Book Review Clichés I’d Like To See

Darryl Campbell has a few suggestions on how book reviewers can sound more esoteric.

Photo by risa-i

Every profession has its own peculiar jargon, but the language of book reviewers probably comes under more scrutiny than that of any other group (except politicians). If you’ve read more than four book reviews in your life, then you’re familiar with their hyperventilated style. A good book can be a “tour-de-force,” “poignant,” “lyrical,” “un-put-downable,” “pitch-perfect”; a bad book can be “woefully inadequate” or “staggeringly bad,” with characters that are “cookie-cutter” and settings that are “derivative.” Ones that don’t quite fit in one genre or another are described like a mashup: “Nicholas Sparks meets Thomas Pynchon” or some other such formulation. The list goes on.

So it comes as no surprise that there are plenty of specific complaints about the reviewer’s argot. My own favorite is from Dwight Garner, by way of Twitter: “To call a nonfiction book ‘magisterial’ is to get an intellectual hall pass; you no longer have to discuss the book in any meaningful way.”

But out of sympathy for the beleaguered book reviewers out there, and in the spirit of offering solutions instead of merely pointing out problems, I’d like to offer them some suggestions as substitutes for the hoarier chestnuts in their arsenal.

Move the goalposts

Instead of prattling on about things like plot and characters, imagine some new criteria by which to judge books and their authors. Any book without a sex scene in the first 20 pages (5 pages for a romance novel), for example, should be described as “arid.” Young adult novels deal out plenty of life lessons about relationships, but where are the ones that provide sufficient personal finance advice? And perhaps we ought to consider how well writers of transgressive literature describe food handling and preparation.

Commit to hyperbole

If you’re going to lie and say you’ve thrown a book across the room, you may as well take such expressions to their logical extreme. A possible replacement: “I put down the book, scratched a curse in Hermes’s name against the author on a sheet of lead, and nailed it to the wall of the local temple, in the manner of a Roman defixio.” Better to be outrageous than predictable.

Use eponyms instead of synonyms

This neatly sidesteps the “elongated yellow fruit” problem. An author whose prose might be called “achingly beautiful” instead becomes “the Delacroix of literature”; a “darkly funny” book is now a “Rabelaisian comedy.” If fine artists aren’t your thing, then maybe American presidents might be a better comparison: “Taft-like excess,” “Cleveland-esque genre-bending” or “Clintonian eroticism.”

Mix highbrow and lowbrow diction

And I mean really go for it.: “Polylogic epistolary novels are the new intradiegetic-homodiegetic narratives.” “Not your father’s textual communities.” “Epizeuxis much?”

Borrow buzzwords from other industries

For example, turn bestsellers into “results-driven novels,” and debut authors into “entrepreneurial writers.” Take a line from restaurant critics and remark on how “toothsome,” “decadent,” or “chocolatey” someone’s writing is. Obviously, “well-crafted sentences” should become “artisanal sentences.”

With any luck, these will all get their own squares in the game of Book Review Bingo sooner rather than later.


Photo by risa-i

Darryl Campbell is the managing editor at The Bygone Bureau. He once got called an "elitist young author" by John Stossel, which he considers one of his top-ten lifetime accomplishments so far. Others include writing for The Christian Science Monitor and the Chronicle of Higher Education, paying off his car loan a year early, and getting a Twitter account. Send him an email.