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.