Dead Language

Ever since I wrote my first story, I have been concerned with something that every writer of short stories or novels has to deal with. This is el language muerto (dead language), which is always present in a novel. Unlike poetry, in which from the first word to the last you are placed in a world of extraordinary sensibility and delicacy or dynamism, a novel or short story is a text in which it is impossible to be intense and creative all the time and to sustain vitality and dynamism in the language … I was bothered by this situation and asked myself why it is not possible in a novel, as in a poem, to use only intense, rich, creative language?

These lines are from Mario Vargas Llosa’s A Writer’s Reality, the prose version of some lectures he delivered at Syracuse University.

Dead language has been the splinter under my fingernail for years. I’ve been concerned with the phenomenon at nearly every stage of my evolution as a writer. In college I rebelliously rejected the canonization of Strunk & White, because they were brandished by milquetoast English professors whose own prose read with all the vitality of roadkill. And it wasn’t long before I turned my scorn on myself: over and over in the last ten years I’ve developed a certain kind of smoothness in my prose which I wake up the next day and discover to be blandness, prose like mashed potatoes made with a blender: where are the chunks?

What is dead language? First what it’s not.

It’s not cliché, though cliché can be a form of dead language. Frankly there are stretches even in a writer like John Updike, who took pride in the strenuous rejection of cliché, or in Martin Amis, who wrote a book called The War Against Cliche, which are like a corpse dressed in its best clothes, made-up with red spots on its cheeks, hung about with diamonds, but still dead. Cliché-free, but dead.

Dead language is also not cold or unemotional language. The often affectless precision of Colm Tóibín—in The Master, for instance, which I just read—is utterly vivified language, language trembling with life. Don’t confuse life with excitability.

So, again, what is dead language? I think it might be best to come at the problem—and I know I’m being evasive—by describing living language. Vargas Llosa will give me a hand again:

[Living] language is any language that has the capacity to take the reader from real reality and move him to a fictitious reality, to a separate reality … The characteristics of [living] language cannot be specified because any kind of language can perform these functions if the writer has the ability to use it well.

Where I put [living] he had “literary,” but I swapped out the word to make my point. I think Vargas Llosa would agree with me that literary language is the opposite of dead language. What it does, he says, is to transport us to a different reality. Living/literary language is like a threshold in C.S. Lewis’s books, a portal to Narnia, a doorway you step through and find everything irresistibly changed, charged with meaning.

But, as Vargas Llosa also wisely said, there are no specifications for this kind of language, no universally applicable rules for it.

You can try to avoid dead language by following rules. For example I could learn to write like Chuck Palahniuk in a lot of his short stories and essays, attempting to vivify my language through sensually rich description of horrifying or disgusting things. Tell me you wouldn’t read an essay I wrote if it began like this:

I sifted warm faeces through my fingers, trying not to inhale, until I found what I was looking for: the hard, white body of a parasite, like a plastic bead dropped in brownie batter. So I did have worms.

An extreme example. (But yes, that’s not far off Mr. Palahniuk.) (My apologies if you decided to read what’s at the other end of that link.) The language certainly isn’t dead. But the life it has derives as much from the plain shock value of the content as from the language. The same can be said for writing that gets its life-juice from profanity, slang, or any other easy gimmick: dropping in brand names at every opportunity, relying on humorous analogies.

The problem I have with these methods of vivifying language is that they don’t last. They work a few times. But when a gimmick is repeated too often it turns into its own vintage of dead language.

Even when you fall in love with the voice of a writer, if they turn out to be a hack who employs that voice with universal efficiency, their manner becomes mannerism for you; you recognize yet another instance of dead language.

So writing well, writing living language, is a high-wire act where each new step requires as much concentration as the last. There’s not a place on the wire where you’ve finally got it figured out and now you can relax, now you can just enjoy yourself. Screw up and you’re dead, or anyhow your language is.

So what is dead language? It’s any language whose usage or familiarity make it ineffective at wrenching a reader away from their present circumstances and into the world you, the writer, are trying to create.

I think each serious writer’s quest to avoid dead language will look unique. Vargas Llosa tries to avoid it by minimizing the expository and descriptive content of his novels, and putting that stuff in the dialogue tags. He also tries to avoid it by re-purposing in his novels documents not usually intended for narrative consumption: police reports, newspaper articles, academic essays. Like many literary writers from Dos Passos on, Vargas Llosa likes to slip such things into his narrative and enjoy the vivification of language that comes from displacing one sort of a document into a strange context, from displacing a non-narrative document into a narrative context. But if I did the exact same thing, I’d end up with a form of mannerism.

Or take DFW’s footnotes. I like them. Some of my friends hate them, and the reason they hate them in DFW I often hate them in his imitators: what originated as a method for vivification has turned into mannerism.

This reminds me of what Gabriel Josipovici identifies in his marvelous book What Ever Happened Modernism? as one of the mechanisms of modernist experimentation, a feeling that you simply can’t do x, y, or z any longer. You simply can’t do plot anymore—that’s a conviction about dead language which overcame certain perpetrators of the French nouveau roman, and while I personally don’t list plot among the language-killers (or at any rate among the things that deaden language for me), I can entirely appreciate the sentiment which would dispense with it. To a serious writer—which I think we must define as someone who cannot abide what they perceive as dead language—almost anything can be sacrificed in pursuit of a living or literary language.

Notes on Book Reviewing

I’ve been a regular contributor and editor for the long-form book review journal Open Letters Monthly for two years now. But I don’t claim any special authority on the subject of book reviews. If my time on that staff has taught me anything, it’s how many levels there are on the parnassus of criticism. I’m maybe on level two, which, hey, is above level one, but if I squint I can see reviewers on levels twelve and thirteen, so…

The fact remains that I have now written many more long-ish book reviews than the average person (34 at OLM, by my count), received and watched others receive the always sharp and wise advice of my fellow editors, and edited dozens of others’ reviews.

Lately, a number of friends have urged me to write down any advice I might have about writing book reviews professionally. Bearing in mind that I’m not a professional—I’ve never earned a red cent for a book review [editorial note, 2017: happily this is no longer true], and am not, as a consequence, a member of the National Book Critics Circle, though I rather expect to be someday—nonetheless I’m happy to offer what I have. What follows are my own provisional conclusions about book reviewing.

Learn to love summarizing.

There is only one non-negotiable element in a book review and that’s summary. Some of the most influential book reviews — the reviews that determine whether a bookseller will even carry a book or a library purchase it, often published in places like Kirkus and Publisher’s Weekly and Booklist — are tiny, paragraph-long things which do the majority of their work through good summary. Long-form essay-reviews of the type published by Open Letters Monthly also need good summary: in fact, in their case, precisely because of their length, there is absolutely no excuse to leave a reader unsure what a book is about.

Unfortunately, to the beginning book reviewer summaries can carry the odor of schoolwork. They reminded me disagreeably of book reports at first, something I gladly left behind in grade school. But I learned to love them by embracing them as an opportunity for artistry. A sprightly and tight summary is a real feat both of prose and of thinking. You have to condense a few hundred pages into a few sentences, and you have to do it in an interesting way. Opposite dangers of boring but precise over-qualification and interesting but too-quick misrepresentation dog your steps.

I think that, other than the opening and closing of a book review, the summary section should probably receive the greatest care and the most revision. It’s worth getting right. And if you do it well, that’s the difference between a book review no one will read, and one in which they understand your subject and are willing to entertain your own precious thoughts that follow the summary.

Assorted keys to a good summary: (1) it should come as early as it can without ruining the lede (on which, see below); (2) it should definitely include sentences, if possible, about the experience and qualifications of the author, about the genre of the book, and about the book’s main thesis (if non-narrative) or situation (if narrative); (3) if possible it shouldn’t telegraph an evaluation.

Three is particularly important to me, though I know good book reviewers who do otherwise. I think—and this is a view plenty of you won’t share—that even a denunciation is better when the denounced thing is given a full and sympathetic hearing. Summary is where that hearing occurs. Hatchet job or puff job, in any review the point of a summary is a clear, concise statement of what kind of book is under discussion and what that book has to say. Feel free to eviscerate it only after you’ve clearly stated its contents; otherwise you’re fighting dirty.

Don’t just summarize.

Despite its importance, summarizing does not exhaust the functions of a book review. Too often, a new reviewer for Open Letters Monthly will send us a lovely long essay-review which amounts to nothing but summary. Academics are especially prone to this, trained as they are to produce scholarly works five parts summary to one part original idea.

What else is there to do in a book review besides summarize the book? Well, for starters: you could contextualize or explain the book’s content or form, relating it to other books; you could extrapolate from one of its themes, anecdotes, or theses to your own experiences and ideas; you could compare it to a similar book; and you could render a judgment on the quality of its prose, organization, validity, or truth.

The cool thing about book reviewing is that it doesn’t really matter what level of expertise you bring to a book, you can still write a good review. An expert can emphasize contextualization and explanation, a neophyte can emphasize extrapolation, and anybody can make a judgment.

That last comment deserves its own gloss, because I don’t mean the old-fashioned magisterial thumbs up-or-down of the newspaper book critic. More and more I find that kind of judgment and its presumption of impossible expertise repellant. Therefore, I suggest that you…

Avoid lazy evaluative abstractions.

Yes a book review has a normative function, and the people who write them are called critics for a reason. But it’s uninteresting to crustily brute about that this book is brilliant, that one abysmal, this one magisterial, that one better unwritten. These abstractions—of which the most inventive book reviewer runs out pretty quickly—are lazy. They are, in the lingo of philosophers, “thin” ascriptions of normativity, like saying somebody “did a bad thing” rather than that they “stole” or “murdered” or “insulted” etc. If you tell me someone “did a bad thing”, I’ll ask you, “what, exactly?” Same with book reviews.

Instead of thin, lazy evaluative abstractions, you should describe the particular kind of badness or goodness that you have discerned in a book. If you do it with enough precision, you can give weight to your flat abstractions or, better yet, dispense with them altogether.

This is why I said anybody can offer a useful judgment on a book. If James Wood said flatly, “this is a bad book,” it would mean no more to me, and be no more helpful, than if Joe Schmoe said, “this is a bad book.” Both of them would do better to describe the features of the book that seemed good or bad to them in detail, showing me with quotations and accurate summary, giving me reasons rather than bland conclusions.

Even if I disagree with a book reviewer, I respect their judgment if it takes the form of detailed evaluative description rather than a pronouncement I am supposed to accept on their bare authority. I can disagree with a detailed evaluative description in a particular way—perhaps you dislike the casual style of D.H. Lawrence’s Studies in Classic American Literature, for example. I would disagree with you, but find your judgment interesting because it’s pinned to an identifiable feature of an actual book, whereas if you announce in stentorian tones, “D.H. Lawrence is a bad writer,” I not only disagree with you, but I’m going to despise the laziness of your evaluation.

Don’t be a tool.

Two traps that bedevil the critic: to accept a role merely as a cog in the economy of book selling, and to reject the role of a cog in the economy of book selling.

It can feel great to find your review excerpted on the praise-page of a book or on a publisher’s website. It might make you feel part of The Conversation. Don’t fool yourself. It’s empty — like getting excited a famous person responded to your tweet — proof only that you gave a thirsty publicist the sort of copy they needed to move books.

Look, I love me some publicists. They send me free books all the time! But we have different jobs and when my words and their desires converge, it should be a contingent by-product of my honest, accurate account of a book, not the result of a tacit conspiracy of mutual aggrandizement.

But it’s possible to be another kind of tool. To avoid even the implied judgment of precise, accurate description, and to leave your reader unsure whether you respected or despised a book. That, in my opinion, is also egregious. You’re a finite being whose limited perspective is always attended by feeling response to the things you concentrate upon. You thought the book was worth reading or not. Convey that information.

Get right to the point.

Now some more nuts-and-bolts suggestions. My first applies not just to book reviews but to literally any piece of writing, unless you have a very good reason to ignore it.

State your main idea early.

This implies two things: first, that you have a main idea, and second that you’re clear enough about it to state it succinctly.

I don’t think your main idea should be a simple thumbs up or down on the book (see the section on lazy evaluative abstractions above), but rather an evaluation-tinged observation about a feature of the book. For example, here are abstracted, one-sentence summaries of the main idea of several recent reviews I wrote:

(1) Existentialism is best told through the biographies of its main proponents, and Sarah Bakewell’s latest successfully does this.

(2) John Berger’s background as artist, novelist, and marxist make him a critic who appreciates and describes features of art works that others ignore.

(3) Friedrich Nietzsche’s lectures on education resonate with similar contemporary critiques, but should give us pause for that very reason.

That’s the sort of thing I (obviously) think a book review should be about: an observation not directly about the worth of the book, which nevertheless has consequences for the worth of the book.

Don’t neglect the lede

The lede is the hook, the opening paragraph or two (or three or four) from which you circle in to a summary of the book and a statement of your main idea. Its function is to be interesting. The stronger its connection to what follows the better, of course; but its main function, I repeat, is to be interesting. You can begin with summary, and if you’re an unusually interesting summarizer that can even be a good lede. You can begin, like a philosophical paper in an academic journal, with a bare statement of your thesis. And, again, if you have a surprising or unusually gripping thesis, that can work just fine.

But normally neither summary nor main point are going to be very hook-like. This is a book review you’re writing. A genre that proliferates like rabbits, a lowly mass-produced genre, and you’re likely competing with dozens of other reviews of the same book. Why should anyone take the time to read you?

Because you’re interesting. So be interesting, in sentence number one.

What’s interesting? Stories are interesting—I think a narrative opening is always the most gripping, and I’m not alone in that. Controversial or counter-intuitive assertions are interesting. Descriptions of inherently interesting things are interesting. But the common denominator in interesting ledes is—emotion.

I think if you want to be interesting you need to make a reader feel something. That can be curiosity, horror, delight, nostalgia, sorrow, amusement, whatever. But the more intense the feeling you inspire, the more interesting you are.

Conclude by returning to the point.

I’m not sure about this point. How to end book reviews still bedevils me as a technical problem. But the one fail-safe method that always seems to draw appreciative comments from other editors, and which I find myself admiring when I read other people’s book reviews, is an ending that alludes to the beginning.

But there are other ways to end. This is something I plan to study, and I’ll report back when I do. For now though, I can tell you this: circling back to the beginning is one safe way to go.

Have a structure.

You want neither to repeat yourself unduly, nor to write a collection of fragments masquerading as an essay. This piece of advice applies only to long-form reviews I think. A short, 500-word or fewer review kind of has a necessary form, just based on the inclusion of all a book review’s elements. But beyond that you have to make organizational decisions, and the thing will be more effective and memorable for readers if those decisions are logical.


Hide your structure.

Final piece of advice, related to the last one: rarely, but frequently enough to mention, we get writers who have so clearly organized their review that it feels like a paper. I mean it feels like an academic essay, where the goal is always very explicit organization.

I think one of the major differences between academic and literary writing is that literary writing attempts to disguise the bones of its organization. Mostly this involves two things: (1) literary writing dispenses with too-obvious sign-posting. None of this, “first I am going to… then I am going to… and finally I am going to.” (2) Literary writing takes care to make the transitions between paragraphs horizontal rather than vertical.

What do I mean by that last point? I mean that in literary writing, the first sentence of one paragraph follows from the last sentence of the previous paragraph, while in academic writing, it often follows a pre-stated schematic order. Academics think nothing of abruptly moving from one topic to another between paragraphs, so long as they have explicitly signaled that they will follow this progression. That’s fine, it fits their goals. But book reviewers are, for the most part, doing something more belletristic, and I think a certain organicism of prose follows that function. (The most magnificently organic paragraph writer, in my opinion, is William Gass, in his essays. Study A Temple of Texts.)

If you need examples of this difference, let me suggest looking back at this post. Between sections I am transitioning in a way that resembles what I am describing as academic paragraphing, and within sections I am transitioning in a way that resembles literary paragraphing.

(I’m over-generalizing about both academic and literary prose, obviously. But I think there’s something to my observation anyway.)

Go ye forth and review some books

That’s pretty much it. I hope that any pro (or good amateur) book reviewers will contribute their disagreements and additions in the comments, and I’ll take a stab at any questions.

Also, should you feel inspired by this post to write a book review, hit me up in my capacity as an editor of Open Letters Monthly—I’ll gladly talk to you about getting you a book (book reviewers get free books—did you know that?!) and working with you to publish your piece with us. [Editorial note: I’m not editing anymore. Turns out I like writing more, much more. But the Open Letters Monthly folks are still ready and eager to publish your longform book reviews. Hit them up.]