Why Is It So Hard to Describe a Book You Really Love?

Working one day a week in a used book store, I’ve gone cranially numb from staring at dust jacket copy that’s less than wildly inventive with its use of  the words “wildly inventive.” Every work of nonfiction is “insightful,” every thriller is “gripping,” every novel or story collection with a pinch of wit is funny, or “brutally funny,” because for literary authors, to be called “humorous” but not “the biting critic of our age” is a demotion to the trivial.

And then, of course, there are the comparisons. If someone’s written an offbeat, humorous romp, it’s the best thing since A Confederacy of Dunces. An existential domestic drama gets thrown into the Russian canon. Any serious novel that takes place in city x did for city x what Dickens did for London.

This isn’t just the domain of blurbs. I’m sympathetic to the A.J. Jacobs school of say something positive and somewhat true so that maybe people will actually buy books. He wrote earlier this year in a New York Times Book Review essay, “Every month, 40 good books come out and 37 of them slip into oblivion. I’m not even sure if blurbs make a difference in sales, but I figured, if I can help a bit, I should.” Marketing copy is marketing copy. But it just gets awkwardly cartoonish to say this stuff otherwise. I once met a girl at a party (at the aforementioned used book store, actually) who described an Amy Hempel book as “Jonathan Franzen having oral sex with White Noise.” I think Joan Didion was also somehow involved. There’s a scene in Noah Baumbach’s Kicking and Screaming that nails this, wherein a student in an MFA class says of another’s story, “The prose is like the bastard child of Raymond Carver … The main character has a little Holden Caulfield crossed with Humbert Humbert.” That’s not fair! You can’t just arbitrarily use a description of one thing to vomit your knowledge or passion about something else you happen to have read!

But this all begs the question, how do you describe the books you really like? Do you revert to beaten clichés and safe adjectives? Do you make obvious comparisons to other books — or, the classic, compare it to the last book you read simply because it’s fresh in your mind? Do you just say, “it’s soooo good! I love it!” and then jump up and down frantically? Am I asking way too many rhetorical questions for one paragraph?

Welp. I’m here to bow my head and admit that I’ve just read a debut story collection called The Miniature Wife by a Texan author named Manuel Gonzales, and as excited as I am about it, I’m having a hard time evangelizing for the thing. Whenever a friend (Surprise! I don’t have many) comes over, I usually stumble over some exclamations, maybe mention Wells Tower, and then have no choice but to pick up the book and start reading aloud my favorite sentences.

Part of what excites me about the collection is just how truly original it is — there are stories about Lilliputian-sized people and zombies and bumbling criminals, but to make any hard comparisons to Swift or Marquez feels like I’m giving short shrift to the author. Going back to Baumbach, that famous line from The Squid and the Whale has some truth to it — “The Metamorphasis” really is Kafkaesque! When a book is so gloriously itself, you may have no option but to pick it up, read a few lines, and plead, now do you get it? 

It’s not as though iffy clichés and worn comparisons aren’t pervasive in our descriptions of other things. This week on the public radio show A Way with Words, Martha talked about “winespeak” and the shit you read on menus at fancy wine bars. One glass of Grenache managed to conjure up hints of strawberry, rhubarb, tannin, leather, and Dutch cocoa. And it sounds ridiculous, but it beats my best description of wine (“This feels good in my body!”). Describing sensory things like tastes and colors is incredibly tough.

Which makes me think, why is it so difficult to describe literature? If words could be used to accurately explain anything, you’d think it’d be other words. I guess the conclusion I’ve come to is, when a story or novel is truly great, the language transcends into some deeper part of the human condition that words can’t quite repackage. With The Miniature Wife, no matter how clever or exciting a sentence was, I’d finish each story feeling like I’d just been punched in the chest. That’s an incredible sensation, but alas, something makes me think that “feels like being punched in the chest” wouldn’t make the most lyrical jacket copy.

If you’ve ever heard a crazy description of a book, have provided one yourself, or just want to be my friend and drink some wine, leave a note below. All I ask is that your comments be humorous, insightful, or at least wildly inventive.

This article is part of Ramsay's bi-monthly column "Whom Is Just The Fancy Who: Notes On The English Language From Someone Who Practically Speaks It." Check out other pieces in the series here and here.