Pop Culture Nerd and I had a brief exchange on Twitter last night wherein we discussed our picky astute observations regarding grammar-ly matters. (Yes, I totally made up “grammar-ly” so as not to sound incredibly high-handed). I was bemoaning the overuse of similes, she, adverbs, i.e. he demanded forcefully. You see, when you read as much as I do (and as much as most book bloggers do), certain trends begin to stand out. PCN has a great post up about the tics that bug her the most.
Today, I want to go into a full-fledged rant on the simile. Similes are great. “A comparison using ‘like’ or ‘as.'” Excellent. Fourth graders often employ similes in poetry. Adults, however, tend to have a greater grasp of the English language and should not need to rely as heavily on them for description. Notice, I use the word should in that last sentence. Unfortunately, everything I read lately seems to have an overabundance of the darn things. The one that stands out the most: They folded into the booth “like two spoons in cake batter.” Ugh. I get it; they were tired or comfortable or whatever. I really didn’t need the foodie image. Really. Now I’ll tell you, this came from Adriana Trigiani’s book Rococco, but I’m not picking on her alone. This afternoon, while teaching a class, we were discussing paragraph organization, and here’s a quote directly from the textbook: “… the line of thought in paragraph B swerves about like a car without a steering wheel.” I honestly had to pause to let that one take effect. Like moths to a flame, writers seem to be drawn to similes, and if even the textbook uses these (in my opinion) ridiculous analogies, who am I to complain?
My academic background is in English and technical writing and editing, so these choices get my back up. Once or twice, I guess they’re ok. Any more than that, and the writing is lazy. The opening to Isabel Allende’s The House of the Spirits is one of my favorite, so let’s look at it in all of its simile-free glory:
Barrabas came to us by sea, the child Clara wrote in her delicate calligraphy …. Barrabas arrived on a Holy Thursday. He was in a despicable cage, caked with his own excrement and urine, and had the lost look of a hapless, utterly defenseless prisoner; but the regal carriage of his head and the size of his frame bespoke the legendary giant he would become.
How different would that phrase ring if we changed it:
Barrabas came to us be sea, the child Clara wrote in her delicate calligraphy like filigreed gold …. Barrabas arrived on a Holy Thursday. He was in a despicable cage, caked with his own excrement and urine, and had the lost look of a hapless, utterly defenseless prisoner like the image of Jesus walking to Golgotha. Like a king, the regal carriage of his head and the size of his frame bespoke the legendary giant he would become.
Like a fly in the ointment, Allende’s lovely passage is, well, less lovely. The imagery and the symbolism in the real excerpt are certainly there (interpret as you wish), but if you make it explicit, the words lose their impact. No more interpretation. Less beauty.
So why are authors still doing it? In PCN’s post comments, many blame the writer, and yes, the writer should be held accountable. However, as an editor (in name only, not career), I cringe to think that a professional editor lets manuscripts slide from her desk with these sorts of stylistic choices. The job of an editor is to take what the author created and make it better – grammatically and stylistically. One of my categories on this blog is “where are the editors,” and I’ve started using the tag whenever appropriate. I mean, I get it: Writers tend to use similar words and word phrases and may not always pick up on them. Editors should.
Stay tuned for more “Where are the editors?” posts…