Today I would like to discuss a particular complaint about something that doesn't seem to bother everyone: dead phrases and clichés. (Is that redundant? Well, I want to net the whole stinking lot of fish in one go.)
It disheartens me every time I read one of them in a book I am otherwise enjoying. In my review of Ron Chernow's generally excellent Washington: A Life, I found myself tripping over them disturbingly often, and it detracted from the pleasure I was experiencing as a reader.
Why? Because it demonstrates that the writer is not thinking about each word—not choosing them for freshness, vividness, and effect. As George Orwell wrote in "Politics and the English Language," one of the finest essays on writing ever written, if you simply slap in stock phrases, those phrases will do your thinking for you. To paraphrase Jesus, leave the dead behind.
Of course, not all metaphors and similes are clichés or dead phrases. If you can conjure a fresh image, then that is simply wonderful. It's good writing. But it still has to work. If it doesn't evoke what you're trying to evoke, then all you've done is demonstrate how damned clever you think you are. In which case, it would have been better to use an unevocative cliché.
And it's important to remember that this is only a subset of style, and of narrative craft. Chernow, for example, does so many things so well that in the end I forgave him for his stylistic lapses. He crafted characters brilliantly, paced his book wonderfully, and provided true insight into his subject, George Washington.
In my own writing, though, I want to get it all right—to be a storyteller and a stylist and a historian. No, I do not think I have attained perfection. I am sadly aware of shortcomings, and prepared to be hit in the future with new knowledge of my limitations. If there's one thing I've learned, it's that I don't know as much as I think I do, and I don't do things as well as I think I can.
But I hope to move in the direction of perfection. That means every word must be chosen specifically, every metaphor deployed with care. It isn't easy. But, in the stock phrase of my late high-school wrestling coach, "If it was easy, everyone would be doing it."