Sleepwalking through sentences

Last week, I read a really cool essay about reading and writing fiction for my art class. I’m not 100 percent sure why it’s relevant to my art class, but it was an amazing essay regardless, and I think it’s relevant beyond the world of fiction reading/writing. Here is one of my favorite parts:

“With a cliché, you have pandered to a shared understanding, you have taken a short-cut, you have re-presented what was pleasing and familiar rather than risked what was true and strange. It is an aesthetic and an ethical failure: to put it very simply, you have not told the truth. When writers admit to failures, they like to admit to the smallest ones – for example, in each of my novels, somebody ‘rummages through their purse’ for something because I was too lazy and thoughtless and unawake to separate ‘purse’ from its old, persistent friend ‘rummage.’ To rummage through a purse is to sleepwalk through a sentence.”

“Fail Better” by Zadie Smith

I’ve always known you shouldn’t use clichés, but I’ve never understood it as well as I do now, thanks to Miss Zadie.

There were also really cool parts about authors’ personalities coming through in their work, the qualifications of a “good” novel being one that is thought-provoking and challenging, and even an argument on how a good novel requires a good reader. All in all, a really outstanding reading, especially for a class reading! I recommend it to anyone who reads or writes.



3 thoughts on “Sleepwalking through sentences

  1. Thank you! That is a good explanation for why we should avoid clichés. It’s tough! Do you think it’s always out of laziness? Are some clichés so integral to the language and how we communicate certain things to each other that we have to use them occasionally? A lot of alternatives to “rummaging” through a purse would sound like clichés, too. Of course, a great writer could find an original way to depict someone removing something from her purse. But depending on how important the act is to the story, do you think that a perfectly original description might sometimes distract from something bigger and more important in the narrative?

    The reason I ask these questions is that in my favorite novels, written by the generally acknowledged masters of fiction, I notice quite a few clichés that I know were clichés in their own time. For example, in War and Peace Tolstoy’s characters “knit their eyebrows” constantly.

    Anyway, I don’t have answers. I’m asking for the sake of asking 🙂 Thanks for your post! It got me thinking.

    • I think to some extent, cliches are cliches for a reason; they describe something in a way everyone understands. But at the same time, I really liked Smith’s point about getting to the truth. We discussed this more at length in my class, but I think that there is probably a more truthful way to describe something than to use a cliche. Did she rummage through her purse or meticulously catalog the contents as she looked for his lip stick?

      As for knitting eyebrows… I’m not sure I could think of a better way to say that one! 🙂

  2. I agree with you entirely, and I agree with Smith, too. I guess what occurs to me is that descriptions lie on a broad spectrum that ranges from truly original to grossly over-used cliché, and that even the most original statement relies on some sort of meaning understood in common among all who read it or hear it. It can be difficult to pinpoint exactly when “commonly understood meaning” becomes cliché. In a way, we can think of clichés as expressions functioning the way individual words normally do, drawing power (or utility), meaning, and efficiency from the universality of their usage.

    I’m going to go back to Tolstoy just since I read War and Peace pretty recently and loved it. On a randomly opened page, I read a paragraph that begins: “They rode through the village of Rykonty. . .” You can do more things than just “ride” a horse, and Tolstoy could have added more detail about how they were riding or he could have thrown in a rich metaphor. Instead, all he wrote was that the soldiers “rode” through a town. He did add to this description what they saw in town, but I don’t know anything more about their pace, or their posture on their horses, etc. than that they “rode”. The general context of this section of the book seeps into this simple description, so that I suppose Tolstoy avoids cliché in some of his banal sentences by creating a general mood with all of his sentences in sum (or in something that transcends their sum).

    Well, anyway, I LOVE your quote of Smith. I agree with it. I guess what it comes down to is that great authors know when to rachet up the originality in their choice of language and imagery and when to scale it back in service of the larger narrative.

    I probably couldn’t think of a perfect alternative to “knitting eyebrows” either, but I wonder if Tolstoy could have done so and chose not to. Throughout the novel, it’s his way of saying that someone is perturbed. I wonder if he chose to use that expression over and over again for economy and efficiency.

    I’m sure you had a great discussion in class 🙂 Sorry for my wordiness.

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