The Memo

John Rentoul

down with this sort of thing 1 300x210 The MemoI stumbled across this because Tom Doran asked if “I must have missed the memo” was on the Banned List. It wasn’t, but I did write this for a subscription website, Book Brunch, when the book was published in October 2011:

You obviously didn’t get the memo. The one that said the following words and phrases are compulsory throughout the publishing industry. By compulsory, of course, we mean you are compelled to use them. Which is why all new fiction is described as compelling.

New authors are required to be described as a dazzling or bold new voice, their writing as vivid, mesmerising or fascinating and their book as one that will change the way you look at the world. After that, blurb writers are allowed some discretion. They may assemble paragraphs by cutting up these phrases and picking them out of a jar at random: sexy, vibrant (strangely not used to mean non-white in publishing), breath-taking, chilling, thrilling, sensuous, dark intrigue (other colours available on request), extraordinary, brave, winning, poignant, iconic, sexual tension.

For an example of how to do it, here is Helen Garnons-Williams, Bloomsbury editorial director, earlier this month, on buying a novel by Karen Campbell, a former policewoman: “Funny, painful, and gripping, it’s a novel that will open your eyes and take your breath away.” Literary novels require a little more subtlety, usually achieved by grouping words from the approved lexicon into clumps that don’t quite make sense but sound good. Joanne Harris showed how to do it the other day, awarding a prize to London Triptych, by Jonathan Kemp, for its “astonishingly textured prose” and “wonderfully defined narrative voices”.

If the setting is contemporary, you may choose one from “timely”, “ripe” and “topical”. If the setting is Victorian then the words Dickens or Dickensian must be worked in somewhere. If Sweden is mentioned anywhere in the book (Ctrl-F does make things easier), then the phrase “the new Stieg Larsson” is obligatory. And if it is a first novel, you must use debut as a verb.

Non-fiction is harder. If it is cookery, then it must be sumptuously, lavishly, richly or beautifully illustrated. If it is military history, then it must be magisterial. If it is the autobiography of a celebrity then perm any two from warm, tender, searingly honest and touching.

And so on. No business can do without its herd words and fashionable phrases. Not even publishing, the industry responsible for bringing my book of banned clichés and jargon to you.

It is not just the blurbs: once publishers start talking about themselves as a business they are as bad as any. They talk about product when they mean books, bricks and mortar when they mean bookshops, the instore experience when they mean in a bookshop, and they are always trying to engage with consumers to drive sales and add value. It is worse now that they have realised that there is money to be made out of e-books, which immediately becomes “the digital offer” or their “multi-channel capability”. Or a game changer to leverage the long tail going forward, which is a way of saying, “At last we can make some money out of the back list because the costs are so low.”

Well, not any more. If I had not put game changer on the Banned List, I would be saying that the rules of the game really have changed. It’s not rocket science (oops). You are not allowed to ask, “Didn’t you get the memo?” The reason people use ghastly clichés or zombie phrases is either because they are in a hurry, or because they seek the security of the familiar rather than the risk of sounding odd or pretentious, or because they want to use the language of the in crowd. These are all bad reasons, as I try to explain in my book, not because I am a pettifogging old fuddy duddy, although I am, and not because I am a pedant and a smart-alec, although I might be those too, but because over-familiar verbiage reflects badly on the writer or speaker. Some people may not notice phrases such as “any time soon” or “moment in time” or “national treasure”, but an important minority will and they may overlook it if the rest of what you have to say is interesting. But you are making extra work for yourself. You are pushing rocks up hill when you could be rolling smooth pebbles along a level surface. Make life easy for yourself. I am only trying to help. Buy this book and never annoy your readers or listeners again.

Since then, new additions to the Banned List have been listed here.

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  • porkfright

    Is “I must have missed the banned list” on the banned list?

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