Next week I’ll be moderating a panel at Left Coast Crime  in Portland titled, “The Taste of Copper, the Smell of Cordite: Clichés in Crime Fiction.”
This topic in one form or another crops up just about every year, making the panel itself a kind of cliché. I’ve heard Martyn Waite deride the jazz-loving detective, and Karin Slaughter bemoan sex scenes where all the male hero has to do is, basically, show up.
Someone sooner or later mentions the smoky-voiced, sex-soaked femme fatale who bears a greater resemblance to Natasha from Rocky & Bullwinkle than to any living, breathing woman. And Chandler’s old saw, “When you get stuck, just send somebody through the door with a gun,” is always good for a brisk flogging. (Why not send him in with a dowsing rod, or a flaming parrot, or a penis pump?)
But as I began to organize my thoughts for this thing, I realized that in all the general writing conferences I’ve attended, I have never – never, not once – seen a panel titled “Clichés in Literary Fiction.”
Why is that?
[pullquote]Perhaps the greatest cliché in literary fiction involves not phrasing or character, setting or plot devices, but tone. I mean, of course, irony.[/pullquote]
Does literary fiction present such a broad range of human experience – beyond what one finds, for example, down the nearest mean street, or inside the average police station – that it doesn’t need to revisit the same predictable situations over and over?
Please. I wish to introduce Exhibit A: the middle-aged college professor (or the housewife with a degree in Comp Lit) contemplating an affair.
Are perhaps the writers of literary fiction so advanced in craft and lofty of mind they never succumb to a commonplace phrase?
If only. Admittedly, these kinds of lapses are harder to find in literary fiction, due to the premium placed on language. But the need for novelty of expression can itself become banal. More than one writer, while chasing the butterfly of felicitous expression, has tripped over something simple and sturdy. One can always detect the ineffable in the ordinary if one looks carefully enough.
But perhaps the greatest cliché in literary fiction involves not phrasing or character, setting or plot devices, but tone. I mean, of course, irony.
[pullquote]The terror of being found out, the aversion to saying or believing or, worst of all, expressing something others deem hackneyed or naïve, permeates literary fiction in a way that genre fiction seems to escape.[/pullquote]
Now I realize poor, defenseless irony has taken quite a beating in some quarters. John Gardner gave it a good thrashing in On Moral Fiction, for example. And we probably all remember the talking heads of TV news, in the wake of the 9-11 attacks, announcing with stern, patriotic conviction that, “The Age of Irony is dead.” As though the World Trade Center hadn’t been leveled by terrorists but by a particularly devastating double entendre.
A far more insightful (and more honest) critique of the ironic tendency can be found in a wonderful essay titled “E Unibus Pluram,” by David Foster Wallace.
You can find this essay online , and I highly recommend reading it. (And re-reading it – you’ll need to.) Wallace makes a great many excellent points but his central thesis is that the generation of writers that grew up with TV, as well as those who came after, even more than the mid-century postmodern ironists such as Barth and Pynchon and DeLillo, came to artistic consciousness as “oglers,” chronic watchers who spent so much time before the small screen that they acquired, knowingly or not, a disposition that was essentially, self-consciously that of an observer rather than a participant.
Not only that, this self-conscious awareness of looking at the world rather than taking part in it became inherently infected with the notion: I’ve seen this all before.
And it’s not much of a hop, skip or jump from there to I’m too hip to fall for that.
As Wallace himself puts it:
“[T]he most frightening prospect, for the well-conditioned viewer, becomes leaving oneself open to others’ ridicule by betraying passé expressions of value, emotion, or vulnerability. Other people become judges; the crime is naivete.”
Irony, in this sense, with its attitude of “passive unease and cynicism,” provides a kind of armor against cliché. Or so its advocates would like to believe. But this attitude has become so pervasive it’s become a kind of pose. And a pose is just the behavioral equivalent of a cliché.
The terror of being found out, the aversion to saying or believing or, worst of all, expressing something others deem hackneyed or naïve, permeates literary fiction in a way that genre fiction seems to escape.
There’s, of course, something admirable in that. As the novelist Joy Williams says, “A writer should write in such a way that nobody can be ignorant of the world and that nobody may say that he is innocent of what it is all about.”
But this suggests a subtle, sneaky truth. The way to avoid being considered ignorant of what the world is all about is to engage with it, not watch it on TV. To experience life, not settle for an idea of it.
I don’t believe genre’s relative indifference to cliché results from the fact it’s more market-driven and thus willing to embrace the stereotypical, usually in a quest for a wider audience (though that’s not beyond consideration).
Nor do I think it’s because genre writers are just too stupid to get it (or their readers are).
I think it has more to do with the difference between the ivory tower and the real world, academia and ground zero. The former prizes ideas, the latter experience.
In the realm of ideas, virtually anything can seem trite if expressed one too many times. In the realm of experience, however, a person comes across something for the first time only once, which is both so obvious as to be tautological and yet also weirdly profound. Ideas persist through time; experience does not. And if, as a reader, you’re more focused on the experience being recounted than the idea of it, you’re more likely to cut the writer some slack.
This is why the greatest cure for the cliché flu is a quick trip outside. The real world changes. The real world is complex and unstable. With every breath, something is at stake. Risk and threat lie in wait. Hope and love and success are tenuous. Meaning is elusive. The idea of ants crawling across a dead squirrel may seem like a cliché. Until you look at it from the squirrel’s perspective.
Genre fiction’s comfort level with cliché, and its relative lack of irony, may result from its rooting itself in simple, straightforward things that happen in the real world. People crave love (romance). They hurt each other (crime, horror). Technology increasingly dictates our lives (science fiction). The chains of habit and routine create a craving for the strange and the unknown (fantasy).
These genres fall into cliché when they lose touch with the real world experiences that inspire their reason for being – when they fall into formulaic lockstep with the idea of that reality, which is easier to market than the experience itself.
[pullquote]The way to avoid being considered ignorant of what the world is all about is to engage with it, not watch it on TV. To experience life, not settle for an idea of it.[/pullquote]
In a recent post here at Writer Unboxed, Donald Maass said something to the effect that he looks for work that clearly reveals a writer passionate about her subject matter and story. Passion is another antidote for irony. Passion inherently risks being laughed at, being mocked, being taken for a fool. Because who but a fool would feel so deeply about anything?
What clichés drive you particularly nuts? Do you think literary fiction is largely cliché-proof? How do you avoid cliché in your own work?