f/k/a archives . . . real opinions & real haiku

March 27, 2008

reviewing book review jargon (and reviving “eschew”)

Filed under: Book Reviews,Haiku or Senryu,q.s. quickies — David Giacalone @ 3:36 pm

Seven Deadly Words of Book Reviewing. Last Monday, at the NYT weblog Paper Cuts [“a blog about books”], Bob Harris presented the “Seven Deadly Words of Book Reviewing” (March 25, 2008). Harris says:

“Like all professions book reviewing has a lingo. Out of laziness, haste or a misguided effort to sound ‘literary,’ reviewers use some words with startling predictability. Each of these seven entries is a perfectly good word (well, maybe not eschew), but they crop up in book reviews with wearying regularity.”

With a sensibility that sounds much like our perspective on writing haiku, Harris favorably quotes Wilson Follett’s admonition that “The best critics are those who use the plainest words and who make their taste rational by describing actions rather than by reporting or imputing feelings.”

In his Paper Cuts posting, Harris condemns the abuse and overuse of these seven words by book reviewers: poignant, compelling, intriguing, eschew, craft, muse, lyrical, and explains the appropriate use of each. He also gives a telling example, noting that “It’s possible to (mis)use all seven words in a one-sentence book report:”

“Mario Puzo’s intriguing novel eschews the lyrical as the author instead crafts a poignant tale of family life and muses on the compelling doings of the Mob.”

Harris suggests that readers might want to add their favorite overused reviewer lingo. As of this afternoon, he has received over 200 comments. Many of the words suggested by his commentors could have easily made Harris’ original list (e.g., nuanced and sublte). Perhaps, as the Vatican did recently, he should expand past seven.

Cranky old Prof. Yabut gleefully looked at the dozen postings in our own Book Review category for offending usage of Harris’ deadly words. I’m pleased to say that “lyrical” did not appear in any of our reviews (perhaps not so surprising, as I am not particularly fond of haiku that attempt to be lyrical, and don’t bother reviewing offended volumes). Also, the one appearance each of “poignant,” “compelling,” and “craft[ed],” all came in quotations from other reviewers. In addition, we did use “eschew” once in our mini-multi-review posting on Cyber Monday 2007, but it was not referring to any particular book, but instead to the choice of one type of book over another.

As to the word “muse,” we confess that the f/k/a review of Kevin Mednick’s “An Almost Life” includes the clause: “lawyer Samuels is bemused over the ‘party hacks’ (and sports heroes) who too often get to be judges around here.” But, we’re more than willing to argue at the Pearly Gates that it was only a venial sin.

avoiding the wildflowers
he squats…
sumo champion

the lover cat
licking his chops

………… by Kobayashi Issa, translated by Prof. David G. Lanoue

I’m in agreement with most of Harris’ piece, but draw the line when he suggests that eschew might not be a “perfectly good word.” Harris states:

eschew: No one actually says this word in real life. It appears almost exclusively in writing when the perp is stretching for a flashy synonym for avoid or reject or shun.

We (to use a cliche) beg to differ (despite occasional doubts about a weblog being “real life”). As you might have noticed, the f/k/a Gang has never shunned the word “eschew.” See, e.g., “please eschew thoroughly” (Nov. 11, 2004). We even use it to make annoyingly bad puns — as in a recent post where I struggled to uphold our ban on political punditry:

Did we bite off more than we can eschew, when promising to end all commentary on politics and legal ethics at this weblog?

The Online Etymology Dictionary shows the perfectly fine history and source of the word:

.. eschew: 1340, from O.Fr. eschiver, from Frank. *skiuhan “dread, avoid, shun” (cf. O.H.G. sciuhen “make fearful”), from P.Gmc. *skeukhwaz. Related to shy (v.).

And, The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language: Fourth Edition (2000), includes “eschew” among synonyms collected at the definition of “escape.” The discerning wordsmith surely can and should distinguish between the various verbs that “mean to get or stay away from persons or things.” For example, while “Shun refers to deliberately keeping clear of what is unwelcome or undesirable,” and “Escape can mean to get free or to remain untouched or unaffected by something unwanted,”

“Eschew involves staying clear of something because to do otherwise would be unwise or morally wrong: ‘Eschew evil, and do good’ (Book of Common Prayer).”

To be honest, I fear that most educated people who eschew using the fun-to-say word “eschew” very often suffer from an anti-social form of reverse snobbery. Don’t shun them, dear readers, but try to avoid or elude their debilitating malady.

the swallows, too ooh
avoid it this year…
patch of weeds

hey spear holder!
don’t let the spring

from the great bronze
Buddha’s nostrils
mist escapes

ExitSignArrow … by Kobayashi Issa, translated by Prof. David G. Lanoue


  1. see Mark Twain on James Fenimore Cooper. Twain writes: There are nineteen rules governing literary art in domain of romantic fiction — some say twenty-two. In “Deerslayer,” Cooper violated eighteen of them… Rule 14 Eschew surplusage.

    Comment by Roberta Beary — March 30, 2008 @ 3:22 pm

  2. Thanks for the citation, Roberta. Having twenty-two rules seems a bit like surplusage to me, but the general rule to eschew verbal excess is a fine one in literature, not to mention authoring haiku (and weblogs, too — a goal I need to keep in mind more often). And, I’m pleased to have Twain on my side of the Great Eschew Debate. I heard a newscast from the night Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated the other evening, and was pleased when “eschew” came out of the mouth of Chet Huntley.

    One of your reviewers called “The Unworn Necklace” compelling, but I’m not naming names. I certainly felt compelled to praise it myself.

    Comment by David Giacalone — March 30, 2008 @ 3:53 pm

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