One-Minute Book Reviews

March 13, 2007

Is This Line From Claire Messud’s ‘The Emperor’s Children’ the Worst Line in a Book Published in 2006?

Filed under: Book Awards,Book Reviews,Books,Delete Key Awards,Fiction,Novels,Reading,Writing — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 3:01 pm

“It filled her with despair, a literal leadening of her limbs, a glazing of the eyes, so that she could barely lift the sheets of paper around her, and certainly couldn’t decipher what was written upon them.”

Lines like this helped to make Claire Messud’s overrated The Emperor’s Children (Knopf, 2006) a finalist for a 2007 Delete Key Award for the year’s worst writing in books. Among the problems: That “leadening” wasn’t literal but metaphorical, and the sentence is infested with clichés

Messud also writes that a character “never knew in life whether to be Pierre or Natasha, the solitary, brooding loner or the vivacious social butterfly.” As opposed to a loner who isn’t solitary?

Should Messud win the 2007 Delete Key Awards competition? Or should the honor go to a finalist such as Mitch Albom or Danielle Steel? You have until the end of the day tomorrow to comment. One-Minute Book Reviews will name the winner on Thursday, March 15. You can find more about The Emperor’s Children in a review archived with the October 2006 posts and in the “Novels” category on this site.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.


  1. Wow, and I had only heard good things about that book…but just those two lines alone tell me I would’ve loathed having to read it. Is the whole book like that? -riddled with cliches and so over-the-top “wordy.” YIKES!

    Comment by David Schleicher — March 13, 2007 @ 4:34 pm | Reply

    • Afraid it is, Dave. My policy on these awards is: Every author is entitled to a few bad lines. So authors get to be finalists only if their sentences in some way represent the book.

      The Delete Key Award to Messud was probably one of the most popular with visitors that I’ve given, because the novel was so overrated by critics that a lot of people felt burned by it.

      Comment by 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom — March 11, 2009 @ 4:00 pm | Reply

  2. Hard to believe, isn’t it? But, yes, the whole book is pretty much like that. I didn’t put any books on the finalists’ list for one or two lines; the bad lines had to represent the book. I’ve speculated on this site about a few reasons why the novel might have gotten so much attention despite the bad writing. For example, it centers on a New York journalist and his circle. Journalists, like others, like to read about themselves. And — to oversimplify — New York journalists also tend to drive the coverage of books. I can’t imagine that “The Emperor’s Chidren” would have received so much attention if it had dealt with, say, a bus driver in Tulsa. The writing just isn’t good enough.

    Thanks so much for notcing what I was trying to show … I always appreciate comments and especially when I’m going against the grain. A lot more people agree with me about Mitch Albom and Thomas Harris than about “The Emperor’s Children.”

    Comment by 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom — March 13, 2007 @ 5:55 pm | Reply

  3. I do hope this one wins, Janice. It’s about time the inexcusable misuse of the word “literally” got the recognition it deserves. Oh, and if you could literally delete this book, that would be even better!

    Comment by davidbdale — March 13, 2007 @ 11:40 pm | Reply

  4. I’m not so put off by the two examples you site. And if I may engage in a bit of advocacy for the devil –to avoid the cliché — here’s my reasoning:

    “never knew in life whether to be Pierre or Natasha, the solitary, brooding loner or the vivacious social butterfly.”

    Could it be that the author meant to use the two opposing cliché’s as exaggerated stereotypes, the better to dramatize the psychological ambiguity at play in Messud’s mind? Rhetorically, when I listen to the sentence, I do hear a certain pleasing balanced cadence between the two clichés, similar to the type of pleasing cadence we’re familiar with in the passage, “in order to form a more perfect union” that we do not hear in the logically corrected alternative, “in order to form a perfect union.” Moreover, isn’t the author relating the dilemma from Messud’s perspective, in the way Messud would think? To word Messud’s thoughts otherwise would be to confuse the author’s words with the character’s.

    Perhaps I’m giving the author way to much benefit of way too much doubt, but I find the other example you site rather interesting.

    “It filled her with despair, a literal leadening of her limbs, a glazing of the eyes, so that she could barely lift the sheets of paper around her, and certainly couldn’t decipher what was written upon them.”

    Let me preface my remark by saying I am equally annoyed with the never-ending incorrect use of the word “literally” as anyone can be. That said, when I read this, I picture her despair as liquid lead, literally filling the body and limbs, all the way up to the glazing of the eyes, so much so that she can not decipher writings on a page. Yes, I know despair can’t literally do that, but that’s the picture I see, and the author paints it effectively. That, together with the interesting use of the ‘L’ sound throughout the passage, I think, warrants the use of literal in this case. Am I off my grammatical rocker?

    Comment by heehler — March 13, 2007 @ 11:50 pm | Reply

  5. cite, not site. I’m an idiot.

    Comment by heehler — March 13, 2007 @ 11:53 pm | Reply

  6. Put me down for the insipid scribblings of Mitch Albom.

    Comment by heehler — March 14, 2007 @ 12:25 am | Reply

  7. David and Tom: I love these comments. The two opposing cliches could be meant as exaggerated sterotypes. But is “solitary loner” a cliche? (I try to keep up with cliches, but they keep outpacing me …) What bothered me about “solitary loner” was the redundancy, which also infects “literal leadening.” The “literal” isn’t just incorrect. It’s superfluous. If Messud wanted to give a sense of despair as liquid lead, why not just say “leadening”? Would you say that the “literal” adds something to the sentence? (I’m not challenging you — just curious.)

    Another part of my reaction to the lines is that the novel had so many like them that, for me, they slowed the pace to that of an inchworm. I might have “read over” them if they had occurred rarely. But one of my rules for the Delete Key short list was that no author got on it for one or two bad lines, because every writer is entitled to a couple. (“War and Peace” is one of my favorite books, but if I’d been Tolstoy’s editor, I’d have urged him to cut the epilogue.) You couldn’t count the number of overwritten lines in “The Emperor’s Children.” Does this make any sense?

    Comment by 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom — March 14, 2007 @ 1:32 am | Reply

  8. And a postscript on Mitch Albom: No matter what happens on the Ides of March, he’s already a winner in the negative-achievement category. The editors of Entertainment Weekly chose “For One More Day” and “Hannibal Rising” as two of their five worst books of 2006 (up there with another memoir by Princess Diana’s butler).

    Comment by 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom — March 14, 2007 @ 1:46 am | Reply

  9. I see your point. The use of the word literal is so egregiously wrong, I thought perhaps it had to be on purpose. Perhaps not.

    Comment by heehler — March 14, 2007 @ 7:09 pm | Reply

  10. […] Read some of the comments on Messud’s Delete Key Award here. […]

    Pingback by Claire Messud Won a 2007 Delete Key Award for These Clichés. Should Barbara Walters Win One for Hers? « One-Minute Book Reviews — March 11, 2009 @ 3:22 pm | Reply

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