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?

Janet

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