Friday, February 13, 2015

Dwight Garner doesn't know your children's names

From a book review by Dwight Garner in the NY Times (The Reporter Ethel Payne in ‘Eye on the Struggle’):

Ms. Payne was a better journalist than writer, if the samples of her prose Mr. Morris provides are any indication. She could be purple. But then, Mr. Morris’s own book is so strewn with clichés that it is sometimes painful to read. Brickbats are hurled, favor is curried, guns are stuck to, the kibosh is put on things, aces are discovered up sleeves.

I fear I’m becoming a bore on the topic of clichés. But it’s getting worse, not better, out there. What is wrong with editors that they can’t do writers that simplest of favors, that of pointing out their self-mutilating phrases? Perhaps you can’t get every one (though you can try), and some clichés are worse than others. The tone of Mr. Morris’s book is unnecessarily lowered by these phrases. Each, for the reader, is like biting down on a stone.

Garner's last metaphor is striking but not what cliches are like for most readers, who aren't as sensitive as he is. Instead, they're like biting into a tasteless slice of tomato in a hamburger. That stale language isn't why you're reading something, and the tasteless tomato isn't the main reason you're eating that hamburger. It just detracts from its quality. 

I never use metaphors because I'm not good at them. I'm mindful of one of George Orwell's rules: "Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print." Unless you're a gifted writer, almost every figure of speech you can think of everyone is already used "to seeing in print." Most of us should avoid using them altogether.

But just as annoying and bad for your prose are single word cliches, which I've posted about before here and here.

But if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought. A bad usage can spread by tradition and imitation even among people who should and do know better. The debased language that I have been discussing is in some ways very convenient...a packet of aspirins always at one's elbow. Look back through this essay, and for certain you will find that I have again and again committed the very faults I am protesting against.

I like that last sentence. Orwell admits that, like anyone who writes, he too will sometimes sin against the English language. And Garner knows that "you can't get every" cliche, but you have to try.

Garner has good advice for anyone who writes any kind of criticism:

Do you feel you’ve mellowed as you’ve become more established yourself?

I hope not. There are traps you don’t want to fall into. When I became a daily critic for the New York Times, Frank Rich, the paper’s great former theater critic and columnist, took me out for a drink. I asked his advice about how to have a career that was anything like his at the paper. He looked at me over his martini (onions, not olives), his eyes twinkling, and he said four words: “Don’t have any friends.” He was kidding, but only slightly. What he meant was, avoid mingling with the people you’ll be writing about. Too many critics, in his opinion, become compromised to greater or lesser degrees.

When I worked at the Book Review, we had a rule. A potential reviewer might say to us, “I can’t review X’s book because I know her.” We’d reply with this question: “Do you know the names of her children?” That was the litmus test. If you don’t know the names of someone’s kids, how close can you be?

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