A Literary Tour de Force
December 7, 2004 10:05 PM   Subscribe

ClicheFilter: What's the deal with literary reviews and the phrase "tour de force"? Why do even great writer-reviewers continue to use this worn-out phrase? Is this some sort of big inside joke?
posted by vacapinta to Writing & Language (17 answers total)
Is not Innocent and Experience Blake's tour de force?
posted by orange clock at 10:18 PM on December 7, 2004

posted by orange clock at 10:19 PM on December 7, 2004

There's a similar phenomenon with "masterly translation."
posted by rustcellar at 10:21 PM on December 7, 2004

How about "lyrical"? I see reviewers on Amazon.com trying to sound cool by copping that.
posted by inksyndicate at 10:29 PM on December 7, 2004

Response by poster: I understand why bad writers use cliches. I guess I'm asking why even great writers, who usually avoid cliches like the plague (heh) continue to use this particular one, and in the context of reviews. I was just looking at a book near me right now. The back cover quotes Margaret Atwood from the NY Times and she says "A fascinating literary tour de force..." She knows better than that, doesnt she? Or, am i missing something?
posted by vacapinta at 10:43 PM on December 7, 2004

I don't see what's wrong. The phrases have acquired a connotation. What's wrong with using them if that's the meaning you want to communicate.
posted by Gyan at 10:59 PM on December 7, 2004

It doesn't answer your question specifically, but here is an good rundown of review clichés.
posted by teg at 11:14 PM on December 7, 2004

Tour de force, like coup de grace, coup d'etat and joie de vivre, is one of those fancy French freedom phrases with that certain.... je ne sais quois.

Some cliches are cliches because they are hackneyed and colloquial; others are really just often-used phrases that are still a really 'good' way of getting a certain meaning across. Tour de force is arguably useful precisely because it's most often used in this particular context and so using it implies that the work in question is good enough to make using a boring old cliche worthwhile.
posted by onshi at 11:25 PM on December 7, 2004

How does prose shimmer? If anyone has an idea, I'd like to know.
posted by alidarbac at 2:40 AM on December 8, 2004

well, shimmering things are difficult to read.
posted by andrew cooke at 4:18 AM on December 8, 2004

Some cliches are cliches because they are hackneyed and colloquial; others are really just often-used phrases that are still a really 'good' way of getting a certain meaning across.

I guess it's silly to argue about the meaning of "cliche", but I disagree with this. I don't think they're ever a good way of getting meaning across. When something becomes cliche (though overuse), it becomes noise. It doesn't matter how evocative the words are on a literal level.

Take, for instance, vacapinta's example "avoid like the plague." If you think about it, that's an extremely evocative and sharp image. But overuse has made it a cliche. When I read it, I don't imagine plague. I just have a vague sense of something that should be avoided. So it's not particularly good at getting meaning across.

I think many good writers write poorly when they write reviews (also, many good writers are not good all the time, which is difficult to be. Many use an occasional cliche). Some think of reviews as easy money to tide them over while they work on their "real" writing. Rare writers, like Pauline Kael, thought of the review as a real artform, equal in stature to other forms of literature.

Also, it's hard to write a review. Most of us like or dislike a work without being about to clearly explain why. It's a gut-level thing. Reviewers are forced (under deadline) to come up with rational reasons for their feelings.

Cliche-ridden prose is often a sign of fuzzy thinking. "The novel is a tour de force" may mean "I liked it, but they're not going to pay me if I just say that, so I better throw in some big words."

George Orwell likened the cliche to a "prefabricated hen-house." You can cobble them together quickly to get the job done.
posted by grumblebee at 5:27 AM on December 8, 2004

Excellent link, teg. I've always loved how reviewers use "...on acid" to describe writing that is even slightly off-beat.

All-purpose blurb:

"This tour de force is an emotional roller coaster from start to finish. It's Emily Bronte on acid-- it zings like a high tension wire."
posted by Fuzzy Monster at 7:38 AM on December 8, 2004

I've never seen the word "limn" used in print, except in book reviews.
posted by Vidiot at 8:05 AM on December 8, 2004

A) Reviewers use cliché like this because they're lazy and / or hurried.

B) They use a phrase like "tour de force" because something really is a tour de force: that is, as the OED says, "a feat of strength, power, or skill," or a work that is particularly accomplished technically. So "Russian Ark," "Time's Arrow" etc. are definitely tour-de-foce type works. (If you already know this, sorry!--I just mean to say that it's just an aimless cliché, like "avoid like the plague.")
posted by josh at 8:35 AM on December 8, 2004

Can't speak to the book reviewers ("limn" is Michiko's favorite word, isn't it?), but I will say, as someone who's blurbed a few books, the cliché does come in handy when trying to sum up a book and persuade someone to buy it, in all of two sentences.
posted by mothershock at 10:09 AM on December 8, 2004

vacapinta, what would you suggest instead of "tour de force"? It does express something fairly specific. "Virtuosic performance" doesn't quite have the same connotation, to me.

grumblebee, to me "tour de force" means either a) "I liked this, and was impressed by the writer's technical virtuosity" or b) "I didn't like this, but couldn't help being impressed by the writer's technical virtuosity."

I once had a student who described something as an "intellectual Tour de France". Not on purpose, either.
posted by Sidhedevil at 11:29 AM on December 8, 2004

There's nothing wrong with "tour de force". It's a phrase with a clearly defined meaning. Just because a group of words is commonly used to express a particular idea doesn't make it a cliché.
posted by jjg at 1:51 PM on December 8, 2004

« Older Tips, recommendations, suggestions for a trip to...   |   Color Blindness Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.