Friday, 24 February 2012

Language of The Reviewer

Ron Charles's hilarious video "Sh*t Book Reviewers Say" awesomely explains, without much explanation, how some overused words and phrases in book reviews might not belong there.

Some theorise that any review with two or more of such words is either a rush job or a disingenuous dissertation of the book, the author's art or both. Repeated use of certain words in the reviewer's repertoire imply inflexibility, laziness or, depending on the difficulty level, lexical snobbery.

Do any of the following sound familiar?

"'s fun if you like that sort of thing..."

"It's just stunning!"


Holding a copy of Salvage the Bones: "...a love child between Jonathan Franzen and Emily Dickinson."


Holding Jeffrey Eugenides's The Marriage Plot: "It's like a cross between [Jhumpa Lahiri's] Interpreter of Maladies and Pat the Bunny."

"...her lapidary prose..."

" absorbing story...!"

"...gripping... provocative... riveting..."

Holding Karen Russell's Swamplandia: "It's at once thrilling - and deeply sobering...!"

" ...poignant..."

"The pages practically turn themselves!"

"...edgy ...haunting ...wildly imaginative!"


..."lapidary prose." Ha. No prizes for guessing who took that hit.

Because when you call something "Kafkaesque" ("marked by a senseless, disorienting, often menacing complexity"), "Updikean" (like... John Updike), or "Dickensian" (reminds you of the poverty, social injustice and other aspects of Victorian England that Ol' Boz frequently wrote about), you're so not talking to the people who dig Danbrownian, Rowlingesque or Ahernite prose.

I'm guilty of some of these offences as well. A partial indictment:



"...poignant... engaging..."


"...poignant... poignant... poignant... poignant... poignant..." Yes, I'm a serial offender.



It does feel as though I close one eye while typing, doesn't it?

Stripped of the remaining text and laid bare, these "forbidden" words stick out like sore digits. But is it such a horrible crime to re-use some words - particularly if they fit?

Now, let me introduce Orwell's wonderful essay on book reviewing, which I've been dying to do for months since I was given a printout of it.

One passage in the suspiciously autobiographical essay sums up the pain book reviewers go through:

...the prolonged, indiscriminate reviewing of books is a quite exceptionally thankless, irritating and exhausting job. It not only involves praising trash--though it does involve that, as I will show in a moment--but constantly INVENTING reactions towards books about which one has no spontaneous feelings whatever. The reviewer, jaded though he may be, is professionally
interested in books, and out of the thousands that appear annually, there are probably fifty or a hundred that he would enjoy writing about. If he is a top-notcher in his profession he may get hold of ten or twenty of them: more probably he gets hold of two or three. The rest of his work, however conscientious he may be in praising or damning, is in essence humbug. He is pouring his immortal spirit down the drain, half a pint at a time.

...of course, I cannot argue against the existence of book reviewers who, for money or prestige, wallow in this misery.

"So then, Mr Local Book Reviewer, what are your two cents on this issue?"

When I have the time. I have at least two books which I haven't read to review for the papers and several more for the blog.


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