Sunday, January 27, 2008

Not liking cliché is the new black.

A while back, I read Politics and the English Language, by George Orwell. I liked it quite a bit. I can see how it inspired some of my favorite writers.

However, I've notice something recently. Surfing across blogland, it feels as though people are fetishizing the intent of George Orwell's essay. The way cliché is referenced and talked about to a nauseating degree. I'm by no means "for cliché" but also, not really "against cliché" either. It seems to me that it is a literary tool, a short cut of imbued meaning. The cliché has been vilified, but really, its just one of many many many tools in writing.

I really like writers who don't embrace cliché. But I also really like some writers who do. Cliché can be very funny when used self consciously. There is just something funny to be observed here- I realized the other day when someone said to me "oh thats just a cliché", with a certain distain in their voice, that not liking cliché, has attained a feeling of cliché to me. So basically everything is fucked. We are all doomed. Cliché is a cliché, not a cliché is also a cliché too.

"It is a cliché that most clichés are true, but then, like most clichés, that cliché is untrue.”
— Stephen Fry


Daniel Bailey said...

saying that everything is fucked is a cliche. i agree though. i like writers who use "original language." cliche can be used in funny ways, with irony. though, sometimes, irony is overused.

the new york times said...

i am the eggman

Kendra Grant Malone said...


the thing is- i like grandpas. a lot. and grandpas like puns. so i associate puns with grandpas. and puns are all based on cliches.


i am the walrus.

Stephen Daniel Lewis said...

i think being against cliches can be ok, because a lot of them don't make sense or are sayings that are outdated and require a person to have been raised a certain way in order for that person to understand what the phrase means. also, sometimes a cliche causes a person to only take the meaning of the cliche, so the actual words used sort of become irrelevant (i guess the meaning of the actual words). as far as writing goes, i would rather read someone who is writing with attention to the words being used, instead of writing that is full of cliche, which shows that the writer wrote his story, poem, novel, whatever with a lot of preconception about the people who will read it. doing this doesn't really make a story that is "universally accessible." i mean that a story with cliche targets certain groups or certain people, i don't really understand why a person would want to do that (at least in fiction writing).
when i say this, i am thinking cliches like 'cream of the crop' or 'getting to the point'

i also think it is definitely personal preference though.

also i agree with you daniel and kendra, if a cliche is used in a funny way it can be really good.

ellen frances idontlikeit said...

a cliche discussion is the outline of a circle.

ellen frances idontlikeit said...

the outline of a circle referenced in discussion is cliche.

ellen frances idontlikeit said...


black hole.

Kendra Grant Malone said...


i dont think being against cliche is a matter of ok or not okay. i certainly dont think there is ever a such thing as "universally accessible". take the guys that we follow on the tv show i work for. they are these dudes, born and raised in brooklyn, running a construction company. every other thing they say is a cliche. its just how they communicate to each other. they say things like "this is like shitting up hill." now give them lorrie moore for instance. they wouldn't relate to it or get it. it would give them no emotional response. i feel like the hatred of cliche has nothing to do with being understood better, or being less exclusive. it has a pious ring to me. culturally, these men and women speak in constant cliche, and there is something really beautiful about it. they just toss them back and fourth and it sounds a bit like another language after a while. i wouldn't want them to speak any other way, in a more "national" way, because this is one way they define their local culture. if i were to write a story about them, i would have to used cliche dialogue constantly to be true to them, and they are as interesting as anyone who does not speak in cliche, the things they do and feel day to day. they use cliche, but they have valid emotional qualities like everyone else.

i am not against cliche or for it. sometimes it is around, sometimes it isn't. like i said in my post, its just a tool. but i feel like there is a current trend of focusing in on this one tool, and making it seem "tawdry" or "cheap", but really to me, i have never read anything that did not use patterns and tools and tricks to get responses from readers. and in the vein of a trend, not liking the cliche has become its own cliche.


i am lost in the vacuum. come drink some wine with me here. it is peaceful darling.

Kendra Grant Malone said...

oh my god, steven daniel lewis, i called you an std. im sorry, while i was writing that my coworker was talking over my shoulder about staff infections and it just wrote itself. oops.

brandon said...


do you mean in this gmail chat

Kendra: i dont wanna be a grown up
10:09 AM me: grown up is just a cliche
dont worry

i didn't mean that with disdain at all

if anything i was trying to make you feel better about your worry

for me 'grown up' is a cliche

it means being highly responsible, a business person, successful, having a car, being 'detail oriented', not going out to parties and bars and clubs anymore - instead sitting on your lazy boy drinking scotch and waters, 'settling down', maybe getting married, ...a general quelling of emotions and behavior and etc (i have to use etc)

this is what i understand as 'grown up'

for me it would be hard to be afraid of becoming 'grown up' because of what the cliche is supposed to mean

the problem is i am unclear about what it means, that i don't really know because 'grown up' is such a generalization

which makes the whole thing unclear to me and difficult to discuss which could lead to confusion and arguments over semantics which feels like a waste of energy to me

which is maybe why some people don't use cliches, because it can lead to confusion and 'lack of clarity'

and it would be hard to imagine you as 'grown up' too

i have never read george orwell's essay so i don't know about that

for me i think being 'against cliche' could be thought of as a trend, like you say, something people do because it's 'cool' or something

but i think it could only be thought of as a trend if people are only against cliche because they see other writers doing it, and then declare 'i am against cliche,' without any qualifications about why

without any hints or logic or reason to their statement

i don't really see anyone doing that

i thought about it for a minute and i don't know who does that

colloquialisms will always exist, probably, and i like them, i like hearing them from people, sometimes i will hear one and be very amused when i grasp the meaning

but sometimes i don't understand them

and that might be another reason to write in a different way

to not use an 'exclusive' language that only some people understand

lorrie moore uses very intense metaphors, i don't know if she rejects cliche, it doesn't seem like she does, but i do think her writing is 'exclusive' in a sense

people from brooklyn (those people you talk about in your comment, kendra, your coworkers, i mean), i think, would most likely understand:

'i was 29 years old. i didn't have kids. i ate tv dinners on my bed every night. i didn't have a job. i never changed out of my bathrobe.'

a little better than:

'i was 29 years old and hadn't grown up yet.'

that is my opinion. one is 'clearer' than the other (clearer to me).

some people might not 'understand' lorrie moore because of her language but who knows

i think that just because groups of people use colloquialisms all the time doesn't necessarily mean they wouldn't understand a different set of colloquailisms

i am not against cliche either because they can be used sarcastically and when that is done, it can be funny to me

but i do prefer to try and write without them because i want to avoid generalizations and confusions and excluding people

but it is possible that never using a cliche would exclude people too, so i don't really know

people have different goals in their writing

Kendra Grant Malone said...


that gchat is not the conversation i had that i was referencing. the conversation i had was with a bratty teenaged girl on the phone (my mom's fiancee's daughter).

i think i agree with the general feel of your comment. all i wanted to illustrate with this blog post was that cliches can be useful and good, as well as misleading and bad. its all in the context people use them.

also, when i said trend, i didnt mean it in the sense of what is fashionable, i meant it in the sense that ive come across that same opinion over and over again, mostly in young writers of a certain variety. i didnt intend to imply judgement to that word. i consider myself as part of that very trend. and thats what made me start questioning it in the first place. trends are often the precursors to movements, and i think that is great and i would be happy to be a part of a movement someday.

James said...


not all puns are based on cliches

brandon said...


yes, good


James said...

also, i feel awkward about this cornering the use of cliche into being useful primarily (only?) when funny? I agree partially - in that comedy is useful in revealing both audience and characters for who they really are...while tragedy often illustrates how the audience or character would like to be. cliche could be quite useful in either camp though.

perhaps, a certain cliche's ability to not make sense or no longer make sense can play well into a character (or even a narrative's) negative capability.

that said, i think the concept of achieving "universally accessibility" in writing is a little presumptious when considering the fact that literacy isn't at all universal. as long as this remains true, lit is inherently exclusive. that said, i still think it is a noble motive.

anyway. i think everyone here has just illustrated that use of cliche boils down to personal preference. beyond that, i think also, everyone just likes to harp on people who espouse ideas without really understanding why or saying why or even hinting as to why because it seems cool to him/her...which i think is pretty acceptable. i would like to harp on those people as well.

Kendra Grant Malone said...

james daahhhlink,

if you read through the comments you would have noticed i made an example of the men i film for the tv show. how they speak in cliche, and how it is cultural and really beautiful. i think that is an excellent example of cliche used wonderfully without much humor.

when i said all puns are based on cliche, well, i was trying to lighten the mood. apologies, it was not clear. i will now very seriously correct (because this has become a very serious conversation) that statement to say that many a fine pun is based on a cliche.

p.s. harping . . .

Daniel Bailey said...

i think cliche means writing something in a way that doesn't make sense. i thought of that tonight while working on a story. i thought of something i read in a story about war. it was something like "they opened up on the enemies." it doesn't make sense. it's just something that people say. i think a bad cliche is one that makes no sense. as long as pretty much everyone will understand and not feel like "i'm uncomfortable with this phrasing. the literal meaning fucks it up." then i'm ok with it. also if it's not completely unoriginal.

i drank.

now i'm at work.

i'm still a little drunk.

James said...

i think within what we're talking about here is a variegated notion of what cliche is within writing.

a cliche can be simply idiom, popular slang, or time-particular phrasing...but that it is cliche seems to suggest that it's long floated within the realm of pop usage. The moment of using that phrase then can suggest a cliche (or do we mean, at times, passe) attitude.

its the lack of originality then which frustrates us. it creates an environment in which our sarcasm in response may thrive instantly.

there is also, i think, something i would refer to as a "lost cliche" - - a phrasing or attitude that has departed from its long stay in the popular vernacular. these cliches obscure (perhaps intentionally - though unlikely) intended meaning.

also of course, i think, many of us tend to view either sort of cliche as unfortunate because it takes an "easy way out" in description - betraying opportunities for subtlety, depth, and innovation.

Furthermore, it seems that many of us speak and write in a way much more tethered to cliche idiomatic expression than we realize...too often "espousing a kind of naive semanticism about syntax"*. essentially thinking that words follow each other directly in an obvious relation to meaning. really, this isn't so much the case.

Myself, I've grown somewhat frustrated with english prepositional phrasing - how non-fluid our use of prepositions are in contrast to their fluid meanings. I've ranted** about this before though. I'll spare you now and end here.

blablahb labh blah blah blah



Kendra Grant Malone said...


you are a drunkard. i look forward to being crushed by the sun.


totes bro (how do you sit with that stick up yer butt?)


Stephen Daniel Lewis said...

james's first comment, yes I think I agree with that.

I said "universally accessible," I don't know if I put quotation marks around it, I should have, because I'm using it like a cliche, I mean I know not something in American English isn't accessible universally.

An illiterate five year in North Korea has no idea what the fuck I am talking about.

I meant what Brandon said better, I am quoting from the comments section now:

'i was 29 years old. i didn't have kids. i ate tv dinners on my bed every night. i didn't have a job. i never changed out of my bathrobe.'

a little better than:

'i was 29 years old and hadn't grown up yet.'

I mean that someone who hasn't learned what most people think "grown up" means, they may think they person saying it means getting taller or something.

All of it is personal preference.

It is probably impossible to avoid cliche.

But there are usually more interesting ways to say things, cliche are usually a way to say something more proficiently so they are nice to use when speaking or something.

I'm just repeating everything above this comment now.

I am stopping.

Kendra Grant Malone said...

sdl (std),

no stopping is not needed. this is so good. i feel like we are all coming to a similar feeling about the topic, and every post that reiterates the same concepts just makes them clearer and more concise. i really appreciate everyone who contributed to the idea. you are all very smart.

James said...

fuck yes.


anyhow - kendra,
the stick no longer up my ass
i thought you would've realized that as i've been blowing it out my ass...all over your dandy comments section