To misquote Big Daddy Kane, reviewing ain’t easy. Books are long. Deadlines are short. Pay, if you’re lucky enough to receive it, is small and usually at least 6 months late. As a result, reviewers often resort to shorthand. But many readers come from outside the literary community’s gilded sanctum and struggle to understand its strange customs or its love of the word verisimilitude.
To combat these difficulties, we have compiled and translated some of our favorite book review clichés.
ambitious: I did not finish this book.
at once/by turns ___ and ___: ATTN Publisher: please select this sentence for a blurb (back cover, if possible).
authentic dialogue: what’s a badunkadunk?
beautifully wrought: people are compared to clouds; clouds are compared to birds.
Carveresque: formerly Hemingwayesque; short sentences about drunk people watching their neighbors.
confirms ___ as one of America’s most ___ authors: this is the third book by an author you’ve never heard of.
darkly funny: the word cripple appears more than once.
dazzling: the writer has an MFA from a top 100 program.
deft: the writer has an MFA from a top 20 program.
disappointing: the author slept with my spouse before we were married.
epic in scope: the author needs a better editor.
finely tuned: short sentences about sober people watching their neighbors.
flawed: this book is similar to the book I was planning to write.
fully realized: there is a paragraph devoted to a piece of furniture, probably made of mahogany.
funhouse: the author has wasted my precious time.
gripping: I read this book on the toilet.
gritty: someone gets murdered with a tire iron.
heavyweight: an accomplished but elderly author who is far from fighting shape.
in the tradition of ___: I finally read War & Peace, and I want everyone to know.
just as poignant today as it was when it was written: I know nothing about the period in which this novel is set; a mule is a main character.
Kafkaesque: see Kafkaesque.
masculine: the author isn’t misogynistic—the characters are!
not since ___ has ___ been so ___ly ___: see in the tradition of.
ostensibly (“while ostensibly about ___, the book is actually about ___”): I don’t know anything about the subject of this book, so I’m going to talk about myself, instead.
our greatest living prose stylist: the review is of a so-so book by an old author, or it is appearing in the New York Times.
overwrought: the author slept with my spouse while we were married.
pitch perfect: I have asked the author to blurb my upcoming book.
puts a magnifying glass to contemporary society: the book mentions Twitter or terrorism.
the first great novel of the ___: I’m already tired of talking about this book.
timely: see puts a magnifying glass to contemporary society.
tour de force: I can’t remember all the characters’ names, but I think there was a murder and maybe something about magic.
unputdownable: I ride the subway.
We would also like to honor the following words for their years of dedicated service to the review community by making them the inaugural class of the Full Stop Review Cliché Hall of Fame: preeminent, prose stylist, simulacrum, and verisimilitude. We hope they enjoy their retirement!