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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?

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