Dear reader, life is too short for crap books.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

In Defense of the Seven Deadly Words

Last week, I expressed some chagrin over my use of what Bob Harris of the NYT's Paper Cuts called the seven deadly words of book reviewing.

The 200+ snarksome, pissy comments generated by the post set forth a ton more. Apparently "sweeping epic," "tour de force," "page-turner," "readable," "wickedly funny/darkly comic," "nuanced," and "rollicking" are making people want to "claw their eyes out" in droves.

Yes, there are a few bits of book-reviewese that I dislike immensely: luminous, dazzling, and wise, to name a few. And while I feel that literary criticism is probably ill-served by the overuse of this language, I also believe that book reviewing needs it. And I'll stand on Michiko Kakutani's coffee table in my cowboy boots and say this.

What I do, what many other lit bloggers do, and even what most "legitimate" book reviewers do isn't literary criticism, it's readers' advisory. We're telling our readers why they might or might not want to pick up a book, and those readers are possessed of an understandably short attention span. After all, why would anyone waste their time reading about a book that they don't want to read?

So, we have to work fast.

However, overused the word "taut" may be, it tells the reader something about an author's writing style in the same way that "rollicking" tells us something about the pacing and tone, and "page-turner" about the general reading experience. These words are shorthand, a kind of secret readers' code that lets us know as quickly as possible whether we want to pursue a book.

And I happen to like books that are "poignant."

I used to write 1000-word reviews for venues more legitimate than my own sorry little blog, but eventually the process began to feel like an empty exercise in saying something that hadn't already been said, using far more words than needed to be used in the first place.

Because in nearly every case, I'd decided that I wanted to review the book by reading a 150-word review in PW or Library Journal or Booklist.

A book review needs to serve the interests of the reader, not the ego of the reviewer. And while there's a place for the dense and linguistically classy review, I'll usually opt for the populist approach in my review-reading and review-writing. Hell, it's what all the kids are doing anyways, even the NYT.

It's more "readable."*
* The only "Seven Deadly Words" comment that actively annoyed me was the one that read, “'Readable.' I don’t know what that means. Is the work grammatical? Is it a comment about the book’s typeface?"

I happen to love this word, which describes a piece of writing with qualities that appeal to a wide range of readers. The librarians at the Madison Public Library have done an excellent job of tapping into this appeal with their "Too Good to Miss" and "Beyond Bestsellers: Best of the New" book lists.

Um, don't miss them.


Andi said...

Amen and right on! Couldn't have said it better myself.


Unabashedly Fond of "Poignant."

mary_m said...

I was surprised how divisive that word was -- although nothing got people more riled up than "eschew," which had quite a few defenders.