Author: The Book Show Team
We love to hate them but can we do without them? I’m talking about the book review cliché – all those sprawling, epic, haunting yet unflinching and powerful expressions book reviewers employ to portray the core meanings of an author’s tome…
On The Book Show we speak to Michelle Kerns from the Book Examiner about her campaign to rid the world of bookreviewspeak. She’s created a book review cliché bingo game which is fun to play, especially with the weekend papers and any other literary mags in hand. Michelle is also hunting through prominent sites and publications for the best of the worst offenders. You can see her results for April here.
She began this quest because she suddenly realised her own work sounded very like the book jacket blurb. Michelle has also created a book review template, based on champion reviewer and author John Updike’s 6 Rules of Book Reviews in his Picked-Up Pieces (1975), but she admits it’s difficult. ‘I ended up unable to write anything because I felt suffocated under the burden of my own high-minded expectations.’
I’ve carried out my own little experiment using a recent release, The Surrendered by Chang-Rae Lee, (published by Little Brown) which just happens to be on my desk. It’s inevitably described as ‘ambitious’ (this was pointed out by one of Michelle’s readers) but the reviews also include ‘epic’ ‘gripping’ and ‘powerful’, all words that also appear in the publicity. But can you think of other words to describe a story that is set against a backdrop of war, violence and racism, spans many years, continents, loves and lives? Laura Miller, our other guest on this subject, makes the point that some words and phrases are difficult to expel from the Book Reviewer lexicon. She asks what synonyms are there for ‘portray’ or ‘describe’ that wouldn’t sound artificial?
James Parker from the Globe, in defence of the book review cliché and clichés in general, says clichés ‘are laden with experience and yet somehow jaunty’, although he does admit they can disguise the lack of original thought, particularly for politicians.
So perhaps these annoying words hinge on how they are used and the paucity of the ideas they hang off, rather than the words themselves. In context, a phrase like ‘gripping’, or X meets X may be acceptable as it gives us a clue to what the book is about and perhaps its style, although ‘Dan Brown meets Proust’ might not tell us much. What do you think?
Australian author and critic James Bradley suggests that while formulaic and often disguising a lack of ideas, there may be other factors contributing to the overuse of some words: the very nature and purpose of the book review, changes with the industry, the length of the review, the pressures of writing to a deadline. He also says the general health of literary culture may contribute to words or expressions that are ‘fossilised’.
Perhaps it’s worth revisiting the purpose of the book review and start from there. The late John Updike in Due Considerations: Essays and Criticisms writes of his experience writing reviews for The New Yorker. ‘Writing a book review felt physically close to writing a story- some blank paper inserted in the rubbery type-writer platen, some rat-tat-tat sound of impatient , inspired x-ing out, There was a similar need for a punchy beginning, a clinching ending, and a misty stretch in between that would connect the two. A review writer was generally safe — safe from rejection — though it could happen and safe, as a judge himself, from judgement, though an occasional reader mailed in a correction or a complaint. The reviewer’s services in a world overwhelmed by books loomed as patently necessary to weed, to cull to impose order upon profusion. The aim of the art is to make a virtue of necessity…’ And note the ending phrase; is it an adage or a cliché?