September 25, 2011

Cultural News

Seven Deadly Words of Book Reviewing

Like all professions book reviewing has a lingo. Out of laziness, haste or a misguided effort to sound “literary,” reviewers use some words with startling predictability. Each of these seven entries is a perfectly good word (well, maybe not eschew), but they crop up in book reviews with wearying regularity. To little avail, admonitions abound. “The best critics,” Follett writes, “are those who use the plainest words and who make their taste rational by describing actions rather than by reporting or imputing feelings.” Now, the list:
poignant: Something you read may affect you, or move you. That doesn’t mean it’s poignant. Something is poignant when it’s keenly, even painfully, affecting. When Bambi’s mom dies an adult may think it poignant. A child probably finds it terrifying.
compelling: Many things in life, and in books, are compelling. The problem is that too often in book reviews far too many things are found to be such. A book may be a page turner, but that doesn’t necessarily make it compelling. Overuse has weakened a word that implies an overwhelming force.
Reviewers often combine these first two words. Like Chekhov’s gun. If there is a poignant in a review’s third paragraph, a compelling will most likely follow. Frequently reviewers forestall the suspense and link the words right away, as in “this poignant and compelling novel…”
intriguing: It doesn’t mean merely interesting or fascinating although it’s almost always used in place of one of those words. When it is, the sense of something illicit and mysterious is lost.
eschew: No one actually says this word in real life. It appears almost exclusively in writing when the perp is stretching for a flashy synonym for avoid or reject or shun.
craft (used as a verb): In “The Careful Writer,” Theodore M. Bernstein reminds us that “the advertising fraternity has decided craft is a verb.” Undeterred, reviewers use it when they are needlessly afraid of using plain old write. They also try to make pen a verb, as in “he penned a tome.”
muse (used as a verb): Few things in this world are mused. They are much more often simply written, thought or said. “War is hell,” he mused. Not much dreamy rumination there.
Stretching for the fanciful — writing “he crafts or pens” instead of “he writes”; writing “he muses” instead of “he says or thinks” — is a sure tip-off of weak writing.
lyrical: Reviewers use this adjective when they want to say something is well written. But using the word loosely misses the sense of expressing emotion in an imaginative and beautiful way. Save lyrical for your next review of Wordsworth.
It’s possible to (mis)use all seven words in a one-sentence book report: “Mario Puzo’s intriguing novel eschews the lyrical as the author instead crafts a poignant tale of family life and muses on the compelling doings of the Mob.”
Of course, these seven words aren’t the only ones overworked by book reviewers. After all, I haven’t even mentioned limn. Perhaps, readers, you’d like to add your favorites?

-NYT

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