Tuesday, February 08, 2011

A word is dead when it is said, some say. I say it just begins to live that day.*

I have a somewhat strained relationship with contemporary fiction. This strain is exacerbated by my constant consumption of blurbs; on book covers, online, in magazines, etc. Like any prolonged exposure to advertising media, I have become sensitized to certain words, and just like my friends in graphic design school who DIE when they see comic sans or papyrus (fonts unavailable), I experience a little cringe when these words rear their heads. I think many of these words act as cues that the book in question is being marketed to a specific audience, and with a few exceptions, that audience is women. Maybe I'm obsessing, but it bugs me that reviewers and blurb-writers have this set of go-to words which, through overuse, have lost most of their potency and taken on a simplistic symbolism.

Luminous: Unless you mean that the text literally glows, or that the writing has led you into a new and brilliant realm of intellectual enlightenment, this means nothing to me.

Lyrical: What does this mean? To me, describing something as lyrical means you are compelled to read it aloud, savoring the music of the language.

Sprawling: This is a trendy way to describe a narrative that either has lots of characters, covers lots of geographical distance, has broad chronological scope, or all of the above.

Picaresque: What the dictionary says: pertaining to, characteristic of, or characterized by a form of prose fiction, originally developed in Spain, in which the adventures of an engagingly roguish hero are described in a series of usually humorous or satiric episodes that often depict, in realistic detail, the everyday life of the common people.

What this really means: you will not be offended by anything in this book. You will chuckle.

Exquisite: This is a word for table settings and jewelry.

Heartbreaking: OK, I admit I have felt something akin to heartbreak while reading a great novel. But it really takes a lot of skill as a writer to produce characters and a story worthy of this descriptor.

Breathtaking: Just don't use this word.

Evocative: This doesn't work too well unless you tell me what is being evoked.

Lush: A scene in a novel can be lush, but mostly it depends on the setting. I would like to read a lush description of a job interview set in a desert.

Muscular: Do not use the phrase "muscular prose" unless you are quoting the first person who wrote it. Its meaning has been wrung out by weak writers.

Astonishing: I imagine the face of someone who has just been astonished whenever I see this word. It is a particular expression which doesn't appear very often on the faces of adult humans.

An honorary mention goes to at once.

As in: Sprawling and picaresque, the new novel by the astonishingly muscular author of Luminous Lush is at once lyrical and breathtaking, evocative and heartbreaking. An exquisite read.

I know there are some words I've just blocked out. If you can think of more, please share them in the comments.


*Emily Dickinson


  1. I love your (muscular, I'd say) assemblage of the cliches.
    ...sprawling doesn't seem like it'd be a favorable characteristic in a book. I don't get that one. Reminds me of suburban sprawl...

  2. For YA fiction: "EDGY."

  3. "Memorable." (What was the name of that book again?) and a hideous new contraption, "unputdownable."

  4. Kelsey: I LOVE "Tour de Force."
    Brad: I almost included "unforgettable."

  5. For the kids books of my childhood: Rip-roaring read. Really? What does that mean? Ripping, roaring, I don't do these things whilst reading and neither should you. Unless you are reading aloud about an angry bear with a newspaper.

  6. "Haunting" is another . . . umm . . . favorite.

  7. Anonymous3:05 PM

    Ugh, I just read a jacket description that began "In this ecstatic third collection..." and while I do love that word, it cannot possibly be correct right there. I think book reviewers just try to expand adjectives to include things they were not meant for. ("...for which they were not meant," right? Whatever!)


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