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Book Review Bingo

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message 1: by Matt, e-monk (new)

Matt Comito | 386 comments Mod
From Laura Miller:

If there's a hell for book reviewers (and I'm sure many authors hope there is), no doubt we will spend eternity there being jabbed by trident-wielding imps bearing certain adjectives emblazoned across their brick-red chests: "compelling," "lyrical," "nuanced" and so on. Even in this world, the conscientious critic is bedeviled by clichés; how many ways are there to say that a book is "beautifully written" or that the characters in it are "fully realized" instead of "two-dimensional"? These are the words that rise up in a reviewer's mind, like those clouds of gnats that ruin so many walks in the woods. No matter how hard you try to bat them away, they just keep coming back.

The war against cliché (to cop a phrase from Martin Amis) gained a new weapon this week, when Michelle Kerns, who writes a smart, cheeky books column for -- an outfit described, alternately, as a "hyperlocal" platform for "citizen journalists" or a "pay-per-click meat market" owned by conservative Colorado billionaire Philip Anschutz -- created a new game: Book Review Bingo. Kerns took a list of the most egregious book reviewer clichés she'd compiled in an earlier column and arranged them in 5-by-5 grids as bingo cards.

Kerns urges her readers to distribute the cards to their bookish friends, then have everyone sift through "the week's reviews/book jackets/gushing publicity sheets" searching for hackneyed words and phrases. Whoever gets a bingo first wins, although, "Playing for a blackout will absolutely be a requirement when reading some publications."

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Within a couple of hours it seemed like every book reviewer in the country had been forwarded multiple links to Kerns' column. "It's getting worse," tweeted Ron Charles, fiction editor and critic for the Washington Post Book World. "People in the office are now emailing me Book Reviewer Cliché Bingo without comment." In silent shame, dozens (if not hundreds) of delete keys wiped out instances of "poignant" and "gritty" and "tour de force."

Every writer has his or her pet words, words that, however ideal they seemed the first time you selected them, have long since worn out. The New York Times' Michiko Kakutani is famous for relying on the verb "limn" -- a choice often derided because no one uses that word in actual speech. As a general rule, though, well-worn verbs are more forgivable than tired adjectives, simply because there are relatively few of them that work without calling undue attention to themselves; which synonyms for "describe," "portray" and "relate" wouldn't sound hopelessly artificial if you were determined not to use such old, reliable workhorses?

Now, I pride myself on never employing "lyrical" (except ironically) or "rollicking," but I must plead guilty to variations on "haunting" and "powerful." What's at stake is more than just lackluster prose. As Kerns wrote to me in an e-mail, when she scrutinized her own use of clichés more closely, she realized that she fell back on them whenever she was "avoiding giving a solid opinion on anything. I was too afraid to just say, 'I hated this and this is why' or 'I thought this was great and this is why.' I used the clichés to fudge on exposing myself and sidestep saying anything that someone else might disagree with."

With this larger purpose in mind, I subjected my own reviews for the past several months to Book Review Bingo. While I was heartened to learn that I have never succumbed to the temptations of "unputdownable" or "riveting," I nevertheless earned a bingo on the very first card, due to my terrible fondness for the constructions "that said" and "at once," and my inability to resist the "X meets X" formulation in the very last review I wrote for Salon. Also, as I am utterly ashamed to admit, I once used the word "stunning."

As for my own irritants, the word "luminous," while not quite a cliché yet, is nevertheless a dead giveaway that the book under consideration is prettily written but dull. "Magisterial" is a word over-applied to nonfiction that is intimidatingly lengthy. And while I have indulged in "generous" (i.e., long and warm-hearted) myself in the past, it's time to give that one a rest, too.

I promise to try to do better in the future, and invite the readers of Salon to nominate their own pet peeves. We have nothing to lose but our chestnuts.

message 2: by Patty, free birdeaucrat (new)

Patty | 896 comments Mod
I'll just add


which are related. Thanks for posting this Matt, I love it.

My own pet peeve? Writers being likened to other writers because of demographic rather than writerly characteristics. "The Walt Whitman (or Gene Genet or Oscar Wilde) of Cuba (or where ever)" for example, used to describe any gay writer, often not even working in the same genre.

message 3: by João (last edited Mar 19, 2010 12:56PM) (new)

João Camilo (jcamilo) | 259 comments The fox and the grapes, both as non two-bimensional characters.

The fox walked by, tired after a day of work. She was hungry as well, but first she was thinking about her neighbor, Mr.Seagull. A former sea (as the name indicated) frustrated gull, because it had a flatulency problem that kept all pelicans and albatross away, visited him that morning with a problem. The copy machine is not working. The fox looked into the black and deep eyes of the gull. Why would you need a copy machine? His eyes make him think of his brother. Two or three. They were born together, eight of ten. But it was a hard winter. No small rodents, birds, eggs in the breakfast. Mother Russia was once more a cold bitch. The Gull licked his lips and said. I need a copy machine because I need to copy my ass and send to the boss. The fox jumped from her sit, white teeth flashing to bite the gull neck. Like she did with her weaker brothers, fighting to drink the milk, keeping him from warmth. No matter how much her father told it was the law of the nature, survival of fittest. Why she was fit? Maybe her young brother would be brave if had the chance to live longer. She killed him, she killed how many. If her brother had 5 little foxes, calling her Aunt Foxie, every summer, he would had 50 little foxes, each with more 50… While she was never able to raise more than 2! 5 of them killed by that big brown bear that ruled the cold lands near the lake, in a day she got distracted fishing. Fishing, and that fish wasn’t even good, but she could survive that winter, thanks to that fish.
The seagull flew upwards, farting. She could not bite, no blood, sour red blood on her claws and tooth. She had to eat fruits. Like those grapes. Oh, grapes. Every Christmas her first husband used to bring a grape for her. It was her gift. She would lick the grape, let it slide in her mouth, from one side to another. Like a Egg. But those new grapes. Are then mature. Or not. Or are. Or not. Her life could not be easy? She could not just know?

Lord Trunkdriver was happily hunting foxes, like a lord. He saw the fox. He shoot. She died. He eat the grapes. Some are sour, but he did not cared. He was happy.

Moral: Flat characters die hardly.

message 4: by Matt, e-monk (new)

Matt Comito | 386 comments Mod
see, that story is luminous and limning and what not right there - all those big 10 cent words plus some

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