Literary criticism is notoriously prone to the pat and the pretentious. A few years ago Tom Payne brilliantly lampooned "the words that reviewers and publishers love too much" in the Telegraph. His glossary of horrors included such tired terms as "cracking pace", "darkly comic" and "that rare thing", which is surprisingly common. The theme was reprised this year withBob Harris's "Seven Deadly Words of Book Reviewing" for the New York Times: "poignant", "compelling", "intriguing", "eschew", "craft", "muse" and "lyrical" were his pet peeves. The piece was gleefully received, with no fewer than 265 online readers posting their own personal bugbears.
Literary lingo does seem to be getting lazy. If you've read one review this year of a "raw" and "intriguing" debut from a "fresh, accessible voice" whose "sweeping urban epic" raises "poignant" issues for an "alienated post-9/11 world", you've read them all. As it turns out, the New York Times is itself a particularly reliable source for painfully mannered criticism. Walter Kirn's recent critique of James Wood's "How Fiction Works" is an inadvertently comic example: anyone who can criticise "the eminently resistible prose style of [Wood's] donnish, finicky persona", and then write phrases like "Wood's study must be vast, with well-stocked shelves, judging by the inarguable erudition displayed in his compact vade mecum", must be pretty immuneto irony.
But if book reviewing is a dangerous habitat for a writer, it can be a positive minefield on the web. Having recently moved from the sanctimonious but reliably rigorous circles of university academia to the brave new world of social media, I know all too well the dangers of the blogosphere in encouraging sloppy and platitudinous prose.