Some of my colleagues live in absolute fear of cliché. They are so hung up on it that we’ve had discussions on whether or not it is permissible to have characters within a story speaking in cliché. As a person who has always listened to the voice of real people, the discussion is pointless. In real life conversation, cliché rules the day. To get characters that sound real to the reader, my warning is “avoid cliché at your own peril.”
Maybe I need to come clean at this point (note the cliché), my graduate degrees are in religion and philosophy. In my department, cliché is a useful tool and we have our own particular dialect. For example, philosophy instructors often quote Descartes as saying, “Cogito ergo sum.” We know better. It’s just a cliché used of Descartes, not a quote. Nowhere in his Latin text do these words appear. (His French text comes closer, but I digress.) Why do we do it? Because the cliché cuts to the chase (oops, did it again). It is the lecturer’s shorthand to get to a point that is basic in an important argument.
The avoidance of cliché at any cost, in my opinion, creates tedium for the reader. Sentences and paragraphs constructed obtusely to create a pageant of language uniquely tied to the invention of a master of words has me reading everything twice. Is the author saying anything interesting or is it fear of cliché? If it’s the latter, go to the library and find something better to read.
Oral storytelling is an art form that incorporates musicality in its cadence. Some parts of a tale are dolce and lento, but as they rush to a conclusion, they are all allegro. The writer who would tell a story has to understand tempo in much the same way. My proposal is that cliché moves the eye faster across the page and the reader into a quicker pace of firing neurons. It uses the familiar to rush toward the point. When the only rule is to avoid the familiar, the reader has to stop.
It’s reminiscent of an old theological joke. “Billy Graham and Paul Tillich died and went to heaven where Jesus asked them, ‘Who am I?’ Graham said, ‘You are the Lamb of God.’ Jesus nods approval. Tillich says, ‘You are the ground of all being.’ Jesus says, ‘Huh?’” (Relax, it’s just a joke.) As far as personal preference goes, I find Tillich’s theonomous metaphysics more helpful (pardon the non-utilization of cliché).
A book that runs on cliché is in trouble. Then again, a book that is written by a cliché-phobic is destined to find an audience of one. I expect that this blog will stir up passions. My belief is that cliché, in the hands of the storyteller, sets the pace of a good read.
Causes Robert Smith Supports
Doctors Without Borders, Habitat for Humanity, Presbyterian Disaster Relief