”. For some, what happened when Emlyn Rees met Josie Lloyd was troubling enough
minor quibbles, as in, “But these are minor quibbles”
(the) name of that young German corporal was Adolf Hitler
overnight sensation – I do enjoy how slightly rude that sounds
politically correct – an appealingly easy target, hence “political correctness gone mad”
pure/complete unadulterated bliss/codswallop
rattling good read/yarn
(the) rest, as they say, is history
should be set reading for David Blunkett and his advisers – the phrase shows a welcome faith in the power of literature to change the world. By now there are be a large number of books that should be required reading for George W Bush and his circle, although who knows what difference this reading would make. Compound phrase: this searing indictment of the British judicial system should be set reading etc
steeped in scholarship
stunning debut – in American reviewese, a young writer can debut stunningly
surreal – as if synonymous with odd, wacky
sympathetic portrait – cf warts-and-all, infra
take one ****, mix in some ****, add a dash of ****, leave to simmer, and what do you have?
that rare thing – perhaps it’s worth quoting Edwin Muir on Thomas Mann’s Confessions of Felix Krull, Confidence Man: “Here is that unheard of, that supposedly impossible thing, a good German comic novel.”
things are not as they seem
tour de force (of literary scholarship) – the minimum length for a tour de force, not including notes, bibliographies and appendices, is 400 pages
(the) truth is often stranger than fiction – variants of this observation are that fact mingles strangely with fiction, and that life imitates art
vast, sprawling epic – it is polite to congratulate short-story writers for being able to “compress into a few pages what lesser writers fail to achieve in vast, sprawling epics”
Viagra – coined by Charles Spencer in this paper’s notice of The Blue Room, starring Nicole Kidman; he alone should be allowed to use it, but the conceit is now standard reviewese
vibrantly alive (poetic)
warts-and-all – just as American English can make verbs from other parts of speech, so reviewese can turn whole phrases into adjectives (qv laughoutloud, unputdownable)
was, in effect, the first conservationist/feminist/Communist/librarian
wears her erudition lightly
wickedly funny – less dark than darkly comic
will appeal to the serious scholar and general reader alike
will stay with you long after the last page is turned
woefully inadequate – of notes, bibliographies, appendices and most often indices
writes like a dream