Have you ever tried to describe a great book and been unable to think of a word for it other than “great”? Want to throw terms like “luminous”, “lyrical” and “magisterial” around, but not actually sure what they mean? Do you find yourself using the word “awesome” to describe everything from fantasy epics to political memoirs to cookery books?
If so, join the club. While my last post was a peon of praise to non-fiction generally, and Moby Duck in specific, I try not to fill this blog with book reviews, even though I read countless books well deserving of an individual recommendation. This is partly as that’s not what this blog is for but mainly as I write terrible, terrible reviews.
It’s a bit embarrassing that – despite loving books and working as a writer – when I am asked to why I am recommending a book, the ensuing explanation tends to be along the lines of, “You should read this. It’s brilliant. It’s really good, and funny and good. And stuff.”
Or “awesome”. Almost everything is awesome. Stephen King’s On Writing is awesome. Machine Man by Max Barry is awesome as is anything by John Birmingham. Finding five dollars in a wallet I thought was empty is awesome and so is passion-fruit yoghurt. Everything is awesome.
Sometimes so many things are awesome in a short period that I have come up with a term other than awesome, which is usually “really, really good”. (I tend to wave my hands a lot too while saying this, as though physical gurning can make up for the poverty of my vocabulary.) I know I should branch out but I am intimidated by the idea of using the effusive terms I see on book jackets. Isn’t all writing, by nature, “literary”? Shouldn’t “dazzling” be limited to books with foil covers viewed in bright sunlight and doesn’t “luminous” mean it glows?
Apparently not. According to journalist and critic Janice Harayda (whose blog “One-Minute Book Reviews” normally contains – you guessed it – short book reviews) “luminous” or “lyrical” actually means “not much happens”. “Literary” is the nice way of saying “plotless”, “long -awaited” means late and “continues in the proud tradition of Tolkien” translates as “this book has a dwarf in it”.
With the help of publishing professionals, writers, editors and other bibliophile malcontents, Janice broke down the language of reviewing in her recent post titled 40 Publishing Buzzwords, Clichés and Euphemisms Decoded. Some descriptions – such as “accessible” meaning not too many big words – are kind if evasive. Others – “absorbing” apparently means the book makes a good coaster – are not. “Stunning” implies that a major character dies and “definitive” suggests that the book could have really used an editor. There’s enough information and interesting terms there to have you merrily bamboozling your book club or blog for months to come.
Now I just need to find the fancy publishers’ term for “awesome” and I am all set to go.