How often have you read a book review, say in The Sunday New York Times, and run into a phrase like, “Author John Doe, in this prescient new novel…”?
By Allen Clark
How often have you read a book review, say in The Sunday New York Times, and run into a phrase like, “Author John Doe, in this prescient new novel…”? I decided to keep track. Over a period of three months, the pattern was very clear. Book reviewers, sooner or later, fall back on a series of (usually) adjectives to describe an assigned book or author’s style.
The best place to look is the opening or closing paragraph or two. For example, “… in this gripping book” or “… a gorgeous, literary novel” or “… this sad, twisted tale” or “… this spirited and challenging book.” The word “this” seems to be a telltale sign.
Reviews of first-time novelists are a particular challenge. “This debuting novel…” doesn’t really count. “In his notable first novel…” or “This compelling debut…” is a bit better, but barely. Sometimes, the reviewer just needs to use plain, every-day English, like this line from a recent review of a new novel, “… in this bighearted, winning book.” But the experienced reviewer needs to dig into his or her bag of adjectives and add dimension, like this recent setup: “In her perceptive, empathetic and often emotionally gripping new novel….” Load ‘em on!
Translations and biographies need a special touch. “A stylish translation” is a start, but it really needs some dressing up. So did this opening comment about Susan Cheever’s new biography of E. E. Cummings, “… in her brief biography….” “Brief” really doesn’t even qualify; it’s a kind of statistic with no sentiment or personality. Here’s a pitch with a little more on it, “… this sturdy, thoughtful, responsible” biography of Tennyson – at least the reviewer proffers three adjectives, and “sturdy” has a certain freshness about it.
There’s competition for the best, newest, and freshest descriptors. I thought this one (about a new John Wayne biography) deserved special mention: “In his authorized and enormously engaging new biography….” A good adverb can take a so-so adjective to new heights. This book isn’t just engaging or even very engaging; it’s enormously so.
From a review this spring, we get “This book, deeply unnerving and gorgeously tender.” (We also learn a paragraph later, that this author’s previous novel was “a remorseless, forceful tale.”) Best of all, Clair Vaye Watkins’ review of a first novel by Adrianne Harun, “This novel is a mesmerizing incantation, harrowing and hypnotic.” While not fully in the form I’m tracking (she sets the adjectives up following the verb “is”), three high-flying adjectives and one good noun get my vote for a Gold. Adjective proliferation, however, isn’t always a plus. I thought this one raised the bar a bit: “… a nervy, nerdy, dystopic thriller….”
If I have a little free time, I think I’ll work on an app that let’s reviewers plug in what they think are the key points about books they’re reviewing, and the app will produce lists of all kinds of possible adjectives and let the reviewer pile up as many as he or she’d like. It should be “a uniquely utilitarian, ingeniously insightful, definitely defining, and cunningly clever” app.