Enjoy the day with the best pumpkin of the year – perhaps the best pumpkin evah. This beauty was commissioned for New York City’s Museum of Modern Art, and carved by Marc Evan and Chris Soria. I wonder how long it took to make.
Meanwhile, in the spirit of the day, you might want to revisit Dana Gioia’s ghost story, or more recently the Jeff Sypeck’s take on the spooks from the rooftops of Washington’s National Cathedral. Or how about George Orwell on love, sex, religion, and ghosts. Or… or… or… Dostoevsky, Coetzee, Vargas Llosa, and Paul West on evil — just in time for Halloween.
Postscript: From high art to pop art in a few quick hours. Here’s another pumpkin to celebrate the day. Sculptor Andy Bergholtz created the jack-o-lantern Joker in one manic 8-hour stretch:
“Surprisingly, Bergholtz has only been carving pumpkins for a year. He said that another sculptor he knows, Ray Villafane, had been encouraging him for years to sculpt squash, but he resisted. Then last year Villafane recruited him to help carve pumpkins for Heidi Klum’s Vegas Halloween party. Bergholtz said, ‘I instantly fell in love with the art form and haven’t looked back since.’”
Want to know how the artist did it? See video below.
Dana Gioia‘s new volume of poems, Pity the Beautiful, is getting some early buzz (including a Philadelphia Inquirer review here). The poet (and former chairman of the NEA) recently sent me the latest issue of Gregory Wolfe‘s Image Journal which includes a satisfyingly long interview – even better than a review. None of it’s online, so I’ll include a few excerpts from the interview with Erika Koss. Besides, it meshes nicely with some of the Book Haven’s earlier posts, so I couldn’t resist.
The Book Haven was pleased to include his long poem “Special Treatments Ward” in its entirety, in an earlier post here. Here’s what he said about the poem in the new interview:
“This was the most difficult poem I’ve ever written. It began when my second son had a serious injury that required an extended stay in a children’s neurological ward where nearly every other child was dying of a brain or spinal tumor. Having lost my first son, I was entirely vulnerable to the pain and confusion of the sick children and their desperate parents. I began to write a poem about how unprepared everyone in the ward was for what they had to face. But the poem kept growing and changing. It took me sixteen years to finish. I didn’t want to finish it. I wanted to forget it, but the poem demanded to be finished. So the poem is not simply about my first son or my second son, though they are both mentioned. It is about the children who died.”
We also had a post describing “Haunted,” Dana’s ghost story – it’s here. From the interview:
“Actually, this poem began with the first two lines:’”I don’t believe in ghosts,” he said. “Such nonsense./But years ago I actually saw one.”‘ As soon as I heard those two lines, the whole poem started to unfold, though it took an immense amount of work to create the narrative tone and the musical qualities I wanted. The odd thing about poems is that when the good ones come we often realize that we have been writing them in the back of our mind for years. A single line brings them into existence almost fully formed.”
‘Haunted’ is a ghost story that turns into a love story about a mutually destructive couple, but then at the end the reader realizes that the whole tale was really about something else entirely. The real theme is quite the opposite of what it initially seems. I wanted the poem to have the narrative drive of a great short story but also rise to moments of intense lyricality …”
He lists among the influential philosophers of his life Søren Kierkegaard, Friedrich Nietzsche, Miguel de Unamuno, Mircea Eliade, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, George Orwell, Marshall McLuhan, Jacques Maritain, and recently René Girard. What odd bedfellows that crew would be.
But who was the most important philosopher of all? Surprise.
“One book that has exercised a lifelong influence on me is Saint Augustine‘s City of God, which I first read as a Stanford undergraduate. It has probably shaped my adult life more than any other book except the Gospels. Augustine helped me understand the danger of letting the institutions of power – be they business, government, or academia – in which we spend our daily lives shape our values. We need to understand what it is we give to the City of Man and what we do not. I couldn’t have survived my years in business as a writer had I not resisted the hunger for wealth, power, and status that pervades the world. The same was true for my years in power-mad Washington. Another writer who helped me understand these things was the Marxist philosopher and literary critic Georg Lukács – not a name one usually sees linked with Augustine’s, but he was another compelling analyst of the intellectual and moral corruptions of institutional power.”
Here’s a kind of egalitarianism that goes well beyond Marx: “Beauty is not a luxury,” he insists. “It is humanity’s natural response to the splendor and mystery of creation. To assume that some group doesn’t need beauty is to deny their humanity.”
End the war!
Remember when “war” was a screaming horror that involved blood and grief and violent death? Human beings destroyed others like themselves with machine guns and tanks and mines and missiles. Real blood was spilled, real limbs were blown off bodies, and real wounds needed bandaging. Always it has been accompanied by atrocities. War is an awful thing, leaving a scar in a national history.
No more. Now war seems to have descended on the irrevocable downward path towards metaphor and then cliché. The use of the term is dishonest in intent. Often, it is a marketing tool for pre-packaged, manufactured outrage, and deserves an Orwell mention for its falsification of emotion for political ends. For the marketers who invent these buzzwords (or buzzphrases, in this case) it is a manipulative way to herd people into mobs, so that they will stampede to the ballot box, or tweet an avalanche of angry messages, or fill comment sections with group thinking and group emotions, or send emails to their congressmen and congresswomen, or call television advertisers and cancel subscriptions.
Oddly, we’ve come to use other words for real wars. I’m old enough to remember when the Vietnam War wasn’t a war but a “police action.” We called it a war in retrospect – kind of like an economic depression, we’re only willing to look at it truthfully in a rear-view mirror.
Here’s my point: I think war is so terrible that the word should be reserved for the real thing. Maybe by keeping the word to take a snapshot of the unspeakable, we can help bring war itself to an end. At the very least we can reserve one, single word to accurately describe our greatest inhumanity. It’s a small step towards truth.
“I have not here been considering the literary use of language, but merely language as an instrument for expressing and not for concealing or preventing thought … one ought to recognize that the present political chaos is connected with the decay of language, and that one can probably bring about some improvement by starting at the verbal end … Political language – and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists – is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”
You don’t have to be very old to remember that Susan Sontag launched a firestorm of attack when she suggested that young Islamic men, no matter how misguided, who drove airplanes into buildings could not reasonably be called “cowards,” as was the media fashion in the days following the terrible events of 9/11.
I remember a book she wrote long before that, Illness as Metaphor – apparently, it’s considered an “angry” book, but I did not read it with an angry voice in my head, and so it did not strike me so. She explored the use of the word “cancer,” and before it “consumption,” as a metaphor (isn’t there a “War on Cancer” somewhere, too?). A cancer victim herself, she wrote:
“I want to describe not what it’s really like to emigrate to the kingdom of the ill and to live there, but the punitive or sentimental fantasies concocted about that situation; not real geography but stereotypes of national character. My subject is not physical illness itself but the uses of illness as a figure or metaphor. My point is that illness is not a metaphor, and that the most truthful way of regarding illness—and the healthiest way of being ill—is one most purified of, most resistant to, metaphoric thinking. Yet it is hardly possible to take up one’s residence in the kingdom of the ill unprejudiced by the lurid metaphors with which it has been landscaped. It is toward an elucidation of those metaphors, and a liberation from them, that I dedicate this inquiry.”
So it’s in her spirit I declare war on the word war. (We’ll take on “rape” as metaphor next.) And in case you somehow missed George Orwell‘s essay, “Politics and the English Language,” it’s here for free. A useful guidebook this election year.
I’ll declare a ban on this one, too (Dare I say it? Dare I make the final step into political incorrectness?): The epithet “haters” is itself an expression of hatred by those who use it. Again: to call someone a “hater” is itself an act of hate. It is usually spat at someone or some group with contempt and a sense of one’s own superiority – it is never oneself who is a hater, only the “Other.” The use of the word is usually a political attempt to marginalize and enrage the target – with luck, bully him or her into shame and silence. However, I suspect I’m already a little behind the curve on this one – this insult has already passed its apex, perhaps having fulfilled its political usefulness.
You don’t have to live under a totalitarian government to understand some of the head trips Timothy Snyder of Bloodlands fame describes in his provocative and incisive interview over at the Browser. We run them through our minds daily – at home, in the workplace, in our social circles.
Which hardly undermines the stories of people for whom the stakes were astronomically higher – those who face prison, death, or poverty for risking free expression. But it does make his observations universal.
His responses in the Q&A (with Alec Ash) are heartbreakingly insightful. But then, he is often quoting maestros. He recommends five books: George Orwell‘s Homage to Catalonia, Czeslaw Milosz‘s The Captive Mind, Adam Michnik‘s The Church and the Left, Milan Kundera‘s The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, Václav Havel’s The Power of the Powerless.
“The people whose books I’ve chosen lived in regimes which not only monopolized violence but threatened it in an everyday sense. And some of them suffered as a direct result of what they wrote,” he said.
Tim’s responses, and the books he has chosen, do not just tell us (as the subhead says) “how to challenge the over-mighty”; more importantly, they all demonstrate the way we delude ourselves – regardless of political stripe, personal beliefs, or external circumstances.
I have my caveats. He seems to put a lot of stock in such terms as “liberals”; I find that these labels increasingly meaningless if not misleading (and highly elastic), and have come to feel that it’s dangerous to identify oneself with any political group. Too often among my colleagues, such labels become simple synonyms for “good,” “truth,” and “people who think like me.” Which means you can do anything you like, because you’ve a priori identified yourself with the good. And why is the piece, which praises non-violence, illustrated with a clenched fist from Wikipedia Commons? Ah well.
That said, how can you argue with passages like this?
… The Captive Mind by the celebrated Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz, seems to have some overtones of 1984 itself.
Yes. Milosz tried to explain – as the title suggests – how thinking people could accept communism from inside the communist system. How does one not resist or just endure, but actually place one’s mind in the system? He points to a number of ways in which the mind can adapt. You can accept one larger truth that guides your interpretation of all of the smaller untruths, accept a vision of the future that is so bright that it drives away the shadows of the various dark acts of your own time and place. Or you can collaborate on the outside but preserve an inner core of yourself that does not collaborate on the inside.
Milosz’s point was that all of these things are possible as human adaptations to a situation, but impossible as ways of preserving humanity. In fact they’re nothing more than stories people tell about themselves, as they give in to a system which is actually inferior and repressive.
Why did you choose Milan Kundera’s The Book of Laughter and Forgetting?
Milan Kundera was of course not really a dissident, but this book gets across the heartfelt reality of Stalinist faith. Kundera was a young Stalinist, as were his friends. So he knows what it was like to be on the inside, to have certainty about the rest of the world and to believe that everyone who didn’t share that certainty was a fool. To know where things were going and what you wanted from society – that glowing, overwhelming sense that one is young and the world belongs to you. Kundera really gets that sense across, and I think that’s incredibly important.
Also apropos of Czechoslovakia and very topical, your final selection is Václav Havel’s essay The Power of the Powerless.
In the end I think Havel will be remembered as the outstanding East European dissident writer, and he will be remembered as such above all for this essay. Its central point is that even a communist regime that controls the media and exercises a great deal of power depends ultimately on an almost visible collaboration with society – society meaning individual decisions taken by individuals, which accumulate to have a universal appearance.
And what does Havel say to that inner voice that you shouldn’t risk personal suffering and put your head above the parapet?
He understands it. There is this Christ-like patience, and he’s not programmatic. Havel doesn’t call for everyone to do what’s beyond them. He asks them to do what they can, and then – like [Adam] Michnik – he leads by example, does things his own way and pays the price for it. Michnik and Havel are among the dissidents who have spent the longest time in prison.
Read the whole thing here.
PUBLIC SERVICE ANNOUNCEMENT: Some time ago, we explained that the Book Haven was moving, and there might be a few cyberspace bumps in the subsequent days as we switched servers. It never happened. But it is happening in the next 24 hours. Bear with us. All shall be well and all manner of things shall be well …
Yesterday I posted Marjorie Perloff‘s thoughts about the occasion (I liked her nailing the ubiquitous and largely meaningless rallying cry, “saving the planet”). But after I posted her words, the letter from “humanusist” caught my attention:
I am surprised, Professor Perloff, that your essay on Language in a Post-9/11 world did not center more on, well, language.
For example, while you point to that wonderful phrase “free world,” it might be worth exploring how it once was understood to mean free of tyrannical governmental control. But today, of course, it implies something very different. It oft can be found in proximity, if not adjacent to other provocative phrases such as “religious zealots.” (In fact, that very phrase is to be found in this very series of the Chronicle’s special 9/11 retrospective essays…)
Another bit of language worth exploring: “National security.” What have we as society constructed, and come to accept, around those two words? What are we making of such language in our post-9/11 nation, and importantly what is it making of us?
I remember being stunned that a “Homeland” security department was created. “Homeland.” What did that mean? What does it still mean?
“The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink. In our age there is no such thing as ‘keeping out of politics.’ All issues are political issues, and politics itself is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred, and schizophrenia. When the general atmosphere is bad, language must suffer. I should expect to find — this is a guess which I have not sufficient knowledge to verify — that the German, Russian and Italian languages have all deteriorated in the last ten or fifteen years, as a result of dictatorship.”
So here’s a few words to be thrown around a great deal in the next week: free world, national security, “homeland” security, religious zealots (well, why don’t we go the whole nine yards and nail “religious fundamentalists”?)
“The internet is not destroying the language after all, then, but giving us new ways of shaming its most prominent practitioners into using it better. Let us set politicians a quiz. What are guarantees always made from? Cast iron. And with what are their bottoms made? Copper. And what are they not worth? The paper they are written on. (Or, alternatively, the paper that they are not written on.) For whom do politicians speak? The silent majority. Or hard-working families. Especially the ones who work hard and play by the rules.
Well, it turns out that the silent majority want to read and hear fresh, clear and original language. So go to independent.co.uk/bannedlist and nominate your suggestions for inclusion. I’d say we should crowd-source this project, but I’ve put crowd-source and project on the Banned List.”
These are the … dare I say it? … fighting words from John Rentoul of the Independent, and I’ve just discovered his cliché column.
The phrases that make him grind his teeth don’t necessarily make me grind mine – apparently, “any time soon” is the one kicked him over the edge – but he’s fingered “progressive” as an empty bit of self-congratulation, a charge that earned me some brickbats when I wrote about it here. But how did he miss “heads up”? Or “take responsibility for” when referring to those who will do nothing of the kind (I wrote about that one here)?
From the top 100 (check them out for yourself here:
1. Celebrating diversity.
3. Black hole (in a financial context).
4. The elephant in the room.
5. Perfect storm.
6. IMO, IMHO, LOL, ROFL and so on. I mean, whose opinion is it going to be? Genuinely witty abbreviations, however, are permitted, for example, QTWTAIN, YYSSW, IICRS (Questions to Which the Answer is No; Yeah, Yeah, Sure, Sure, Whatever; Iraq Inquiry Coverage Rebuttal Service). [Shall we add WTF? – Ed.]
7. Vibrant (when used to mean lots of non-English people).
8. It’s in his/her/their DNA.
9. Let’s be clear.
10. “The truth is…” before the peddling of an opinion.
11. Any journey not describing travel from A to B.
12. A no-brainer.
13. What’s not to like?
14. Max out (in relation to credit cards only).
15. Coffee, the waking up and smelling thereof.
16. Out of the box (especially thinking).
17. Radar, to be on someone’s, or to be under the.
18. “All the evidence tells us” to mean “I’ve read something about this somewhere that confirms my prejudices”.
20. Who knew?
21. “And yet, and yet …”
22. The suffix -gate added to any news theme supposedly embarrassing to a government.
I shudder to think how many of these I have used – and not in the distant past, but recently. Sometimes hourly.
Also banned this month:
“What a difference a day makes”, which was used on Newsnight to mean: “Yesterday we reported something and today the Government has done something about it.” It is a bit like “a week is a long time in politics”, which is as hard to eradicate as cockroaches.
Rentoul ends with George Orwell‘s six rules from “Politics and the English Language.” Great comments section, too. What’s not to like?
Postscript on 6/25: Some interesting feedback from Jeff Sypeck in the comments section:
I’d like to see pundits, commentators, etc., stop saying “You want fries with that?” when they talk about college kids majoring in unmarketable subjects. Not only is it unoriginal–Google News shows 27 news outlets using the phrase this month alone–but no one at a fast food joint has even asked a customer this question since the late 1980s! For 25 years, we’ve been ordering complete fast-food meals, with fries, by number. (I also question whatever truth supposedly underlies this cliche, because class distinctions generally mean that the recent college grad with an English or Sociology degree is more likely to be doing filing or photocopying in an office or perhaps working in retail. He’s not the most common sight in the fast-food biz.)
Go to the comments section for the rest of his remarks (about the use of “urban” to mean “black”) and also, Dave Lull directs you to the clichés of love.
I have to confess that I’d never had a thought, one way or ‘tother, about George Orwell‘s views on anything supernatural. Frankly, I didn’t know that he had any – that is, until Dave Lull sent me a link for the following piece, Robert Gray‘s “Orwell vs. God,” from the most recent edition of The Spectator.
It probably won’t strike many as too much of a surprise that Orwell (a.k.a. Eric Blair) had a nearly allergic reaction to religion. But that’s far too simple a characterization of a complex, intellectually tortured, relationship.
Yet as Orwell approached death, his intolerance of religion seemed to relax. In his last year he was delighted to receive a letter from Jacintha Buddicom, whom he had met at the age of 11, and who had become, during his teenage years, the first girl seriously to attract him — though his urgent desire was never returned. In her memoir, Eric and Us (1974), Jacintha Buddicom recalled how the young Eric Blair had loved ghost and horror stories, and how — jokingly, of course — he had given her a crucifix to keep away the vampires. Half the people walking the streets, he had speculated, were ghosts.
As long as his appetite for horror had been confined to imaginary worlds, he had been able to retain a capacity for joy in the real one. Jacintha Buddicom remembered him as a notably happy boy, and her memoir shows him full of kindness and fun, vastly different from the image he later purveyed of the miserable schoolboy at St. Cyprians, and still further removed from the misanthropic cynic who emerged at Eton.
But then in his first year at Eton Orwell had suffered a severe trauma. Infuriated by the bullying of an elder boy called Philip Yorke, brother of the novelist Henry Green, Blair and his friend Steven Runciman had constructed a wax model of their persecutor, and torn off one of the legs. Shortly afterwards Yorke broke his leg; a few months later he died of leukaemia. Sheer coincidence, no doubt, but deeply disquieting for the boys who had created the model. Runciman remained all his life an enthusiast for the occult; Eric Blair, perhaps more profoundly shocked, thenceforward shied away from any suggestion of the supernatural. Evil was clearly rampant, whereas ‘the good and the possible never seem to coincide’. It was at about 14, he later confessed, that he had abandoned his belief in God.
But that’s not all. Gray continues:
Yet seven months before Orwell died, he wrote to Buddicom, insisting that there must be some sort of afterlife. The letter, unfortunately, is lost, but Buddicom remembered that he had seemed to be referring not so much to Christian ideas of heaven and hell, but rather to a firm belief that ‘nothing ever dies’, that we must go on somewhere. This conviction seems to have stayed with him to the end: even if he did not believe in hell, he chose in his last weeks to read Dante’s Divine Comedy. [I wonder which translation – ED.]
In his will Orwell had left directions that he should be buried according to the rites of the Church of England. Of course no one was better qualified to appreciate the beauty of the Book of Common Prayer; nevertheless the request surprised some of his admirers. A funeral was duly held at Christ Church in Albany Street; and David Astor, responsible for the arrangements, asked if his friend’s body might be interred in a country churchyard, at Sutton Courtenay, in Berkshire.
There was, however, a hitch. One of the churchwardens at Sutton Courtenay, a farmer, seemed doubtful that permission should be given. Had this fellow Orwell, or Blair, or whatever, really been a sound Christian? Fortunately the vicar had the inspired idea of showing the agricultural churchwarden a copy of Animal Farm. It was a title which instantly removed all scruples.
And that’s where he remains.
There’s lots more to the story – check out The Spectator article.
By the way, Jacintha Buddicom was the recipient of more than distant yearnings – John G. Rodwan’s fascinating, and very well-informed, discussion of hot, steamy sex … well, the desire for hot, steamy, sex, anyway… under the stuffy title, “George & Jacintha: On the Limits of Literary Biography,” is here.
Postscript on 6/14: Dave Lull wrote to add a note on a parallel theme, a review of David Lebedoff’s The Same Man: George Orwell & Evelyn Waugh in Love and War – it’s reviewed briefly in “A Study of Two Masters of English Prose,” by John P. Rossi. The thought extends a passage from The Spectator article: “Perhaps Evelyn Waugh divined something of Orwell’s buried spirituality when he wrote to congratulate him on Nineteen-Eighty-Four, and subsequently visited him in the nursing home at Cranham in Gloucestershire. On the other side, one of Orwell’s last attempts at writing was to draw up notes for an essay on Waugh, who, he considered, ‘is abt as good a novelist as one can be (i.e. as novelists go today) while holding unacceptable opinions’.”
My call to arms a few days ago (“Orwell watch #9: ‘I take full responsibility for...’”) was picked up by Andrew Sullivan in The Daily Beast – here. The passage he highlights:
I suspect the phrase “take responsibility for” is actually a journalists’ invention, and people like Weiner picked it up from the media, rather than his heartfelt intentions. As George Orwell said in “Politics and the English Language,” this one could be “killed by the jeers of a few journalists.” I call out to journalists everywhere to jeer this phrase out of existence – unless it really means taking responsibility, the way I “took responsibility” for, say, raising a child, by paying for her upbringing, nursing her through illness, attending back-to-school days, and preparing dinner every night.
Sure would be nice if we could we could drive this phrase into late-night comedy, wouldn’t it? This expression has been due for the slaughterhouse since the IRA mayhem in the 1960s, and has made its small contribution to dulling our sense that words have meaning, and are meant to convey our feelings, thoughts, and intentions – not conceal them.
Meanwhile, the post generated some interesting conversation over at Frank Wilson‘s Books Inq. I was singled out, rightly, for a little criticism from Art Durkee: “Calling [Osama] bin Laden‘s death ‘liquidation’ is also pretty Orwellian, it seems to me. Let’s call a spade a spade: it was a retaliatory political assassination. But then, a great deal of political euphemism is and always has been Orwellian.”
Liquidation is indeed a strange term – did he dissolve into water? “Liquidation” sounds like the final sale at a failing bookstore, anyway. A colleague corrected me when I said “murder,” arguing that murder was a legal term, calling for the prosecution of the murderer. One is at a loss – what neutral term can one say nowadays? Osama bin Laden’s “offing”?
“I don’t think there is a neutral term. I think you have to call an assassination what it is.
I think we have to be honest when murder is murder, and not whitewash it. (The best argument, for example, that I’ve heard against the death penalty is that it means that murder is criminalized for anyone to commit except the state.) Similarly, assassination needs to be called what it is, and acknowledged as the political tool it has always been, sanctioned or otherwise.
History may show if this particular sanctioned assassination (sometimes called a ‘sanction,’ or ‘termination with extreme prejudice’) was the right and good thing to do. Lots of people are claiming that already, but they’re also ignoring what making someone into a martyr can do. It’s a tricky call, and those who set policy ought to lose sleep over it.
But that’s the whole pattern that Orwell pointed out, isn’t it: the neutralization of language into mechanical, denatured, unemotional, technical terminology that allows one to deal with humans as dehumanized. Turn people into inhuman statistics, and you can sleep at night when you talk about ‘collateral damage,’ or ‘friendly fire,’ for example. Do that kind of neutralization of language enough, and you dehumanize yourself as well, Orwell warned.”
And so did Mark Twain, in ‘The Way Prayer.’”
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.
haunting = someone dies
pellucid = someone drowns
galloping = someone gets thrown from a horse