Archive for June 11th, 2011

Orwell Watch #10: Literary criticism, or cut-and-paste?

Saturday, June 11th, 2011


Joe Queenan, in his 2007 “Astonish Me,” describes his fixation with books that are called “astonishing.”  Hence, he’s got a lot of reading to do:

These are good times for the astonishable reading public. Among the masterpieces by Orhan Pamuk, who won last year’s Nobel Prize for literature, was The New Life, described by The Times Literary Supplement as ”an astonishing achievement.” Pamuk’s Nobel coincided with the premiere of a Court TV series based on James Ellroy‘s My Dark Places, a book that had been quite accurately described by The Philadelphia Inquirer as ”astonishing … original, daring, brilliant.” Not long before, Ayelet Waldman came out with Love and Other Impossible Pursuits, which, while apparently not astonishing in and of itself, did include a character that the novelist Andrew Sean Greer described as ”astonishing.” Then, Abigail Thomas published A Three Dog Life, singled out by Entertainment Weekly as ”astonishing,” and an ”extraordinary” love story — ”Grade: A.” Personally, I find the Grade A business redundant; if a book is astonishing, you’re obviously not going to give it a B.

Which brings us to Ward Six‘s “Literary Blurb Translation Guide,” a guide to literary grade inflation.  Here’s some of the site’s shortlist:

“brilliant” = smarty-pants
profound” = written by old person
“taut” = limited vocabulary


“finely wrought” = namby-pamby
clever” = thinks it’s being clever
“luminous prose” = too many goddam words
“a tour-de-force” = threw it across the room
“a triumph” = huge advance
“unflinching artistry” = lots of boobs and stabbing
“grabs you on page 1 and won’t let go” = stuck reading it on long flight
“achingly beautiful” = really long sentences
“a story for the ages” = ripoff of Tolstoy
“best of the year” = only thing I’ve gotten around to reading
“deeply imagined” = makes no sense
“incredible range and breadth” = all over the place


“radiant” = already been blurbed by people more famous than me
“rich language” = not enough paragraph breaks
“goes straight for the heart” = sappy
“trenchant satire” = poop jokes
“a small gem” = will sell five hundred copies, tops
“you’ll feel forever changed” = you will never get those hours of your life back
“searing…glorious…a fury of dazzling transcendence” = I’m just stringing random words together now

Ward Six readers offered more:

From Sung“astonishing” = cover is glossy instead of matte

From Violentbore“bildungsroman” = main character is younger than me

Michael Garberich said “My favorite has always been ‘uproarious’ – You might not laugh, but you know you’re supposed to at some point.”

From Aaron“Deeply felt” = astonishingly narcissistic.

Here’s Russell:

haunting = someone dies

pellucid = someone drowns

galloping = someone gets thrown from a horse


It keeps you honest.  I have to admit to an over-reliance on some of the clichés these folks have targeted. As George Orwell writes in “Politics and the English Language“:

Meaningless words. In certain kinds of writing, particularly in art criticism and literary criticism, it is normal to come across long passages which are almost completely lacking in meaning. Words like romantic, plastic, values, human, dead, sentimental, natural, vitality, as used in art criticism, are strictly meaningless, in the sense that they not only do not point to any discoverable object, but are hardly ever expected to do so by the reader. When one critic writes, “The outstanding feature of Mr. X’s work is its living quality,” while another writes, “The immediately striking thing about Mr. X’s work is its peculiar deadness,” the reader accepts this as a simple difference opinion. If words like black and white were involved, instead of the jargon words dead and living, he would see at once that language was being used in an improper way.

Orwell Watch:  Collect the whole set!

Orwell Watch #9: “I take full responsibility for…”

Orwell Watch #8:  “I know you’re disinterested in this, but…”

Orwell Watch #6:  “Like” and the culture of vagueness

Orwell Watch #5: Before we shoot off our mouths again…

Orwell Watch #4: Jared Loughner:  Madman, terrorist, or both?

Orwell Watch #3:  Please. No “gifting” this Christmas.

Orwell Watch #2: Murder in Yeovil

Orwell Watch #1: Paul Krugman vs. George Orwell. (Hint: Orwell wins.)