Blurbese: “deeply felt”

Image Courtesy SubZeroConsciousness (License)

Image Courtesy SubZeroConsciousness (License)

In general, I dislike curmudgeonly fiats contra adverb—in fact, I’ve complained about them here before. However, there are a couple of cases where I think specific adverbs ought to be banned outright. One of those is the book review phrase “deeply felt.”

My problem with the phrase, I will confess, is that most of the time I don’t really understand what book reviewers mean when they use it. Occasionally, with fiction, I can parse something: your Lolitas and your House of Sand and Fogs and, hell, even your Time Traveler’s Wives—these feature protagonists whose aching desires and crippling emotions seem very real, very genuine, very immanent to the character. And because their authors, in writing these emotions, have—I suppose—“deeply” inhabited the emotional landscape of their characters, we do too.

But I just as often see “deeply felt” applied to nonfiction, and that’s where I get really baffled. Continue Reading

Blurbese: “best”

Santa’s not the only one who makes lists in December: come the end of the year, anyone who’s ever expressed a passing literary opinion has their own rundown of the year’s best books.

But book reviewers rarely use these lists as an opportunity to promote the year’s objectively “best” books. Rather, they use them the same way dewy-eyed college freshmen do when posting their favourite books to Facebook—that is, to show off their overflowing coffers of cultural capital. Or, put another way: to make themselves look sophisticated and knowledgeable and cool.

You might object that book reviewers are not so self-centered, but as an occasional book reviewer myself I’m happy to fess up and disagree. Besides, the proof is in the end-of-year-list pudding.Continue Reading

Blurbese: Direct Quotations

If you happened to read more than one review of J.K. Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy last month, you’ll never look at a condom the same way again. That’s because of a single line from the book, which the New York Times, The New Yorker, Time, the Daily Beast, and Library Journal all quoted as evidence of, well—something. The now notorious words were describing a used condom,

glistening in the grass beside her feet, like the gossamer cocoon of some huge grub.

I’m not sure whence stemmed the gleeful concupiscence—or was it prudery?—that prompted so many critics to latch onto this one line; by most accounts, there were many more equally lascivious ones to choose from. I suspect for many of them, focusing on Rowling’s newfound raunchiness was a way to sidestep the more germane topic: that they really didn’t like The Casual Vacancy much.

But I bring up the grub line less to speculate about Michiko Kakutani’s motives than because it’s a great example of something I’ve always found baffling from the ten commandments of book reviews: thou shalt always quote directly.Continue Reading

Blurbese: “The First _____”

When Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom was published, in 2010, the British Daily Telegraph called it “the first great American novel of the post-Obama era.” If that sounds oddly specific (not to mention premature), they at least had good reason for it: the title of “first great American novel of the 21st century” had already been awarded to Franzen’s earlier novel, The Corrections, by Elle magazine.

There is, perhaps, a discussion that could be had about the relative authority of the Telegraph versus Elle in making such pronouncements, but in terms of Franzeniana it wouldn’t make much difference—because Margaret Atwood had already beaten out both Freedom and The Corrections as “the first great novel of the new millennium.” (According to Newsday, anyway; the New York Times called it “overlong and badly written.”)

Firsts, firsts, firsts… Critics love ‘em. Continue Reading

Blurbese: “quiet”

I’m not usually one to pick on my own, but for illustrative purposes only there’s a line to which I’d like to draw your attention from Anne Gray Fischer’s most recent “Women In Trouble” column:

The stakes are perhaps too low in this quiet novel for it to qualify as a “saga.” 

Ah, yes, the “quiet novel”; the quagmire of literary publishing.Continue Reading

Blurbese: “a _____ debut”

Book reviewers generally frown on unnecessary adjectives. Precisely how they frown depends on the situation, but you can bet if an author’s use of adjectives comes up in a review it’s not as a compliment. If a book is filled with rare and unusual descriptions (e.g. “a perturbing peccadillo”), it’s “flowery” or “over-wrought”; if it’s filled with commonplaces (e.g. “a worrying problem”), it’s “clunky” or “unimaginative.” (Think Dan Brown.)Continue Reading

Blurbese: “funny”

Book reviewers’ relationship with the word “funny” is, well—a little funny. I’m somewhat sympathetic about this one, too, at least when it comes to novels that are deliberately comic, because it’s tough to review authors whose reputation is based entirely on humor. What, after all, can the word “funny” really say about a book by Jasper Fforde or Tom Holt or Christopher Moore or Douglas Adams? Of course they’re funny—that’s the point.

Instead, reviewers are forced into an ever-escalating arms race of adjectival madness when reviewing books like these: they’re comic, they’re zany, they’re madcap, they’re witty, they’re screwball, they’re hilarious … You get the idea.Continue Reading

Blurbese: “unflinching”

I think a lot of book reviewers were smacked as children. Some of them must have at least been bullied. How else to explain their admiration for the ability not to flinch?

Just look at the first page of results when you Google “unflinching book review.” At the British newspaper the Independent, for instance: “Book review: Unflinching look into the eye of a needle.” Then there’s NPR, a particularly shameless offender with both “Unflinching evil in ‘Say You’re One of Them’,” and “Three Books in Unflinching, Unforgettable Voices.” And from the Harvard Crimson, we get “Unflinching Didion Courageously Tells All in ‘Blue Nights’”—which seems redundant, if nothing else. (Unflinching and courageous? Send that woman the Medal of Honor!) Continue Reading

Blurbese: “haunting”

In his new regular column, our blog book reviews editor Andrew Ladd looks at “blurbese,” the contemporary language of book reviews, and names its most egregious offenders.

What is it about book critics and the heebie-jeebies? Show most reviewers a pulpy horror story and they’ll turn up their noses with a sniff about genre fiction; “scary” is a dirty word in literature. But show those same critics a book about teenage girls discovering sexuality, and suddenly they’re falling all over themselves to call it “haunting.”

Harper’s Bazaar on The Virgin Suicides: “Haunting… Compelling… Eugenides creates an allegory so thought-provoking it leaves a profound, indelible impression.” Geraldine Brooks on Memoirs of a Geisha: “A haunting tale of a hidden world that could hold an audience spellbound through many an evening in a lantern-lit teahouse.” And most recently, the New York Times on Jesmyn Ward’s National Book Award winner, Salvage the Bones: “a haunting tale of the struggles of a 15-year-old pregnant girl as a hurricane bears down on her fictional Gulf Coast town of Bois Sauvage, Miss.” Girls having sex—spooky stuff!

(Incidentally, Entertainment Weekly also described Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones as haunting, but considering the narrator is a ghost I’ll give them a pass on that one.)

I won’t be so glib as to trot out the cultural studies prattle here, explaining this pattern with a Western Freudo-Foucauldian androcentric something-or-another about fear of female sexuality—but I’m also presuming there’s more at work here than simple coincidence. What is it about teenage female sexuality that gets book critics so haunted? And why is that a more acceptable literary experience than Jack Torrance wielding an axe?

The second question is easier to answer: fiction that’s intentionally frightening is a cheap thrill. You don’t have to think deeply to have the bejesus scared out of you, therefore books that scare the bejesus out of you aren’t substantive—at least, not if they do so exclusively. (If you’re terrified but also being made to think deeply, the book isn’t scary, or even haunting: it’s “psychological.”)

As for the first question, I can only speculate. But I think our cultural haunting at teenage girls turning to sex actually has something to do with that same value judgement about thinking deeply versus visceral thrills. The implication of these reviews isn’t that critics are terrified of female sexuality, but that they deem exploring ideas infinitely more important than exploring biological and/or emotional sensations, and are disturbed that at 15 years old, when the world ought to still be ripe with wonder, girls—or boys—might already be more interested in getting their rocks off.

Mind you, I’ve never heard anyone call Catcher in the Rye haunting, so maybe the cultural studies guys are onto something. Either way, the haunting-as-literary-praise thing is getting pretty tired—so let’s just drop it and give everybody one less thing to fret about.