We Need to Talk About Clichés (part 2)

As a novelist, essayist and journalist of exceptional clarity and imagination, it is unsurprising that George Orwell took a zero tolerance approach to cliché: ‘Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech that you are used to seeing in print.’ He would have probably disliked my use of the over-employed ‘zero tolerance’.

Orwell’s writing embodies the war against cliché that I looked at in part 1 of this blog. His freshness and startling originality has gripped me for decades, ever since I picked up a tattered copy of 1984 for 50p in the now demolished Dave’s Books in Wakefield market. Orwell doesn’t really do cliché, I thought, as I set myself the challenge of trying to find a tired old phrase in the work of one of history’s finest exponents of prose. This morning, at random, I picked up a copy of the wonderful Coming up for Air from my bookshelves and began re-reading the opening pages for the first time in years:

coming-up-for-air.jpg

The idea really came to me the day I got my new false teeth.

I remember the morning well. At about a quarter to eight I’d nipped out of bed and got into the bathroom just in time to shut the kids out. It was a beastly January morning, with a dirty yellowish-grey sky. Down below, out of the little square of bathroom window, I could see the ten yards by five of grass, with a privet hedge round it and a bare patch in the middle, that we call the back garden. There’s the same back garden, some privets, and same grass, behind every house in Ellesmere Road. Only difference — where there are no kids there’s no bare patch in the middle.

I was trying to shave with a bluntish razor-blade while the water ran into the bath. My face looked back at me out of the mirror, and underneath, in a tumbler of water on the little shelf over the washbasin, the teeth that belonged in the face. It was the temporary set that Warner, my dentist, had given me to wear while the new ones were being made. I haven’t such a bad face, really. It’s one of those bricky-red faces that go with butter-coloured hair and pale-blue eyes. I’ve never gone grey or bald, thank God, and when I’ve got my teeth in I probably don’t look my age, which is forty-five.

Making a mental note to buy razor-blades, I got into the bath and started soaping. I soaped my arms (I’ve got those kind of pudgy arms that are freckled up to the elbow) and then took the back- brush and soaped my shoulder-blades, which in the ordinary way I can’t reach. It’s a nuisance, but there are several parts of my body that I can’t reach nowadays. The truth is that I’m inclined to be a little bit on the fat side. I don’t mean that I’m like something in a sideshow at a fair. My weight isn’t much over fourteen stone, and last time I measured round my waist it was either forty-eight or forty-nine, I forget which. And I’m not what they call ‘disgustingly’ fat, I haven’t got one of those bellies that sag half-way down to the knees. It’s merely that I’m a little bit broad in the beam, with a tendency to be barrel-shaped. Do you know the active, hearty kind of fat man, the athletic bouncing type that’s nicknamed Fatty or Tubby and is always the life and soul of the party? I’m that type. ‘Fatty’ they mostly call me. Fatty Bowling. George Bowling is my real name.

Within seconds I found a bona fide cliché. I was willing to overlook ‘I remember the morning well’ as a bit of a clumsy introduction to analepsis (because it is quite tricky to use a flashback device without signalling it), I’d also given the benefit of doubt to the overused metaphor ‘making a mental note’. But I couldn’t, surely, ignore the neon glare of ‘the life and soul of the party’. This is the kind of hackneyed monstrosity that Harold Evans lists among his worst offenders. I had him. Bang to rights. In an exam, I could now proceed with a literary take down, picking up huge marks for an assassination of the opening to one of England’s finest novelists.

This, apparently, is what pupils are being asked to do in the new GCSE English Language exams. On AQA, Paper 1 Q4, pupils are asked to evaluate the quality of the writing of a celebrated (or at least famous) twentieth century writer. I’ve written before about a brave, high ability pupil whose exam I marked who attempted to critique Graham Greene’s use of the cliché ‘The clock struck eleven’ in an extract from Brighton Rock. The problem was – and this is the same problem I would encounter if I tried to slam Orwell’s ‘life and soul’-  the fact that the pupil had been explicitly taught to spot clichés. They were well-read enough to know that this apparently blighted an otherwise excellent piece of fiction. The issue was that they, as a modern reader, hadn’t been able, or shown how to, place the individual cliché in context.

Brighton Rock was published in 1938, a year before Orwell’s novel. This is why caution is required before taking apart a classic: the novels are nearly 80 years old. These fatigued to the point of death expression may well have been fresh and sparkly in the 1930s. (I say ‘may well’ as I am unable, despite a lengthy search, to find datings and origins for these phrases.Besides, even if these phrases were clichéd by the 1930s… Orwell is writing in the first person. Could the use of a worn out phrase be perhaps indicative of the dull and monotonous existence of the narrator protagonist?

For these reasons, I recommend exercising restraint when teaching pupils how to spot clichés in classic fiction.  By all means crack out some Dan Brown and have a bit of fun, but only to illustrate the difference between him and the greats.

Far better, I would argue, to focus on how great writers avoid or subvert clichés of expression and also clichés of the mind (plotting, characterisation etc.). Let’s apply a more positive analysis to parts of the opening of Orwell’s relatively neglected classic:

Archetypes

In fiction, the archetype is a typical, representative character. A stock character that we can recognise and identify with. Only when the archetype becomes repeated ad nauseam, without derivation or innovation, does he or she become tiresome and clichéd. In this case Bowling is the archetypal everyman, interesting to the reader because of his ordinariness. Our protagonist, with his concerns about his weight and his appearance, and the mundane Orwellian motif of ‘bluntish razor blades’ (concerns that will soon become irrelevant if our reader understands the context of the novel’s date of publication). What stops him becoming a clichéd character? I would argue his self-deprecation: ‘I don’t mean that I’m like something in a sideshow at a fair’.  This simile tells us much more about the character than the ‘life and soul’ idiom.

Name

‘Fatty’ or George Bowling is a name that allows plenty of opportunity to evaluate the writing. Does it suit him? Is it effective in allowing the reader to get beneath his (flabby) skin? Yes, due to the following connotations:

  • ‘Fatty’ – childlike pejorative…perhaps symbolic of his reluctance to age. Willingness as a narrator to do what Wayne Booth termed ‘disclose all’. Links to the peculiarly British trait of pointing out flaws before others can.
  • ‘Bowling’ – suggestive of that other great English obsession – cricket. The verb, or gerund, implies speed or flummoxing movement, linking to the changing nature of late 1930s society.
  • ‘George’ – the same name as the writer himself. Is this a signal that the novel is a roman a clef? That we should make contextual links between our hero and the writer’s own concerns and preoccupations. Orwell famously wrote: ‘it is an unusual novel that does not contain somewhere or other a portrait of the author, thinly disguised as hero, saint, or martyr.’ Of course, the irony is that George is not the writer’s real name. George Orwell is the facade behind which Eric Arthur Blair laboured…

I could go on. What I’ve started to do is apply sections of my GRANDDAD mnemonic to this piece, evaluating with an eye on cliché (be it structural and language choice) throughout. Teaching your pupils to do the same could bear fruit. Or at least produce good results.

Thanks for reading,

 

Mark

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We Need to Talk About Clichés (part 1)

Cliché

NOUN

  1. A phrase or opinion that is overused and betrays a lack of original thought
  2. A very predictable or unoriginal thing or person
  3. PRINTING, chiefly British – A stereotype or electrotype

In the early nineteenth century the technical printing term cliché (from clicher – ‘to click’) was coined to describe the sound of a mould striking molten metal. The figurative meaning, to identify a hackneyed phrase or idea arrives much later in the 1880s. The etymology is instructive, I think, in helping us grasp the iniquity of the cliché and to consider why we need to teach our pupils to avoid them in their reading and writing. In printing, a mould or cast is vital. Making the same stamp, impression and type creates consistency and reliability. Nobody would want to read sentences comprised of different sized and shaped fonts. In writing, predictability is the enemy. Originality of expression and ideas are the magic ingredient all good writers seek.

In his excellent collection of essays and reviews The War Against Cliché, the novelist Martin Amis asserts:

‘all writing is a campaign against cliché. Not just clichés of the pen but clichés of the mind and of the heart. When I dispraise, I am usually quoting clichés. When I praise, I am usually quoting the opposed qualities of freshness, energy, and reverberation of voice.’

So while the title may sound pretentious, I think that it gets to the heart of the teacher of English’s mission: keeping clichés in check.

Now, I know that perhaps some of you are thinking the opening of this blog is somewhat clichéd in itself:

  • The title. Yes, we get that it’s an intertextual reference to Lionel Shriver’s morbidly splendid novel We Need to Talk About Kevin but there’s since been hundreds of columns and articles starting with ‘We Need to Talk About…’. Once Alan Partridge got his hands on the title it was already a moribund allusion.
  • Starting a blog on a topic with dictionary definition of said topic. When did that become obligatory?
  • There’s some hackneyed phrases here: ‘gets to the heart of’, ‘keeping…in check’ Bloody hypocrite!

But, I know that some of you will have also noticed that I’ve done this deliberately to illustrate the point and create a nice little game of Spot the Cliché. See, because we are skilled writers and readers, we can, in our ironic, post-modern way, play around with words and offer knowing winks to our skilled readers through our lexical choices. Less confident readers and writers can’t do that. Like the virtuoso classical musician who plays discordant jazz, we can break the rules precisely because we’ve learnt them.

Having said that, there will inevitably be other clichés that slip through the net; my other blogs aren’t on this topic and I bet if you go back through them you’ll spot some stinkers within seconds. My defence is that I write my blogs quickly (I’m a busy man with young kids, and a wife who sometimes likes to see me). When I wrote journalism I would spend hours checking drafts to seek and destroy them with extreme prejudice. Yet, the larger point about the prevalence of the cliché still holds. There are so many of them that they are impossible to avoid. The legendary journalist and editor Harold Evans, whose classic book Essential English for Journalists, Editors and Writers contains a helpful list of particularly stale clichés states that all we can do is ‘ration them and tolerate only the best’.

I agree. The fight against cliché is unwinnable. Like creeping ivy, the best we can do is hack it back and only allow it to cover even uglier constructions.

Teaching pupils to avoid clichéd diction and thought must be done explicitly. Let’s begin by looking at teaching the avoidance of cliché in pupils’ writing. Here’s some of the things, off the top of my head, that I did last year:

  1. Set pupils a trap. Give them a list of unfinished similes and get them to fill in the gaps: As fast as _________, The ball went it to net like __________ etc. Watch as most pupils automatically opt for the lazy option (a cheetah, lightning, Usain Bolt; a rocket, a missile).
  2. Have a conversation about why these choices are too obvious. Discuss less obvious answers.
  3. Get pupils to compose fresh, original similes. Or subvert the cliché (‘John ran for the bus as fast as a cheetah. Unfortunately, the cheetah he ran like was arthritic and had three legs.) Or better still, look at alternative ways to express the thought.
  4. Get them to write a list of clichés on a given topic against the clock. ‘Time’ works well. So does ‘Love’.
  5. Expand this idea so they write the most trite and hackneyed love poem of all time.
  6. Give them something that you’ve written that is of a high quality but let down by a couple of clunkers. The best thing about this is when they continue to notice your clichéd offerings weeks after you’ve moved on to another topic.
  7. Talk about the difference and overlap between cliché, idiom and proverb.
  8. Give them a visual stimulus and, in pairs, get them to write two openings – one full of overused phrases and one that avoids them like the plague.

So far we’ve mainly focussed on the clichéd expression. What of the ‘clichés of the mind’? I often begin teaching pupils about the rejection of predictable plotting and lame endings through the use of films. We discuss our most disliked openings and endings to films, zooming in on certain generic conventions such as the necessity for the superhero to be virtually dead before he can finally vanquish his nemesis. This can be linked very nicely with Todorov’s narrative stages to help pupils jettison unnecessarily long and dull openings that favour explanation of the equilibrium rather than a more enigmatic in media res disruption. We discuss the horrors of the ‘and it was all just a dream’ ending and talk about how much information we really need to give the reader at the denouement. Cliché and structure go hand in hand.

Next time, I’ll be looking at how we can use our newfound knowledge of the war against cliché in our own writing to better prepare us for evaluation of a famous writer’s work when reading.

Thanks for reading,

Mark