Critical Art of Reviews

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If you’re a regular reader of book reviews you’ll have noticed that certain phrases and expressions crop up regularly.

Reviews of crime novels and thrillers will frequently tell you that the book is “full of suspense” or “a page turner” that “kept me guessing”. Among reviewers of contemporary and literary fiction, ” compelling” and “intriguing” feature prominently as does ” characters that linger long in the mind. “

I’m not being sniffy about this. It’s hard work trying to come up with new ways to express an opinion or to convey the essence of a book. There’s an art to reviewing with the best practitioners able to produce an article that in itself is a fine piece of writing. One that entertains as well as informs. I’m in awe of the people (usually those who write for the high-brow, serious outlets) who can sustain high quality and a level of freshness time and time again.

I’d love to have even half their level of skill. Writing reviews is a painful process for me, trying to balance the need to give readers a sense of the book’s style and themes without getting bogged down in details about the plot. With every piece I tackle, I’m conscious that I might have used the same (or similar) form of words only a few weeks earlier.

If I have a tough enough time with roughly 50 reviews a year, imagine the challenges faced by magazines which, over the course of a year, must publish hundreds of reviews.

The Times Literary Supplement has squared up to this issue with a strong line on phrases and words they deem unacceptable or inappropriate.

Here is their list of 20 words and phrases that reviewers must be sure to remove before submitting their articles.

I’m sure a number of these will be familiar. I bet you’ve all seen literary classics described as “baggy monsters” or humorous novels that made the reviewer “laugh out loud.”

I plead guilty to using some of these terms myself. I know I’ve used the phrase “these are minor quibbles” or variants of it, many times. Ditto “searing indictment of …” Often it’s just laziness on my part, opting for the easy approach rather than investing time to re-phrase or do a thesaurus look up.

The rationale for the TLS’ inclusion of most of these phrases is clear. When you read them without context they can come across as silly. “Writes like an angel” strikes me as particularly ridiculous. Others are just over-worn (“rich tapestry”) or outdated (like “curate’s egg”)

But what’s wrong with “eponymous hero”? I’m even more baffled by the guidance to avoid saying an author “reminds one of Martin Amis”. Is the problem the use of the impersonal pronoun or just the reference to Martin Amis? Why, out of the hundreds of thousands of authors in existence is he the one to be singled out?

The TLS’ editorial team must have invested considerable time and effort to select just 20 words and phrases. It would be interesting to see what didn’t make it onto the list.

I’m wondering which words/phrases I would have included. “Awesome” would definitely be on my list though I can’t honestly see TLS reviewers using that word. “Life-affirming” would be in contention, as would “unmissable.”

But generally I’m not keen on the idea of prohibiting words en bloc just because they are cliched or ubiquitous. Sometimes you use a well-worn phase because there is no other expression that so perfectly captures your ideas about a book.

I’m curious what you think of the TLS’ selection. Any surprises about the inclusions or omissions? Those of you who write way more reviews than I do, how do you avoid using the same expressions over and over again? Any tips and tricks to share?

BookerTalk

What do you need to know about me? 1. I'm from Wales which is one of the countries in the UK and must never be confused with England. 2. My life has always revolved around the written and spoken word. I worked as a journalist for nine years then in international corporate communications 3. My tastes in books are eclectic. I love realism and hate science fiction and science fantasy. 4. I am trying to broaden my reading horizons geographically by reading more books in translation

33 thoughts on “Critical Art of Reviews

  • October 3, 2020 at 12:35 pm
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    Does it not depend on the intended function of the review? If the aim is to present a literary critique of the novel – as might well be the case in the TLS – then it is important not to sully your argument with sloppy writing. But if the aim is to let potential readers know what to expect, to help them decide whether or not they would enjoy reading the book, then using the odd cliche is, I would argue, essential in conveying that information in language that the potential reader understands.

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    • October 3, 2020 at 6:01 pm
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      Thats a good point Frank. The TLS does have a very different remit to that of most blogs. The odd cliche is fine, the issue is that I sometimes see them used far too often by the same blogger

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  • September 24, 2020 at 10:23 am
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    I snorted when I got to the Martin Amis line – I’m wondering if it’s because he was so pervasive, popular, and picked-over at one point that likening someone’s work to his became a cliche compliment? I think I do have a few pet phrases (“made me literally laugh out loud” would be one, no TLS for me!), but I think they become an effective short-hand. For people who read a lot of reviews, they allow for meaning to be communicated quickly and effectively (why would I contort myself to find fifteen different ways of saying the book made me laugh, when doubtless most of the alternatives wouldn’t be as clear?), and for people who don’t read a lot of reviews it hardly matters (does it?).

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    • September 25, 2020 at 4:58 pm
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      Either that or because Martin Amis is considered by some folks to be highly pretentious and obscure ….

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  • September 23, 2020 at 5:01 pm
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    Thanks for this amusing post, but I wonder if the list is supposed to be a bit humorous? The Martin Amis one surely suggests they’re being a bit silly.

    Along with others, I feel like I use stock phrases too often; I try to weed them out (sic) but I just can’t help myself.

    New ones that annoy me are: ‘likeable characters’ as I usually find the less likeable a character is the more interesting; and ‘strong female character’ – again, weak characters are generally more interesting, I find. It’s not the phrases as such but what they’re saying about reading.

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    • September 23, 2020 at 5:26 pm
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      It was highlighted on a facebook site for journalists Jonathan – there wasn’t any suggestion that it should be read “tongue in cheek” (there we go, another cliche!). So for now I’ll take it as genuine ….

      “Likeable characters” is an interesting one. Likeability doesn’t always mean I relate to the character – some of the most fascinating portrayals are of people I thoroughly dislike, and would have a strong aversion to in real life. But I admire the skill of the author in developing the character.

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  • September 22, 2020 at 8:18 pm
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    I’ve used at least ten of these words or phrases at one time or another, the odd one more often than is seemly! I do try to ring the changes (it would be helpful to have a thesaurus rather than just racking my brains!) but sometimes a particular word, usually a handy metaphor, is as it were ‘le mot juste’.

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    • September 22, 2020 at 10:00 pm
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      I try to find alternatives as much as possible but as you say, sometime the alternative just doesn’t have the required nuance

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  • September 22, 2020 at 4:24 pm
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    I have been guilty of using ‘eponymous hero’ – I didn’t realise I shouldn’t!

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    • September 22, 2020 at 6:37 pm
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      I still don’t understand what’s wrong with that expression Cathy

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  • September 22, 2020 at 11:01 am
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    I think they’re being a bit pompous. We all have our likes and dislikes, but it’s not always easy to come up with something original – especially when doing what for many of us is a hobby not an occupation! I do try to avoid all the usual cliches (and like whisperinggums says, most blurbs nowadays make me want to throw a book across the room….)

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    • September 22, 2020 at 10:01 pm
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      Blurbs I find intensely annoying though I do have some sympathy with the people who have to write them. It can’t be easy capturing the essence of a book and selling it to potential readers when you have so few words in which to do so

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  • September 22, 2020 at 9:33 am
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    I was also puzzled about the inclusion of ‘eponymous hero’; it’s a technical term, yes, but accurate and less wordy than the alternative. I agree with others here: the TLS list is surely tongue-in-cheek, or at least not entirely serious – hence the cheap dig at M Amis (again, presumably, also at reviewers trying to sound well-read and smug?) I’m sure we all have pet hates about language use, but write our own overused expressions that others dislike.

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    • September 22, 2020 at 10:04 pm
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      Glad to know I’m not alone in finding eponymous a puzzling inclusion. I suspect the TLS believes their readers are very well read and a cut above the kind of person who would read say a review in one of the national newspapers….

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  • September 22, 2020 at 9:10 am
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    I also am fond of ‘Curate’s Egg’, and am guilty of ‘minor quibble’ too. ‘In spite of’ can be a difficult one to avoid though. Martin Amis does have a particular style combined with his literary ubiquity, so I can understand that specific one for professional reviewers!

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    • September 22, 2020 at 10:07 pm
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      I can’t really see a problem with the occasional use of these terms – maybe what the TLS wants to avoid is too many of their reviewers saying the same thing

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  • September 22, 2020 at 8:52 am
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    I put my hand up to ‘curate’s egg’. ‘Reminds one of Martin Amis’ would be very useful to me in reading a review. I’d know to run fast in the other direaction!

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    • September 22, 2020 at 10:07 pm
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      I’ve read only one of his books – London Fields. Some of it was powerful but it was rather confusing too

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  • September 22, 2020 at 5:47 am
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    I love the TLS (sometimes!), but I do use some of these “cliches.” I often say a book makes me laugh out loud. And it really does!

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  • September 22, 2020 at 3:21 am
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    I wrote a post back in 2010 on book reviewing cliches. It included some of my pet hates – riveting (which I think I may have used in fact) and tour-de-force. I try really really hard to avoid all that standard book review/book blurb jargon you see on the fronts and backs of books.

    I do do a few on your list – “in spite of” ( I think), “minor quibbles” or some such (definitely!), “baggy monster” definitely to liken a book to those big 19th century novels. I wonder whether by “reminds me of Martin Amis” that really mean “reminds me of [name of author]”? If they just mean Martin Amis perhaps it’s because he’s become too ubiquitous. If it’s the latter I don’t agree because I think it can be useful. At least, I think it can be useful in our middle-brow reviews!

    Words I try to avoid – in addition to those pet hates above – include “feisty” (in your list) and “poignant”. I also wouldn’t use “life-affirming”.

    However, “in spite of this” (haha), it is very hard to come up with fresh meaningful ways of saying the same or similar things. I do use the thesaurus quite a bit – but with moderate success. The first word you think of is often best which is why you thought of it – but the risk is you thought of it because you read it everywhere and there really are some better words out there. I think because I try to avoid words like these, I don’t write good blurb bites that publicists etc can pick out (the way they do) but so be it. I’d rather try to write a meaningful review that doesn’t trot out the usual, if I can possible help it!

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  • September 22, 2020 at 1:44 am
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    I have a sudden urge to find a way to work “baggy monster” and “curate’s egg” into my review :p

    I definitely use some of these phrases but others were new to me!

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    • September 22, 2020 at 9:54 pm
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      Wouldn’t it be fun to try and write a review where you used every phrase on this list!

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    • September 22, 2020 at 9:54 pm
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      I’ve used it myself – though not for a long time

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  • September 21, 2020 at 10:59 pm
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    Ha! Guilty I’m sure!!!
    I can’t relate to most of these phrases…..This is a serious discussion though! I immediately thought of phrases I probably overuse such as unputdownable, poignant, heartfelt, and compelling! This is excellent advice to keep in mind during the editing phase! Although I’m rather attached to my phrases! 😂

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    • September 22, 2020 at 9:53 pm
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      I’m not going to try and eliminate those phrases from my own reviews – sometimes they are exactly what I want to say. But it’s given me a wake up call that I should take care not to over- use the same phrases over and over again.

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  • September 21, 2020 at 10:52 pm
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    Quite a few seem quite obscure. My only guilty quote would probably be “laugh out loud” but I don’t see that as a problem. Why not state it if it is really funny. I think political correctness is alive and well in the publishing world. Ooops, hope that didn’t make you laugh out loud. 😆😆😆🤠🐧🍷

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    • September 22, 2020 at 3:23 am
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      But I don’t think this is political correctness exactly, Pam, is it? I think it’s about trying to write freshly. If reviewers use these standards words and phrases again and again they truly do become meaningless. Certainly back cover blurbs often turn me off with their cliches.

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      • September 22, 2020 at 9:51 pm
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        I don’t see this as being PC either Sue. They probably have that addressed in a different style guide

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      • September 23, 2020 at 2:50 am
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        When I say political correctness I compare it to people who write job applications in the professional or corporate world and ensure all the buzz words are in those applications. They thinkmit gives them a better chance. I think there are writers/publishers who do the same thing by including common cliches as maybe it keeps their writing with in the trends happening at the time. Whether it is true or not is not known but I have thought it at times when reading current books. Just a thought.

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        • September 23, 2020 at 11:27 pm
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          Ah, I guess I wouldn’t call that political correctness Pam. But I agree with you about buzz words. They are so BORING. And when did “going forward” become a better phrase than “in the future”? Or that idea of talking “around” an issue rather that “about” it. It makes me feel they’ll go all around the outside of the issue but never get to it itself!

          But you’re right. Sometimes it’s laziness, but sometimes as you say people think they have to be with the trend to succeed in whatever it is they are doing.

    • September 22, 2020 at 9:50 pm
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      Curate’s egg may not have as much meaning outside of UK – even within UK I suspect it’s not well understood

      Reply

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