Monday, July 25, 2011

Forget About It : My Very Short List of Annoying Novelistic Cliches

I usually oppose prescriptive approaches to art, but even I have limits. Here are a few literary cliches that contemporary fiction writers should probably avoid:
  1. A shot rang out. No it didn't. Gunshots don't ring; landline telephones and Salvation Army bells do. Shots snap, crackle, and pop (like a cereal commercial); they also explode, echo, ricochet, erupt, burble, and whistle (past the ears of those lucky enough not to be on the receiving end--which is what Hemingway meant when he said you never hear the one that gets you), but they never really rrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrriiiiiiiiiinnng.
  2. Any sentence beginning with the word 'suddenly.' Especially overused by thriller writers, as in "Suddenly a shot rang out. Thompson dove for cover. "Let's get outta here," he grunted to the blonde, already hot-footing it for the door."
  3. "Let's get outta here." Don't say it; make like Nike and just do it. This and all closely related lines of dialogue are the novelist's easiest and cheapest way to signal a shifting of scenes. If you can't accomplish this simple task more artfully, you shouldn't write.
  4. Stage directions, such as 'he rose,' 'he walked across the room,' 'he staggered,' 'he sat,' 'he stood,' 'he opened the door,' 'he closed the door.' These bland but necessary directions cast a pall of boredom over any page on which they appear. Why can't we write 'he sank into his naugahyde Barcalounger and relaxed to a Pat Boone LP,' or 'he took a sip of fine Kentucky bourbon and neighed like a Derby horse,' or, less whimsically, 'he dragged his left foot to the front of the room'?
  5. Paragraphs composed entirely of short simple sentences. Or, in James Ellroy's case, fragments. Of short. Simple sentences. During the 1980s heyday of minimalism, whole novels were written in this facile 'see Dick run' prose. Critics straightfacedly hailed their strength. And vigor. Now it's over. Thank Dog.
  6. Authorial moral earnestness. The most serious novels are, in Kundera's great phrase, "an investigation of human life in the trap the world has become." A novel should not exist primarily as a platform for authorial posturing (though we all do strut a bit; we're only human). The author's morality (and his/her politics, philosophy, etc.) informs every sentence of a good novel. It need not be billboarded. If you write well enough--and authentically enough--the ideological/intellectual stuff will take care of itself.
  7. Postmodern Self-Consciousness. After almost half a century of novels in which writer-characters write the novel we are reading and/or make fictional appearances to comment upon their own fictions, etc., etc., this sort of thing has hardened into a blood clot in the aorta of contemporary literary fiction. Still something of a subversive strategy when Salman Rushdie used it in Midnight's Children, its status as cliche was clearly signalled by its deployment in Neil Simon's Jake's Women (which was, to be fair, superior Simon). Whenever a technique appears in a Neil Simon play, it has ceased to be subversive.
  8. Academic novels. These days, most well-reviewed, 'serious' writers of 'literary fiction' are either graduates of MFA programs and/or pay their bills by 'teaching' at colleges and universities (living off LitFic is incredibly difficult; even David Foster Wallace had a professorial day job). This sorry situation has led to a glut of campus novels (even Denis Johnson wrote one[!]). Like every other genre, this one boasts a few very good books (David Lodge's Small World and Chabon's Wonder Boys come to mind), but most fail to rise above mediocrity.
  9. Suburban social realism (or as Parisians might call it, le roman de Franzen). I think everyone has had enough of the bland banlieues americaines, n'est-ce pas? The only original suburban novel still possible is an utterly tasteless Pynchonian allegory in which all the boring, bourgeois characters, ashamed of being trapped in such an imaginatively impoverished genre, commit mass suicide at the end of chapter one. In the second chapter, fire destroys the suburbs. The rest of the novel tells the story of a family of neurotic rabbits who hop around madly and shag each other silly amidst the ruins of the human world. The book ends with the triumph of lapine fascism and a song-and-dance number titled, "When Rabbits Rule the World (It'll be Auschwitz Time for Kitty Cats)."
  10. Insert Your Least Favorite Literary Cliche Here.


Jemma said...

When people use unrelated metaphors or similes, that have nothing to do with anything they have previously been saying. It's as though they have a whole list of them, and casually pick one at random to stick at the end of a sentence; it is simply lazy writing!

Joe Miller said...

Facile psychological profiling of a character's behavior is easily the worst cliche of them all. Show us, don't tell us!