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Book-review bingo hits close to home

Posted by Christopher Shea  March 15, 2010 02:46 PM

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Did you find the last book you read to have been compelling, poignant, and lyrical--in short, a tour de force? Then you may have what it takes to write book reviews.

Michelle Kerns, a literary columnist for Examiner.com at the Washington Examiner, compiled a while back a list of her 20 least favorite reviewer cliches. In addition to the descriptors in my first sentence,  she included such empty puffery as "riveting," "nuanced," "fully realized," "rollicking," "unflinching," and "X meets X" (as in: "Zadie Smith's latest is like Alice Munro meets Jonathan Franzen," a grisly prospect indeed). In a fiery footnote, she added a 21st selection--"a word that should be tarred and feathered, drawn and quartered, then burnt at the stake: unputdownable." Last week, she invigorated her anti-cliche campaign by fashioning four Bingo cards that make use of her despised words and phrased. And she suggested that readers fill them out as they read their favorite book-review section.  

I'm feeling pretty good about my writing, as I typed "unputdownable" as recently as Friday, in describing an, ah, very interesting magazine article (and I used "harrowing" the day before, which should have been on the list).

There are hazards in being too attuned to tired language, as Kerns discovered: After enumerating so many cliches, the critic found herself too self-conscious to review books for a while. She has apparently recovered.

(And, yes, her list is a lot less insane than this guy's.)


Via the entire literary Twitterverse

UPDATE, 5:35 pm. Wait, no "limned"?

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
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Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.


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