“Haunting.” “Powerful.” “Wake-up call.” Why do we keep seeing words like these recycled over and over in book reviews and on dust jackets? Whether it’s because book sections are shrinking or some writers don’t recognize a cliché, such overused terms often amount to spin or doubletalk.
Not long ago editor Marian Lizzi wrote that in publishing circles the phrase “labor of love” often means “the advance orders are disappointing.” Inspired by her comment, I asked industry veterans to decode other euphemisms and to attach the hashtag #pubcode on Twitter. I collected 40 of their answers, and others poured in afterward. And if many responses were tongue-in-cheek, they also pointed to a truth. Novelist Mat Johnson was right, for example, when he said that “nominated for the Pulitzer” means only that a publisher paid the $50 entry fee, though the prize sponsor discourages such uses of the word.
Here are more explanations of terms that editors, publishers and critics use when describing books.
“affecting” = “I felt something. Could’ve been the book. Could’ve been my lunch.” @jenniferweiner Jennifer Weiner, novelist (Then Came You) and television producer (State of Georgia)
“a book for the ages” = “no need to read it now” @MarkKohut Mark Kohut, writer and publisher of Redburn Press
“brilliant debut collection” = “yet another friggin’ MFA thesis” @ajsomerset A.J. Somerset, novelist (Combat Camera) and photographer
“dazzling” = “We hope you’ll find the prose so gorgeous that you won’t really notice that nothing happens” @autsentwit “Miss Bennet,” editor
“dedicated fan base” = “Mom and spouse” @mat_johnson Mat Johnson, novelist (Pym)
“endearing” = “heavy on the treacle” @lolacalifornia Edie Meidav, novelist (Lola, California)
“game-changer” = “the Betamax of print” @glossaria, librarian
“ground breaking romantic comedy” = “heroine hit by a car at the end. By a man.” @PhillipaAshley Phillipa Ashley, novelist (Wish You Were Here and Fever Cure)
“haunting” = “Sat unfinished on my nightstand for months while I read other stuff.” @saraeckel Sara Eckel, a freelance writer for the New York Times and other publications
“heartwarming” = “major character is a dog, an old guy, or both” @kathapollitt Katha Pollitt, poet and columnist for the Nation
“historical” novel = “American = dust, prairies & drab clothing; Italian = poison & plots; English = sex, beautiful clothes & beheadings.” @JVNLA Jennifer Weltz, literary agent at Jean V. Naggar Literary Agency .
“Hemingwayesque” = “Hemingwayesque = short sentences. Faulkneresque = long sentences. Fitzgeraldesque = regret, longing, rich people.” @arthurphillips Arthur Phillips, novelist (The Tragedy of Arthur)
“it grabs you by the throat and won’t let go” = “it’s gonna hurt” @hangingnoodles Jag Bhalla, author of I’m Not Hanging Noodles on Your Ears
“national besteller” = “made list in Buffalo & Fresno. International bestseller = made list in Irkutsk” @BloomsburyPress Peter Ginna, publisher, Bloomsbury Press
“nominated for the Pulitzer” = “publisher paid $50 application fee.” @mat_johnson Mat Johnson, novelist (Pym)
“powerful” = “all plot, with attitude” @MarkKohut MarkKohut, writer and president of Redburn Press
“reminiscent of Ellison and Baldwin” = “black guy” @mat_johnson Mat Johnson, novelist, Pym
“quirky” = “about half the length you’d expect and/or no capital letters” @tamarapaulin Tamara Paulin, writer and former CBC Radio One co-host
“Shakespearean” = “everyone dies, uh, like Hamlet” Mark Kohut, writer and publisher of Redburn Press
“She divides her time between New York City and The Ozarks” = “She lives in Manhattan, submits fellowship apps from Arkansas.” @saraeckel Sara Eckel, a freelance writer for the New York Times and other publications. Also: “got the second home in the divorce” @janiceharayda Jan Harayda, novelist and editor of One-Minute Book Reviews
“a stirring commentary on the human condition” = “a book about feelings written by a man. @saraeckel Sara Eckel, a freelance writer for the New York Times and other publications
“sweeping family saga” = “your mother might like this” @MarkKohut Mark Kohut, writer and publisher of Redburn Press
“a wake-up call for America” = “a bad-tempered diatribe by a member of the previous administration” @garykrist Gary Krist, journalist and author of the forthcoming City of Scoundrels. Also: “a delusional rant by a conspiracy theorist” @DianeFarr Diane Farr, novelist (Fair Game and Duel of Hearts)
Jan Harayda is a novelist and award-winning journalist. You can follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/janiceharayda. One-Minute Book Reviews was named one of New Jersey’s best blogs in the April 2011 issue of New Jersey Monthly.