Blurbese: “deeply felt”

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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. Michiko Kakutani’s review of Ron Reagan’s My Father at 100, for example, calls it “a deeply felt memoir,” with the intent, I think, of applauding Reagan for the insight he gives us into his own emotions and motivations. But I’m not sure—and that’s the problem. Maybe what she’s really impressed by is Reagan’s empathy in understanding the emotions and motivations of the people around him, in the same way that an author of great fiction “deeply” inhabits his or her characters. Or maybe she just means to praise him for giving us emotional insight at all, when he could have provided us with a purely factual, political account, or an artificially sensationalist cash-in.

Regardless, I’m not sure “deeply felt” works as a compliment—not for nonfiction. Because Reagan, unlike a fictional character, really did feel the things he writes about. Or maybe he didn’t. But the bigger issue seems to be his candor and honesty, and so praising him for feeling things deeply somewhat misses the point. After all, if he felt flat and unmoved in most of his interactions with his father, that would be as important to read about as any deeply felt peaks of elation or troughs of despair.

Kakutani, by the way, is one of the worst offenders when it comes to deeply feeling things—it’s almost as bad as her now infamous limning. But there are also plenty of others on this peculiar bandwagon. I’m similarly stumped, for instance, by Susan Orlean’s blurb on The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks—a riveting account, to be sure, of ethical lapses, scientific progress, and one family’s battle with an oddly specific form of racism in America. But “deeply felt”? You could describe a bleacher report as “deeply felt” and I’d get about as much from it. Who’s meant to be feeling what, here? The people being written about? The reader? The author?

My last, best guess is that it’s the reviewers themselves who are doing all this deep feeling; that what Kakutani et al. are trying to express with “deeply felt” is simply their own experience of reading the book. “This one really got to me,” they’re saying; “I felt it deep in my bones.” And while that’s an okay thing to want to tell people about a book, I question whether the sentiment belongs in mainstream criticism—because, while recognizing the inherent subjectivity in postmodern yada yada yada, when I turn to a book review I want the reviewer’s opinion qua reviewer; I want their measured, objective opinion of the book’s flaws and merits. If I just want to know whether someone had a strong, visceral reaction to a book, well—that’s what Twitter is for.