Thursday, April 23, 2009

"20 most annoying reviewer cliches" and publisher views

This is already old news (though ever relevant), but I wanted to let it sink in a bit before I tackled the issue. About a month and a half ago, Michelle Kerns the Book Examiner wrote up a list of the top most annoying reviewer cliches, explaining how the use of these words in a review trivialize the book and turn the review into little more than mindless babble:

1. Gripping; 2. Poignant; 3. Compelling; 4. Nuanced; 5. Lyrical; 6. Tour de force; 7. Readable; 8. Haunting; 9. Deceptively simple; 10. Rollicking; 11. Fully realized; 12. At once; 13. Timely; 14. " X meets X meets X"; 15. Page-turner; 16. Sweeping; 17. That said; 18. Riveting; 19. Unflinching; 20. Powerful

The problem with these words is that, when reviewers use them to death (as they have), book reviews cease to have any purpose or meaning.

Kerns raises excellent points and even goes into depth as to the misuses of many of these phrases (edited out). The truth is that these phrases are incredibly common and Kerns' vapid mock review later in the article displays a lot more than most people would like to see. Kerns' point that these terms are not simply limited to the internet world (though certainly abused by it) is not a nice one either. The idea that the New York Times Book Review might struggle so much to write a good review that they'd describe the novel as "sweeping" simply because of its length or "riveting" because it's a book that actually manages to keep the reader remotely interested is rather uncomfortable.

Kerns returns to the subject two weeks later (a month ago) with a new and improved idea for writing reviews. The interesting thing is that it works for Kerns, even if it might not suit most online reviewers. Certainly not official, professional publishers. But it's again interesting to see. Kerns has sworn off the pet peeve cliches, admitting that she has used them too but intends to steer clear from now on. Most reviewers, though, are frequent users and it is perhaps because of this fact that these phrases have become so meaningless. A word like "powerful" can mean so very much but saying it about a book now means it has a sad story that's a bit uncomfortable to read. Still, what is most interesting perhaps, is a comment on the second article, by "Inanna Arthen":

As publisher (I run By Light Unseen Media), I can tell you exactly what book reviews are for, from a marketing standpoint. The absolute TOP reason that people will decide to buy a new book is "recommendation from someone that they trust." This often means a friend, relative, or other person whose opinions can't be controlled. But book reviews serve as the next best thing. Readers have a perception that the reviewer is impartial, and if the reader enjoys the reviewer's style, he or she will generally trust that reviewer's judgment. That's why publishers are so anxious to get books reviewed.

There's also the pure exposure factor (it takes roughly seven repetitions before a new name sticks in a customer's mind as something to try). Also, many readers read reviews to find out enough about the book to determine that (a) it sounds like something they'd enjoy and (b) it doesn't sound like something they definitely don't want to waste time on.

It's a little secret of the book marketing world that a lot of high-volume reviewers simply parrot the press material that goes out with the review copy, and said material is usually written with that in mind.

Certainly clears things up, doesn't it? This kind of goes back again to the why we review issue and the issue of ARCs, raised and interestingly handled at Except this looks at the issue from a whole other angle. It is true - if a book is published as good, it'll probably be perceived as good. And when it isn't actually any good, reviewers say that they were "disappointed", having "expected so much more". Where did the expectations come from? And, indeed, why do all these reviews ultimately use the cliches? There's a lot here to ponder.


  1. What a flattering post, in a way. I don't rely on any of those. Pretty sure I don't use them at all.

    But maybe I shouldn't see #21-40. The worst thing is that I certainly have a set of stock phrases and clich├ęs and don't realize what they are.

  2. I actually just used the word 'Nuanced' but it was in a comment, not a post, so it does not count. lol

  3. I used "nuanced" but usually along with a full paragraph explaining how so.

    I steer clear of "rollicking" and the such. That's why I cease paying attention to "praise section" on the first couple pages of a book. Tour de force? Some of these critics I bet don't even read the book.

  4. For me looking at the list is like looking at Dorian Gray's portrait - there I am! But I can tell you why I use those words (besides clearly a lack of imagination)

    First, I think one does sort of fall into jargon patterns unconsciously in any field of endeavor. And truly, when I go back and read my graduate papers and see phrases about heuristic postmodern landscapes or whatever, I have NO IDEA what I was talking about! But I must have known then, and the meaning was accepted enough that I didn't have to explain it.

    Second, and relatedly, these stock cliches do serve as jargon/shorthand for certain concepts most reviewers want to convey about books (like the example given in the post of "powerful.") If the review is too long, nobody wants to read it, so these shorthand concepts can pack a lot of meaning (or non-meaning) into a small space.

    Third, using the same cliches (banal though they may be) as professionals allows one to feel as if the review sounds a bit professional.

    In the final analysis, I guess you have to get to know the reviewer. When I say "moving," my husband thinks "chick book." (visualize piles of balled up kleenexes around me)

    I guess I'm sort of making excuses and I really am very grateful for your post in serving to point out habits of my own of which I should beware!

  5. I echo rhapsodyinbooks thoughts on the subject and couldn't have said it better myself.

  6. A book publicist recently emailed me a list of blurbs that could be used in reviews for the book she was touting. Just in case I didn't have enough time to think up my own cliches, I guess!


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