Death drove a cliche

Pub date February 21, 2007

With the mayor’s race opening up rather unexpectedly, the power-involved now have a little something extra to think about: should I or shouldn’t I, come autumn? I shouldn’t and won’t — though I love autumn — but if I did, my platform would include some provision to the effect that writers who use clichés should be put in prison. Well, not really. As a society, our fetish for putting people in prison is matched (and perhaps exceeded) only by our fetish for objects and acts military. Also, we would not have remotely enough prison capacity.

But reprieve or no from the next mayor, writers should shun cliché — even go to war against it, as the British writer Martin Amis suggested a few years ago. Clichés are cheap plastic doodads from seedy dime stores about to go out of business, and to write in cliché means to think in cliché, and that means shoddily. The cliché is prima facie evidence that the writer has failed to meet the basic obligations of all writing: to have valuable thoughts to impart and to impart them in language that is fresh, original, and alive.

Food writers might or might not be under a special obligation here, but I know that when I, as a reader of a food or restaurant piece, happen upon such phrases as "earned his chops," "finger on the pulse," "came on board," and "cutting-edge" — these are all real and recent examples, by the way, published locally — it’s as if I’ve struck a pothole and a wheel flies off and I hit the guardrail and flip over: the journey is over. One cannot keep one’s attention focused against a fusillade of prefabricated language and autopilot writing any more than one can take seriously a Hollywood set that consists of propped-up facades with a void behind them: a one-dimensional world whose only dimension is obviousness.

Deadlines impose their pressures and deformations, certainly, and it’s possible to defend some triteness as a kind of shorthand. We do all know what these threadbare expressions mean. Clichés also have real value to ironists; strings of tired words can acquire a comic sheen, like bits of kitsch, if placed in the proper surroundings. But there is an art to this, and it is the antithesis of the unthinkingness that propagates the clichés in the first place.

Paul Reidinger