Friday, 10 June 2011

Literary Cliches

Since yesterday literary clichés have been bugging me. After reading Philip Hensher in the Telegraph today and listening to Martin Amis in the Guardian Book’s podcast yesterday, it seems that writing in a straightforward fashion risks being cliché. (Martin Amis: “Whenever a novelist writes ‘she rummaged in her handbag,’ this is dead freight.” Zadie Smith’s makes the same point, which I’ll return to in a minute.)

Here is Philip Hensher in the Telegraph (tweeted today) reviewing Tea Obreht’s novel The Tigger’s Wife:
And it suffers slightly from banality in the writing. The literary novel has its own dreaded clichés by now – “These stories run like secret rivers through all the other stories of his life” – to which Ms Obreht adds universal clichés – “Dobravka was a woman possessed”. Her editor might have told her not to use the expression “I thought to myself,” too.
I wonder if it will become cliché to write, for example, that she sat down and drank a cup of coffee? It’s an activity that many people do often. How else should writers describe it? One of the reasons Stieg Larsson’s books work so well is that the picture is clear: “He put down his coffee. He got up from the chair. He opened the door. He walked down the street.” (Those are paraphrases.)

Going back to Zadie Smith and her 2007 essay "Fail Better":

“With a cliche you have pandered to a shared understanding, you have taken a short-cut, you have re-presented what was pleasing and familiar rather than risked what was true and strange. It is an aesthetic and an ethical failure: to put it very simply, you have not told the truth. When writers admit to failures they like to admit to the smallest ones - for example, in each of my novels somebody "rummages in their purse" for something because I was too lazy and thoughtless and unawake to separate "purse" from its old, persistent friend "rummage". To rummage through a purse is to sleepwalk through a sentence.”

Alternatives are not suggested. Perhaps there is a fear that they too might become clichés? The key here is “true and strange”. A writer might be describing a scene that is true and strange, but reaching for the thesaurus won’t necessarily help a writer to communicate the event’s truthfulness or strangeness. I am not arguing for novels full of aphorisms and empty clichés; I am questioning whether we will see writers dressing up scenes or ideas with fancy language.

Are we far away from reading that “he said” has become a literary cliché?