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I read over 100 books a year. Here are my thoughts on the best (and worst).

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Greatest critical cliches of all time, from hell, on acid

A friend who read my previous blog post, How to be a Great Reviewer, thought I should do a blog on reviewing cliches. To set me off, he suggested 'He/She writes like an angel...'

I'm not sure you hear that one around much these days, but at least it has a good pedigree. It is the catchphrase of John Dyson, the hapless journalist in Michael Frayn's Towards the End of the Morning who is always 'heading for a crack-up'. Frayn's lovely novel about Fleet Street in the 1960s, written when he was in his early thirties, is a work of comic genius. (Oh dear. As well as being true, that statement is almost certainly a reviewing cliche...)

So what else? The well-known formula 'X meets Y', where the two variables are recent bestsellers or incongruous bed-partners - "Homer meets Trainspotting' - seems to have fallen out of fashion. I think it was always more of a blurb-writer's cliche than a reviewer's. I've just been sent a book which is described as 'a mash-up of Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy and Dante' - maybe 'mashup' will be the new overdone phrase. Formerly ubiquitous, not seen so much now, are '...from hell' and '... on acid' ('Like Jane Austen on acid...'). Showing no signs of flagging yet is 'an X for the 21st century'.

I've never been very fond of 'unmissable', used of theatre and film. It always made be want to miss the show in question, just to check whether the sky fell in on me or not. Likewise, nothing should ever be described as 'essential'. Or 'unique', if it isn't. 'The phrase, 'If you only buy one book this year...'  should be completed by the words '... what are you doing reading the books pages?' I've blogged before on the cringeworthy phrase 'a great toilet book'. Regardless of whether you think it's tasteless or not, I think we can agree that it's a towering great cliche.

I've never been very fond of the author-reviewer whose highest term of praise is: 'I wish I'd written it.' It's kindly meant, but the whiff of self-love is hard to overcome. 'Hey, great news! You're almost as good as me!'

'Page-turner', although useful, might now be a suitable phrase for the dustbin, as well as 'I couldn't put it down,' together with its cynical cousin 'I couldn't pick it up.' A writer I knew used to finish nearly all his reviews with the words 'Great stuff.' Then there's 'laugh-out-loud funny', together with 'so funny I missed my stop on the Tube'. (Or train. But I don't think I've ever seen seen it with reference to a bus.) 'So funny I wet my pants' seems to be more a film critic's cliche than a book reviewer's, perhaps because we are usually sitting on our own sofas rather than 20th Century Fox's.

Can a single word be a cliche? If so, I suggest 'dystopian', 'poignant', 'elegiac', 'prophetic' and 'poetic' (when used of prose). Also 'coruscating', especially if you think it means 'scathing'. And 'forensic', especially if you think it means 'detailed'.

Tonight I'm off to the launch party for Sam Leith's novel The Coincidence Engine. It is billed on the dustjacket as: 'Philip K Dick meets Evelyn Waugh'. And who is responsible for this observation? The great Michael Moorcock! Sorry, Michael...


  1. 'x' meets 'y' is popular in pop music reviews too... 'it's The Stones meets Kraftwerk -on acid!'

    I like 'The something(s) someone'... e.g. one of our mutual friends and recipient of some memorable reviews, Mark Simpson, has been described as 'The Skinhead Oscar Wilde'. A great accolade but a little bit trite.

    'Milton Keyne's answer to George Bernard Shaw'
    'West Hampstead's answer to A Taste of Honey'

    are also a bit grating.

  2. I went through this post with my heart in my mouth (cliché alert!), seeing which clangers I've committed on my blog. I think I got away pretty lightly. I do have a tendency to overuse 'portentous' though, I think.

    What about clichés from publicists? If I had a penny for every email I've had about "a new book we're very excited about," I'd have, well, over a pound anyway.

  3. "This is not a book to be tossed away lightly...it is a book to be thrown with great force into the rubbish bin!"

    can't remember who said it :)

  4. I once described a cut-and-paste compilation of urban legends "an undemanding bog book" on the grounds that it was so bad I wouldn't contemplate wasting my time with it anywhere else in the house. It didn't feel like a cliche, just the appropriate level of put-down.

  5. An author I worked with asked me never to use the word "compelling" in his press releases.

  6. Am sure I'm guilty of far too many of these - though every reviewer also knows there are adjectives which are code for something else (see A Vicious Circle Chapter 16 dare I say so).
    The problem with dystopian is that every other ruddy YA book I get sent now is that. It's a genre.

  7. I've had some other excellent suggestions: 'magisterial', 'darkly comic', 'weird' (used as a compliment), 'penetrating', 'witty and moving', 'tour-de-force' and - probably my favourite - 'stunning indictment'.

  8. 'By turns.' When else does one ever use that? 'By turns intimate and brash'. Really? What does that even mean?

  9. Did you ever see this, by the great Tom Payne?