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?


Anonymous said...

I think clichés for a writer should be like “get out of jail free” cards in Monopoly: we should all be given two or three (say) – to be used in emergencies!

At some point, we're all going to write something that sounds trite. But that's just everyday language. You make a very good point about Larsson. While I was reading the Millennium books, it sounded as if he was going through people's to-do lists. But that didn't make the books any less exciting!

Of course, overt-use of cliches is a problem. If what you've written sounds uninspired or generic, maybe it is time to get the machete out and do some drastic cutting. But the odd cliché (used sparingly) doesn't hurt...

Anonymous said...

And I enjoy a good rummage - so there!

Anonymous said...

It's a good article from Smith, and I agree. I think the point being made is less about originality, forced or not, and more about this somnambulaic defaulting to standard phrasing.

Basically, I don't think it's about dressing up the mundane - I think she's applying this to any writing. An action cliche is just as unthinking as the handbag example. The act of bending automatically to a particular phrase is where the problem lies.

With that said, I think the strongest counterargument that could be made would be that these default phrases are slung heavy with semiotics, and take on associative meanings that are reinforced by the the familiarity of the phrase. Take 'salt of the earth'. It's far more than it's initial understood meaning; it's the constellation of other fixed and unfixed meanings that span out from it (Saussure et al). Because these meanings are mutually understood and shared among the author and reader, it is possible to exploit everyday turns of phrase to connect modular ideas more fully.

However, both sides considered, I have to find in favour of Smith. Few authors wield phraseology with the sort of skill delineated above; most who use clichés in order to connect are those writing pulp that appeals to the lowest common denominator. The result is something homogenous in texture, like semolina. And nobody wants to read semolina.

Strawsonian said...

The following passage from the Independent's obituary of Kingsley Amis echoes your comments on Stieg Larsson, Karen.

What may have been at the root of any resentment was a fear that his son's distinctive style might affect his own. "He used to get rather irritated because he thought Martin was having an adverse effect on him," said Mr Jacobs. "He said he wished Martin would just write something simple like 'He finished his drink and left the bar'. But he also said to me that if people were still reading books in 50 years' time they would probably see him and Martin as twigs on the same branch."

Martin Amis was/is a great journalist and an excellent literary critic. His collected criticism is even called The War Against Cliche, and there are many splendid things in it - especially his review of Thomas Harris's Hannibal Lecter books. For me, though, he hasn't published a decent novel in years. There is such a thing as trying too hard, and that comes through in Amis Jnr's style. His near constant striving for profundity is grating rather than great. A writer such as Rupert Thomson, by contrast, manages an elegant and distinctive style without seeming in the least contrived or mannered.

By the way, have just finished watching the "Girl With" film trilogy. Would be interested in what you make of the Lisbeth Salander character. As Larsson was a journalist, I think she is meant to represent the freedom of the individual from the tyranny of the majority.

Karen Burke said...

Thanks for the comments!

I agree that there is such a thing as trying too hard. I think you sum it up, Strawsonian: “Constant striving for profundity is grating rather than great.” Simple language can be profound. Flashy flourishes can be deceiving: masking self-consciousness; cloaking a vacuum; trying to deflect attention away from what you hope no one will notice.

Karen Burke said...

On the Millennium film trilogy: I watched the first quarter of the first dvd. I just couldn't bring myself to watch Bjurman raping Salander again. It was bad enough the first time.

Salander's character in the film wasn't the Salander I imagined from reading the book.