A Review Of Book Reviewspeak
Lulu Smyth takes the culture of book review hyperbole to task. And the results are quite unputdownable.
…real, touchable pages, imagine…
Until six months ago, I had always envisioned working in a bookshop to be a romantic, quaint experience. Hearing the word ‘Waterstones’ would conjure up the image of some 20th century relic, a gently crumbling literary temple where gnostic booksellers still floated about in a taciturn haze of tweed and leatherbound pages – real, touchable pages, imagine – only punctuating the silence once a fortnight to recommend Proust, or fax a handwritten letter to Philip Larkin.
Duties included picking up the phone, picking up bits of cardboard, hoovering, scanning things, checking the sales of erotic thrillers and other bestsellers, and looking busy.
Then I began working in one. Two things were immediately clear: 1) my preconceptions had been wrong; 2) they could only ever have been held by an insufferably pretentious dunce who had never worked in retail. Thanks to our main customers, the cackling crowd by the Jacqueline Wilson, there was rarely silence. There was also no reading. Duties included picking up the phone, picking up bits of cardboard, hoovering, scanning things, checking the sales of erotic thrillers and other bestsellers, and looking busy. I lifted books, I moved them onto shelves, I considered their position in the pyramid display – but looking inside them was forbidden. Trying to glean what lay beneath those seductive jackets, I’d spend a lot of time just staring at book covers, reading the review snippets, and found myself frustrated at the lack of information they provided. I also began to note the frequency with which certain senseless words appeared. This is how I became aware of ‘book reviewspeak’.
‘Book reviewspeak’, like officespeak or politicianspeak, is a nonsense filler-language designed to say nothing at all.
‘Book reviewspeak’, like officespeak or politicianspeak, is a nonsense filler-language designed to say nothing at all. It’s best exemplified by smug review-excerpts found on the backs or covers of novels. You know the sort of thing: ‘simply majestic’, ‘a tour-de-force’, ‘glittering’, ‘a real treat’, ‘a delight to read’ etc – all of which sound appropriately catchy or bland, but ultimately give nothing away about the book they’re referring to. What the hell is a ‘glittering’ novel? What does that even mean? And what constitutes a ‘real treat’ or a ‘delight’? Surely these descriptions could apply to a book of any genre, be it a crime thriller, Hansel and Gretel, or a sex guide for cheating partners. A few of these stock phrases do admittedly give clues about their subject matter – eg ‘page-turner’ sort-of indicates that the plot is fast-paced or unpredictable. For the most part, however, they’re redundant.
What the hell is a ‘glittering’ novel?
So what, if any, are the implications of book reviewspeak? Much as I’d like to put this phenomenon down to the decline of meaningful journalism in our babbling, Twitter-centric society, unfortunately for me book review-speak is not something new. Nor is complaining about it. In the 1954 essay ‘Confessions of a Book Reviewer’, Orwell’s jaded critic begrudgingly churns out: ‘all the stale old phrases — “a book that no one should miss”, “something memorable on every page” […] etc. etc’. As Orwell points out, the existence of these stale phrases is unsurprising considering the nature of reviewing. If someone is employed to “constantly invent reactions”, it’s unavoidable that from time to time they should resort to hackneyed, wishy-washy criticism. Out of frustration, duty, and laziness, vague catchphrases are picked up and then regurgitated – and thus reviewspeak is born.
While that may be true, however, the language of book reviews has changed significantly since Orwell’s day, and in a way that is problematic.
While that may be true, however, the language of book reviews has changed significantly since Orwell’s day, and in a way that is problematic. For one, his ‘stale old phrases’ are actual phrases. Now, in the age of the hashtag, reviewers have a tendency to forgo full sentences in favour of squishing them into catchy, digestible soundbites. Instead of ‘a book that no one should miss’, we’ll get ‘unmissable’; for ‘something memorable on every page’, there is ‘unforgettable’; then ‘unbeatable’, ‘unputdownable’ and so on. Condensing language like this isn’t a bad thing provided it sharpens the sentence and clarifies its meaning. But book review-speak often does neither (see: ‘unputdownable’). What we’re left with instead are empty, stilted jingles – made even more stilted by the fact they clash with the ‘scholarly’, highfalutin tone affected by most book reviewers.
In short, book reviewspeak has lost its voice.
In short, book reviewspeak has lost its voice. On the one hand it’s still trying to maintain an air of superiority – catering to a superficial elite by using fancy pseudo-intellectual phrases like “a simply majestic tour-de-force”. At the same time, though, it’s also attempting to fit in with the accessible hashtagspeak of Twitter and advertising. This lack of consistency means that book reviewers are losing sight of their target readership and becoming increasingly irrelevant – not a problem, perhaps, if it weren’t for the impact on novel-reading. Though reviews may not provide much information, they do provide publicity. The result of them being ignored is therefore that the demand for novels will decrease. In order to prevent novel-reading from becoming a fringe activity in the next 20 years (if it hasn’t already) we need book reviews, and for book reviewspeak to be consistent.
Was this article a real page-turner? Unputdownable? Let us know what other bits of internet hyperbole really gets your goat: @rifemag