One-Minute Book Reviews

June 13, 2008

Franzen and Messud Win This Week’s Gusher Awards for Achievement in Hyperbole in Book Reviewing

Messud becomes first Delete Key Awards finalist to win a Gusher

Two well-known novelists have tied for this week’s Gusher Award for Achievement in Hyperbole in Book Reviewing: Jonathan Franzen, who won a 2001 National Book Award for The Corrections, and Claire Messud, who took second place in the 2007 Delete Key Awards contest.

Both authors won for comments that appeared in their reviews of Alice Munro’s 2004 short-story collection, Runaway (Vintage, 352 pp., $14.95, paperback):

“Basically, Runaway is so good that I don’t want to talk about it here. Quotation can’t do the book justice, and neither can synopsis. The way to do it justice is to read it.”
Jonathan Franzen in “Alice’s Wonderland: Runaway,” the New York Times Book Review, Nov. 14, 2004

“ … to any reader broaching Munro’s work for the first time, no list of adjectives will suffice to convey what that work is, or its effects: She is one of those few living writers who, in the way of the greats, must simply be read.”
Claire Messud in “Our Chekhov, Our Flaubert,” the Globe and Mail, Sept. 25, 2004


Neither of these quotes meets a strict definition of hyperbole, or exaggeration for effect: Franzen and Messud appear to mean exactly what they say. But both comments are examples of overheated praise in book reviews, which the Gusher Awards recognize on Fridays.

Franzen and Messud may believe that “Quotation can’t do the book justice” and “no list of adjectives will suffice” for Runaway. But you could say as much about any of our greatest books and many of the worst. (Aren’t some books so bad that they seem to defeat description? Can any list of adjectives truly do justice to Mitch Albom?) So what do we learn from these comments on Munro?

Their words may not be a clichés, but the idea behind each is a cliché – “words can’t do it justice.” This kind of writing is often necessary in casual forms of communication such as e-mail. We might all be prostrate by noon each day if we made a grail of originality in every off-the-cuff note to a co-worker. But shouldn’t expect more from major reviews in the leading newspapers in the U.S. and Canada?

The shortlisted passages for the 2007 Delete Key Awards, including Messud’s, were posted as 10 separate posts on Feb. 28, 2007 A passage from her The Emperor’s Children took second place when the winners were announced on March 15, 2007

To see all posts about the Gusher and Delete Key Awards, click on those tags at the top of this post (after “Filed Under”).

(c) 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.


  1. They each sound as though they were dashed off too close to deadline. It’s certainly a reasonable expectation; that the reviewers at least attempt to find words. Otherwise, how is it a review???

    Comment by ggelliott — June 13, 2008 @ 6:27 pm | Reply

  2. “It’s certainly a reasonable expectation; that the reviewers at least attempt to find words. Otherwise, how is it a review???”

    Yes, excellent point! And oddly enough, their inability to describe anything at all about why the collection is good not only makes me not want to read the book, it makes me wonder if they read it.

    Comment by sarahsk — June 13, 2008 @ 7:26 pm | Reply

  3. Both quotes were from longer reviews in which the authors did express opinions, and the reviews could well have been dashed off close to deadline. (We’ve all done that …)

    But when reviewers make comments like these, it seems to me that what they’re really saying is either a) I’m out of my depth here and not capable of doing justice to this book or b) I’m not out of my depth but I’m not willing to put the time into figuring out how to do justice to it, because it would be too hard.

    Either way, I agree with Sarah that comments like these can make you not want to read the book. Or rather, I’d would want to read more if the reviewer gave you, for example, a vivid quote or anecdote.

    Comment by 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom — June 13, 2008 @ 7:52 pm | Reply

  4. I would only add that quotes like these always make me suspicious, and they give me the uncomfortable “Emperor’s New Clothes” feeling that the reviewers believe they’re supposed to love these books, but aren’t sure why.

    Or, that they didn’t actually read them.

    P.S. The “vivid quotes and anecdotes” are what bring life to the books reviewed on this site.

    Comment by ggelliott — June 13, 2008 @ 9:41 pm | Reply

  5. “Reviewers believe they’re supposed to like these books”: Yes, and the pressure to like them is becoming more intense as reviewing becomes ever-more market-driven.

    I believe that, in this case, Franzen and Messud were sincere in their admiration for Munro. But I’ve read other reviews that left me with the suspicion that critics had of pulled their punches because of an author’s high reputation.

    Comment by 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom — June 13, 2008 @ 10:41 pm | Reply

  6. When I see comments like these, I suspect the people making them haven’t read the books but know, from the authors’ names, that if they had read the books they would be worthy of such comments and/or even if they didn’t think they were worthy, mostly everyone else would think so and that being on the real or imagined bandwagon on such matters is the safest course.


    Comment by knightofswords — June 14, 2008 @ 12:32 pm | Reply

  7. These are very “man-on-the-street” statements. Mainstream. Glib. Tell us nothing.

    There is too much dependence on celebrity for summing things up. I’d rather hear Malcolm’s or ggelliott’s comments than Frazen’s and Messud’s.

    Famed writers do not always good reviewers make unless they’re speaking directly to craft.

    Comment by oh — June 15, 2008 @ 11:41 am | Reply

  8. Right. Writing novels and literary criticism are two separate arts.

    Comment by 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom — June 15, 2008 @ 3:08 pm | Reply

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