Thursday, January 29, 2009

Martin Amis on avoiding the cliché



Cliché is herd thinking, herd writing. —Martin Amis

That gets at one of the core reasons why clichés ought to be avoided. Clichés are tribal. They're stand-ins and ciphers for actual feeling, actual experience. They're catch-phrases or pat answers. Some are more annoying than others.

Not that all of writing consists of avoiding clichés; or that one needs to think about clichés when writing. That's only likely to create problems, since you are drawn to whatever it is you're avoiding thinking about. But when a cliché does come up, it's easier to spot if you look at it in context. One definition of a cliché, of course, is that it's a stock phrase or image that one has already encountered numerous times in literature, and poetry. It's a too-familiar phrase, especially in context.

Clichés are thoughtless. They don't take any work. You can drop them in and avoid doing the hard work of actual description. They are a way of avoiding the real work of writing. When a sign or a symbol or a cipher comes too readily to hand, too easily slots in as a descriptor, it's probably a cliché. When one is too lazy to evoke in the reader an experience or mood, clichés abound, because the reader is supposed to know what to feel when they see a given cliché. It's worked before, ennit? The problem is, yes, it's worked before, but that was many times ago. The lazy writer manipulates. The writer who actually puts a little effort into writing finds ways to evoke that are not blatant manipulation.

Not that all of writing is about being original or fresh. Sometimes you want to evoke a stale and musty mood by using stale and musty language. But you can do that and still subvert the clichés that go along with stale and musty moods and scenes.

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2 Comments:

Blogger pupski said...

hi, I came across your post when I was researching use of cliche in writing for my dissertation and I found it extremely interesting. I had just been reading a truly awful autobiography by a famous British TV personality and it seemed to me that he hadn't given anything much of himself in the work, his writing seemed to consist of one cliche after another.

It seems that a lot of writing these days - especially autobiography relies very heavily on cliche - I wonder if it is a form of laziness - they want to get the books out quickly whilst the market is prime - so they don't take the time to really work on them in the way that a novellist or biographer might. Or is it that it is too easy to get published these days - celebrities usually didn't get famous for their writing skills - so should we expect them to be able to write to a high standard (although I believe there is also some debate as to wether or not the "Dumbing down" of literature has happened because the public demands it).

I would be interested to know what you think.

5:48 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

I think that both situations that you propose are true, and both contribute. Clichés are almost always a sign of laziness. They're short-hand, and a lot of writers use them as though they were triggers for evoking specific emotions in the reader. As though they caused a Pavlovian reaction of sorts.

I've written fairly extensively on this blog before about clichés, but also how to subvert and avoid them. Feel free to search around, if it's of any use to you.

Thanks very much for stopping by!

10:46 AM  

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