The Daily

On the Shelf

Fire Up Your Cliché Detector, and Other News

February 12, 2016 | by

Thanks, word processor!

  • Kafka isn’t often remembered for his sunny worldview. Surprising, then, to read his effusions about the hustle and bustle of the Paris metro, which you’d think would’ve depressed the hell out of him: “The noise of the Metro was terrible when I took it for the first time in my life, from Montmartre to the grand boulevards. Aside from that it isn’t bad, rather it even intensifies the pleasant, calm feeling of speed. The advertisement for Dubonnet is very well-suited to being read, expected, and observed by sad and unoccupied passengers. Elimination of language from commerce, since one does not have to speak when paying, or when getting on or off. Because it is so easy to understand, the Metro offers the best opportunity for an eager, weakly foreigner to assure himself that he has quickly and correctly made his way into the very essence of Paris on his first try.”
  • If Kafka’s too much the Pollyanna for your liking, you can return to abject misery by having a look at Hermann Göring’s art collection: Sarah Wildman writes, “the catalogue of Göring’s art provides a perversely fascinating yardstick for the changing taste of a man known for personal eccentricities as well as horrifying brutality. The emphasis, at first, is on northern European Romanticism, along with the nude female form. But the collection shifts, becomes more expansive, and, occasionally, eschews the Nazi laws on so-called degenerate art to scoop up some of the modern greats … The catalogue provides a fuller picture of how spoliation itself was an integral, early part of the Nazi effort to degrade, dehumanize, and expel the Jews, setting the stage, ultimately, for mass murder.”
  • In which Tony Tulathimutte dares to imagine the unimaginable—technology that actually helps writers do their jobs better: “Google could team up with the NSA to digitize and index every word ever written or recorded, and make this omni-corpus available for indexing, mining, and categorizing. Or by being trained on a personal corpus of writing samples, the detector could be adapted to learn an author’s pet phrases. Zadie Smith pointed out that in all of her novels someone ‘rummages in their purse’; our program would flag each instance, as well as any variations … It could be tailored to specific genres: ‘heaving bosoms’ in romance, ‘throughout history’ in student papers, ‘please advise’ in business emails. Beyond merely detecting clichés, the program could also offer statistically unique replacements for each cliché, constructed by thesaural substitution and grammatical reshuffling.”
  • Today in enduring industry dilemmas: How much should writers and publishers get paid? James McConnachie renews the oldest debate in books: “Writers and publishers are in it together, I tend to feel. Not always in a cuddly way. Sometimes more in a screaming-down-the-mineshaft way … When a publisher tells you he ‘shares your frustration,’ ask him how much he earns—and quite how little he’d pay his lowest paid editorial assistant before he felt he was exploiting the vulnerability of their position. Before he felt he was endangering the long-term sustainability of his business. Publishing is a market, but it is also a fragile ecosystem, and right now we are losing not just individual writers but entire species of authors.”
  • If you’d prefer to think on something loftier, you might ask yourself instead: How do sea creatures have sex? Marah J. Hardt’s Sex in the Sea is here for you. “From rays finding each other through magnetic charges, to whales with labyrinthine labia,” Colin Dickey writes, “Hardt trawls the sea for all manner of odd reproductive habits, including the deep-sea worm, the Osedax, the males of which are tiny, microscopic animals that live entirely inside the females … For many species, including the clownfish, the fish have it both ways: they start off as male, impregnating females left and right; then, as they mature and grow, they switch sex, becoming larger, mature, adult females who can hold more eggs. Known by ichthyologists as BOFFFFs (Big, Old, Fat, Fecund Female Fish), these matriarchs incorporate a number of reproductive advantages not available to those of us stuck with one sex our whole lives.”