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.

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