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Book Review Bingo

This time last year The Book Examiner’s Michelle Kerns compiled a list of the 20 most annoying book reviewer cliches. Now, in the interests of having a bit of fun with them, she’s gone one step further, and compiled cards allowing readers to play Book Review Cliche Bingo.

It’s a funny piece but Kerns has a serious point. As someone who writes a lot of reviews I’m all too familiar with the unhealthy allure of Reviewerspeak. So much of what you need to do in a review is formulaic (situate the book, give a sense of the plot, pick out some of the main threads, communicate something of what does and doesn’t work) that’s it’s easy to fall back on formulaic language and devices. It’s a problem that’s accentuated by the increasingly abbreviated length of reviews (though to be fair to my editors at The Australian and The Sydney Morning Herald the slide in review length has been halted and to some extent reversed over the last year or two) and by the fact that the brutal truth is that when you review for a living you do occasionally come across books you don’t have much to say about, or have days when the juices really aren’t flowing.

But Reviewerspeak is also part of a larger shift in our critical culture. Part of it, as I’ve said before, is to do with a broader decline in educational standards. The shared literary culture that once underpinned our judgements about books has largely vanished, and that makes it difficult to carry on sophisticated conversations about books. In the absence of that culture people – reviewers and readers – tend to fall back on the lingua franca of book talk, which is, increasingly, that of marketing.

But by the same token it’s important not to confuse the health of our critical culture with the health of the newspaper review pages (just for the record I think this is one of the major problems in Gideon Haigh’s recent assault on Australian reviewers). I don’t actually accept the argument that the dead hand of Reviewerspeak lies heaviest on the pages of our broadsheets (evidence for the defence reviewers such as Delia Falconer, James Ley, Geordie Williamson, Richard King and Kerryn Goldsworthy to name just a few) but even if it does, then the boom in online forums for the discussion of books offers an antidote, by admitting new and often interesting voices into the conversation.

All the same, I’d see Kerns’ list, and the thinking behind it as reflective of a process any decent reviewer should be engaged in at all times. I’m not particularly guilty of most of the sins she enumerates (“unputdownable”? I mean, really) but I certainly have my tics and tendencies, and many years of writing to deadline and length has taught me bad habits as well as good. I’ve developed various strategies to help me keep the worst of those in check. Some of these are pretty simple: every so often I’ll ban myself from using a particular word, or a particular formulation for a few weeks or months, for instance. Others are more complex: I make a very real effort to avoid putting myself in the way of banality by making sure I avoid reviewing books I feel unable to be forthright about (my test of a conflict of interest is actually quite simple: if I hated it would I feel able to say so).

But in the end it’s really about having pride in your craft and skill as a writer. Whether I’m a good reviewer or a bad one (and I change my mind on that front daily) one thing I do know is that writing isn’t just a representation of thought, it’s a way of thinking, and as such the search for original language is indistinguishable from the search for original – and by extension interesting – things to say.

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5 Comments Post a comment
  1. I don’t use any of those bingo words but I do have my own set of cliches that pop up in my reviews (probably doesn’t help that a lot of books I write about are similar to each other).

    And while the reviewers are the ones using these words in the first place, isn’t there an editor who picks up on it? (I’m semi-excusable, seeings as I write and self-edit).

    “But in the end it’s really about having pride in your craft and skill as a writer” – yup!

    I think the reason behind someone wanting to review a book has a lot to do with the language: In the online sphere there are less formal voices, and more focus on the personal journey achieved through reading, and so some are riddled with Reviewerspeak, while others are infinitely more profound in their observations. If you’re writing a straight ‘broadsheet style’ review then it’s probably a lot easier to fall back on cliches as a crutch, but once a reviewer seeks to build some sort of discussion on a book, it becomes easier to move away from the cliches.

    March 17, 2010
    • Elena – I think your observation about the way reviews are changing online, and the admission of new voices is exactly right: the less formulaic the form, the greater the space for originality (though to be fair broadsheet reviews are often pretty smart and original as well).

      March 17, 2010
  2. Ouch. I’m going to make a large copy of that and pin it up on the notice board above the computer.

    Thank you for including me on your list, but I have to confess guilt to at least some of these, though I’ve never called anything ‘gritty’ (at least not as a compliment), I share your sentiments re ‘unputdownable’, and I hate ‘tour de force’ with the intensity of a thousand suns.

    The problem, and I’m sure you’ve grappled with this one many times, is that cliches get to be cliches via the route of truth. (And this is intensified in the writing of short reviews where there’s not a lot of room for *ahem* nuance.) Cliches are usually so true and so widely applicable that they get said over and over again until they become the default position for lazy writers.

    The dilemma of the reviewer is then to find a synonym for ‘lyrical’ or ‘haunting’ or whatever. And won’t the perfect synonymous substitute then itself become a cliche over time?

    What then is a reviewer to do? Deliberately distort what s/he has to say in a contortionist’s effort to avoid cliche? It’s the same dilemma as the one addressed somewhere in Fowler’s Modern English Usage: ‘Break any of these rules rather than say something downright barbaric.’

    Grapple, grapple. I think you should run a competition for the best sentence using every one of these words and phrases.

    March 17, 2010
    • Agreed, on all counts. It’s an ongoing struggle.

      But what I really want to know is what you think of the MF longlist . . .

      March 17, 2010

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