Monday, May 19, 2008

Critical clichés — A richly textured, fully realized comment

I recently read a reference to a crime novel as "fully realized." Not long before, I'd found myself thinking that another crime novel was "richly textured." You've read both terms a million times; so have I.

Such familiarity is usually a sign of danger. But I've apparently become more tolerant than I was, and I adopted an attitude of benevolent inquiry toward the expression that had sprung so readily to my lips. What did I mean by it? How did it apply to the story in question? I came up with a satisfactory answer, which you may read here one day.

But what about you? What critics' terms have you read and heard so often that they've become part of how you think about books (or other works of art)? What terms drive you nuts? What terms do both? What do critics mean when they use these terms? And what do the terms mean to you?

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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29 Comments:

Blogger pattinase (abbott) said...

Intertextualization, post-modern.

May 19, 2008  
Anonymous Iain Rowan said...

"The novel's emphasis on character" (there's no plot)

"This plot-driven tale" (the characters are cardboard cutouts)

"A rollicking yarn" (the characters are cardboard cutouts and the plot makes no sense)

"High octane thriller" (stuff blows up. Repeatedly)

"Use of contemporary politics" (there are terrorists in it)

"Nuanced contemporary politics" (there are terrorists in it, but one of them is not entirely, wholly evil and the protagonist may in fact be a little sad when killing him/her)

"Dense" (unreadable, gives you a headache)

"Tour de force" (it weighs more than the reviewer's laptop)

"Lyrical prose" (it has adjectives in it)

"Taut, muscular prose" (it has no adjectives in it)

"An emotional rollercoaster" (See that nice secondary character? Going to die.)

May 19, 2008  
Blogger Linkmeister said...

Wow. I can't improve on Iain's list (well, maybe "dense" could also mean "long").

I think I'm desensitized to them; they wash right over me without notice. If the blurbs are from authors whose work I know I give that a little credence, but I've read a few authors' discussion about the blurb process, and I'm not impressed.

May 19, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks, all. I'm surprised that no one nominated "edgy." You know what "edgy" means, don't you? I sure don't.

But I could swear I've read sentences like "this edgy, post-modern take on classic noir, its prose at once taut and lyrical."

May 19, 2008  
Blogger Martin Edwards said...

'Transcends the genre' (the reviewer liked the book but is too embarrassed to admit to liking crime fiction.)

May 19, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

How could I have forgotten 'transcends the genre'? Your comment is a must-read.

May 19, 2008  
Blogger Declan Burke said...

Am I alone in believing that Martin Edwards has transcended the comment genre with his taut, edgy, muscular, post-modern tour-de-force?

May 19, 2008  
Anonymous BV Lawson said...

"A real page turner." If nothing else, it makes it sound like the book has some kind of magic auto-turning function that flips the pages for you. Aside from that, "page turner" often denotes a book (thriller, usually) which is all plot (of the "stuff's gonna 'splode" variety) and little substance.

May 19, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Declan, I agree with you about Martin Edwards' comment. I read it in one sitting. I couldn't put it down.

May 20, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

B.V., I challenge you (or anyone else) to name a page-turner that trancends its genre.

May 20, 2008  
Blogger Linkmeister said...

Peter, I'll call. I think there's a single-sentence chapter in Faulkner's As I Lay Dying which reads "My mother is a fish."

I couldn't wait to turn the page, and I sure couldn't figure out the genre, but I'm sure it was transcended.

May 20, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

"My mother is a fish."

Sounds character-driven to me.

May 20, 2008  
Blogger Dana King said...

I have Reviewer's Dilemma: I'm currently reading a book for review(which shall remain unnamed) for which all of Iain's comments may apply, yet to use them ALL now would amount to plagiarism. What to do? Leaving any out seems to prasie with faint damning.

May 20, 2008  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Absolutely delightful, couldn't put "it" down, and,

The best laugh I've had all day.

Loved your collective comments.

Pat Harrington

May 20, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

All Iain's comments? If the book has both "`Lyrical prose' (it has adjectives in it)" and "`Taut, muscular prose' (it has no adjectives in it)," perhaps it's thought-provoking, not easily categorized, or edgy — and I'm holding a few adjectives in reserve in case I need them to reply to future comments.

Strip your review of critical catch phrases, and it just might break new ground.

May 20, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

"The best laugh I've had all day."

Now, that's a blurb I can easily live with. Thanks, Pat.

May 20, 2008  
Anonymous Iain Rowan said...

Dana, feel free to use them all, on the condition that you end the review by saying that the book is:

'Like X meets Y. On acid.'

May 20, 2008  
Blogger Euro Crime said...

Picaresque

May 21, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Oh, yes. That's a good one. I probably could even think of a crime novel or two to which it might have been applied.

May 21, 2008  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sorry I came late to this, but I've always disliked "in the tradition of. . ." which usually means "a pale imitation of."

May 22, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

It's never too late to comment. That's the beauty of the blogosphere: It retains everything and thus effaces all barriers of time.

Yeah, I hate "in the tradition of," too, although I think it's more an advertising than a critical term. It means what you suggested, "pale imitation," or else it means that the reviewer or ad copywriter thinks the audience is a bunch of morons who can be appealed to only in terms of the safely familiar

May 22, 2008  
Blogger Deborah said...

If I read one more review with the phrase "luminous prose" I'll barf.

May 26, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I just might be there upchucking right beside you. "Luminous prose" is more vacuous than other clichés in this discussion, some of which at least mean something. I'm not sure what "luminous prose" means except that the author might be able to write a few pretty sentences even if he or she can't tell a story all that well. But pretty in what way? What sort or prose qualifies as "luminous"?

May 26, 2008  
Blogger Deborah said...

I have no idea what "luminous prose" means -- maybe it glows in the dark? I am a librarian & I read book reviews almost all day. I should compile a list of all the overused cliches I come across.

May 28, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Deborah, can a dark novel contain luminous prose? Wouldn't it be great to see a passage of fiction on the SAT, followed by this question:

The prose in the preceding passage:

a) transcends its genre.
b) is luminous.
c) is a real page-turner.
d) is an edgy post-modern take on the whodunnit.
e) is none of the above.
f) is all of the above.

May 28, 2008  
Blogger Xflyer said...

Yes indeed. I've seen many or maybe all of what you are recalling. The one that annoys me is not so much in the writtren form but veerbal. Ever since I have moved into Oklahoma, their expression of a situation, an example of the person speaking uses the " . . . it makes me no never mind." This is so unnatural to the human language that it must fall under a collection of Colloquialism language expressions spoken by "Okies" of all ages.

Fun indeed trying to decypher our own language. Like Ubonics, this could be a whole new discovery of "Oakbonics".

Hah ... see ya pard'nr!

May 30, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

" 'Everybody says words different,' said Ivy. 'Arkansas folks says 'em different, and Oklahomy folks says 'em different. And we seen a lady from Massachusetts, an' she said 'em different of all. Couldn't hardly make out what she was sayin'!' "
-- John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath, 1939.

Xflyer, that must be a relative of "It don't make no never mind,' which I've heard, though I can't remember where. I'm not sure anything is unnatural to human language, though. I've recently been thinking of quirks in how certain people speak English, and how many of these quirks, odd as they may seem to some, have perfectly natural explanations.

French uses what seems to English speakers like double negatives. If I asked you to imitate a Russian, you'd probably begin by dropping your articles. (Well, you'd probably begin by fomenting unrest in Central Asian Republics, but you get the idea.) Many native Russian speakers do this when they speak English simply because their language lacks articles. Articles are unnatural to Russian speakers, in other words.

But my favorite example is one I read years ago, about a trait of African American speech. You may have heard black Americans saying something like "I've been knowing him for years," which will certainly sound unnatural to many speakers of English. The discussion I read, however, suggested such expressions may be reflect the absence or at leat the different conception of stative verbs in certain African languages. (Those are verbs that express a static state of affairs and do not take progressive forms, i.e., "I am ---------ing.")

I don't suggest that all these forms and expressions be accepted as correct, but I'd hesitate before I called them unnatural. Why do some people in Massachusetts add an s to all, as in "Alls I'm saying is ... " or say "So aren't I."? Damned if I know!

May 30, 2008  
Anonymous Iain Rowan said...

Perhaps luminous prose is prose which isn't quite light-emitting enough to be coruscating.

(Google only gives just under a thousand instances of coruscating prose compared to nearly fourteen thousand instances of luminous prose. Old favourite limpid also beats coruscating hands down, with pellucid hard behind it on the rails).

May 30, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Yeah, pellucid sounds kind of New Yorker to me.

Has anyone nominated timeless tale, shattering as an adjective, wildly or any phrase of the form XXXXingly + adjective? A critic at my newspaper once referred to some director's "shatteringly good" movie. That is the most grating, jaw-droppingly awful piece of English prose I have ever read.

May 30, 2008  

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