Cliches and the English language

Or, why I am ambivalent about romance.
Why I am not always awestruck by the genre.
And why it’s more than the story.

And following on, sort of, from our spirited discussion on Conversion to Romance….No one expects the Romance Inquisition…”Silence, Infidel! Cardinal Scarlett, bring out the comfy chair, the Signet Regencies, the nice cup of tea and the cookies! Later there will be a test…”

Recently, a well-known literary agent bemoaned the fact that queries were full of cliches–rekindled passion, beautiful but feisty heroines, and more–and although there might have been some good stories lurking behind the turgid facades, we’ll never know. She rejected them. Who says language isn’t important?

Over sixty years ago, George Orwell defined six points of good writing in his essay Politics and the English Language:

(i) Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
(ii) Never use a long word where a short one will do.
(iii) If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
(iv) Never use the passive where you can use the active.
(v) Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
(vi) Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print. So why does so much romance use the same tired old cliches–the pebbled nubs, the hero who kisses the heroine senseless (quick, call Special Victims Unit!)? I know the argument is that we want to keep the reader in the flow of the story. We don’t want the reader to stop, gasp with astonishment at our artistry, put the book down, and….

But can’t we do better and keep the reader with us? We’re blessed with an extraordinarily rich and subtle language–the same language Austen, the Brontes, Dickens, and Shakespeare used.

Here’s something I love to quote as an example of startling, beautiful writing. It’s the beginning of D. H. Lawrence’s poem Figs. Yes, it’s about fruit, sort of, and if you read the whole thing you’ll find it has its moments but does wander off into DHL Crazyland:

The proper way to eat a fig, in society,
Is to split it in four, holding it by the stump,
And open it, so that it is a glittering, rosy, moist, honied, heavy-petalled four-petalled flower.

You might not want to drop that in the middle of a love scene. But you might want to come up with something of your own, rather than something someone else has used that is “safe.” You might want to use something specific to your characters’ experience, something that speaks to you–and to your reader.

So, yes, it’s all about the love, the romance, the relationship. But for me it’s about the words too.

Thoughts, anyone?


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4 Responses to Cliches and the English language

  1. Elena Greene says:

    I do think language is less important than the story. Or maybe to put it better, the language should serve the story.

    But cliches distract from the story just as the most highly wrought poetic description would.
    I cringe anytime I read about h/h doing a “dance as old as time” or about them “clinging together in a world gone mad”.

    What I’d suggest, though, is that some authors shouldn’t try so hard to be unique or poetic. Some do it well (Ivory and Ross come to mind). It comes naturally to them and suits their stories. But for others, maybe a clean simplicity would work better rather than imitating someone else’s imagery. IMHO using the ordinary word for something (“nipples” anyone?) doesn’t grate the way the overused euphemisms do.

    And I’m going to sound like a teacher here, but I really, really think authors should think about their viewpoint character when coming up with these things. The language of internal dialogue ought to make sense for the character.

    How many men actually liken their lovers’ eyes to tourmalines?

    Elena 🙂

  2. Kalen Hughes says:

    Hmmmmmmmmmmm, I never know what to make of these so-called “rules”. I don’t believe in ’em. I just keep hearing the guys from < Blazing Saddles, “We don’t need no stinking badges!” There’s been a big talk about “the rules” on one of the RWA PAN lists and it just leaves me shaking my head. “The rules” are a giant waste of time, IMO.

    Why use one word when I can use eight?

    Why use a pedestrian word when I can use something lyrical and evocative instead?

    Why use a euphemism when the real words can be so much sexier? (honestly, have any of you every thought or said “manroot” while having sex?)

    I would never have started writing romance if I hadn’t stumbled across Julia Ross and Pam Rosenthal’s books, and I think the only rule they’re following is #6.

  3. I have read romances that have fallen back on tired and over-used phases or euphemisms, but I’ve also read romances that haven’t. I agree with you, Janet, that we should always try to come up with our own way of expression, particularly keeping in mind our characters and how they would think about things.
    I would be jolted out of a Regency story if the heroine, even an experienced one, called…um…a manroot by its real name. It is fun to think of how they might think of it.
    I do think the agent was a little harsh in using the language of a query letter to assume that the manuscript would be no good. Some of her “cliches” seemed to me to be short-cut ways of saying something when you only have one page to say it. Not the feisty heroine one, though.

  4. Todd says:

    Certainly language matters–but a book with good prose and a mediocre story is much worse than a book with mediocre prose and a good story. I think a lot (though certainly not all!) of modern “literary” fiction suffers from the delusion that language is all that matters, which is why it is so incredibly boring.

    There are a lot of romances out there, and some of them have mediocre (or worse) language and stories. But there are a lot of lousy books in general, and always have been. I don’t see that the genre per se has anything to do with it. The best romances, like the best books in any genre, will have both good writing and good stories.


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