Here at the Trying Too Hard Sweepstakes, we’re always looking for simple answers to complicated questions.
For example, a big problem among critics is a tendency to crowd too many descriptive words into a limited space. When in doubt, the experts say, get rid of ALL ADVERBS, but this is easier said than done.
Take this sentence from a New York Times caption about a play on Broadway:
“The script is neither a dramatically shapely piece of writing nor a deeply probing character study.”
Blub, blub, blub, goodness. Now here is a Trying Too Hard cautionary tale. The unnecessary adverbs (“dramatically,” “deeply”) give the sentence a stuffed-to-the-gills feel and yet deleting them makes the sentence slightly deflated: “The script is neither a shapely piece of writing nor a probing character study.” But it’s cleaner that way, and besides, if you don’t take ’em out, nobody will read it.
Glib cocktail-party words are always surprising in a serious review. Janet Maslin has a beaut when she refers to “something funnily incongruous” in Meg Wolitzer’s novel, The Interestings.
“Funnily,” you say? I think Maslin means “amusingly” or “humorously,” so why not say so? “Funnily” does exist in the dictionary but more as conversational slang (as in “funnily enough, I just ran into him”). In a review, it’s so coy that it gets in the way.
Then there’s this from the usually erudite A.O. Scott, who calls the movie Computer Chess a “sneakily brilliant new film.”
Hm. Now does that mean the brilliance of the movie sneaks up on you, or the movie is sneaky (in terms of plot? theme? character?) and therefore brilliant? I think if he wrote, “brilliantly sneaky,” we wouldn’t stumble on it, but that’s not what he means. Maybe he shoulda dumped the phrase and started over.
The same goes for a reference in the Times “Artsbeat” column that applauded a play for being “incisively nuanced.”
I always wonder what the word “nuanced” means exactly, but of course it’s already a cliche — as in “finely nuanced” — so it doesn’t mean anything. The dictionary defines “nuance” as “a subtle difference in or shade of meaning, expression, or sound,” so it’s a fine word all by itself, if used sparingly and ALONE.
I’ve commented before on the Trying Too Hard tendency of New York Times reviewers to turn an adjective into a noun by tacking on the suffix “ness.”
Reviewing the play Breakfast at Tiffany’s, for example, Ben Brantley told readers, “you may be surprised at the atmosphere of lugubriousness.” I’ll say. “Lugubrious” means “looking or sounding sad or dismal,” which happens when you tack “ness” onto a perfectly good adjective.
Unfortunate phrasing may also signal a tendency of Trying Too Hard, as when book reviewer Dwight Garner refers to an author’s “lean but ductile prose.” Sounds a tiny bit obscene or might just be esoteric writing strapped between book covers, but no.
“Ductile” means pliable, supple, bendable or, when it comes to keeping people ductile, it means docile, obedient, submissive. Here, to me, it sounds only show-offy.
The most egregious laugh-out-loud winner of the Trying Too Hard sweepstakes must go to one of our best critics, Cynthia Ozick, who writes: “Of all living literary figures, William Gass may count as the most daringly scathing and the most assertively fecund.”
Heavens: We’re cringing at overblown adverbs and then comes “fecund,” another teensy-bit-dirty word that really shouldn’t appear in a family newspaper.
Okay, just kidding, but still. Fecund means “capable of producing an abundance of new growth,” which can’t apply to very many writers, yet critics use it ALL the time. And then with that unnecessary adverb, one has to say, using “assertively fecund” is just asking for it.