November 4, 2011
Overused Words From Our Favorite Authors – Slideshow
by Melville House
A few years back, Bob Harris at The New York Times presented the Seven Deadly Words of Book Reviewing, with “compelling” being one of the Serious Offenders of the Written Word, and Lake Superior State University posted its 2011 list of “banished words” that includes “epic,” “viral,” and “man up.” We agree. Sometimes writers get lazy or tend to get a little too close to a word and end up using it in every other story or review. However, if you’re looking for an underused word, we suggest Alexis Madrigal‘s favorite: “growlery.” Here’s our challenge, scriveners: find a way to use this in a sentence and we’ll give you a gold star.
J.K. Rowling has made boatloads of money from her writing and has received many, many accolades, but this didn’t stop Stephen King from taking a stand against her excessive use of adverbs in Entertainment Weekly in 2003. The master of horror writes:
“The part of speech that indicates insecurity (”Did you really hear me? Do you really understand me?”) is the adverb, and Ms. Rowling seems to have never met one she didn’t like, especially when it comes to dialogue attribution. Harry’s godfather, Sirius, speaks ”exasperatedly”; Mrs. Weasley (mother of Harry’s best friend, Ron) speaks ”sharply”; Tonks (a clumsy witch with punked-up, parti-color hair) speaks ”earnestly.” As for Harry himself, he speaks quietly, automatically, nervously, slowly, and often.”
Pauline Kael was either criticized or praised for her “jazzy” rhetoric during her time at the New Yorker. In her column, she referred to Douglas Sirk‘s 1955 melodramatic masterpiece, All That Heaven Allows, as both “trashy” and “slurpy” while other movies, such as 1974’s Walking Tall or 1968’s Wild in the Streets,were described as “crummy.” Some of you might remember Renata Adler‘s attack on Kael in the venerable pages of the New York Review of Books in 1980, where she took aim at the forcefulness of Kael’s prose.
Adler writes, “The substance of her work has become little more than an attempt, with an odd variant of flak advertising copy, to coerce, actually to force numb acquiescence, in the laying down of a remarkably trivial and authoritarian party line.” Them’s fightin’ words.
In The New Yorker, James Wood calls Cormac McCarthy “one of the great hams of American prose,” because of his “histrionic rhetoric.” Wood writes that McCarthy’s attempt to stifle sentimentality in his work backfires, creating “a sentimental mannerism” that runs through the dialogue. But it’s the antiquarian soliloquies that really ruffle Wood’s feathers. Case in point — a passage from Blood Meridian:
“A legion of horribles, hundreds in number, half naked or clad in costumes attic or biblical or wardrobed out of a fevered dream with the skins of animals and silk finery and pieces of uniform still tracked with the blood of prior owners, coats of slain dragoons, frogged and braided cavalry jackets . . . and all the horsemen’s faces gaudy and grotesque with daubings like a company of mounted clowns, death hilarious, all howling in a barbarous tongue and riding down upon them like a horde from a hell more horrible yet than the brimstone land of christian reckoning, screeching and yammering and clothed in smoke like those vaporous beings in regions beyond right knowing where the eye wanders and the lip jerks and drools.”
Seconds needed to filet a book: 3
In One Life to Limn by Michiko Kakutani, Matt Gross writes that the New York Times book reviewer should consider using her favorite word “a tad less.” Emily Witt at The Observer wrote that Kakutani resurrected “limn” in her review of Amy Waldman‘s novel, The Submission, after some months in hiding. We all know that it’s a good word, but it is now so attached to Kakutani that we couldn’t imagine using it in our own writing — we’re probably better of sticking with “describe” or even, if we’re feeling fancy, “delineate.”
There’s more than a few overused phrases by the New York Times movie critics that a certain A.S. Gordon has been keeping track of, though we would also put the New Yorker‘s David Denby on the list. Can you guess which is #1? Yup, it’s “tour de force,” followed by “feel-good.” If we don’t hear these two phrases for the rest of our lives, it will be too soon.