That’s So Cliché

This is a conversation I overheard the other day:
Man: “I just need to know there is mutual respect.”
Woman: “Well, it’s a two-way street but lessons have been learned.”

Most self-respecting writers wouldn’t write such dialogue unless their tongues were very firmly in the their cheeks, but, apparently, people do in fact speak this way. 

This put me in mind of an article by Zadie Smith (“Fail Better”, 2007), wherein she berated herself for having someone “rummage in their purse” in each of her novels.  She claimed that “to rummage through a purse is to sleepwalk through a sentence” and is a failure – albeit a small one – on the part of the author.   More generally, she notes that in using a cliché, “[the author has] re-presented what was pleasing and familiar rather than risked what was true and strange.”  Sure maybe, but wasn’t the character just trying to find something in her purse?  Unless the description of such a search provides insight to the character, if I read anything other than the character “rummaging”, “searching” or even just plain “getting” something out of her pursue, in all but the most exceptional situations I would think the author was being too clever by half.  Perhaps even self-indulgent.  Ms. Smith, of course, didn’t have just the small clichés in mind (although, she had those too), but rather whole paragraphs, chapters and books worth, and I’m mostly with her on that.  However, if there is an obligation on the writer’s part to self-authenticity – “a duty to express accurately their way of being in the world” – this can also mean that some lessons are simply learned, and respect is mutual, and talking (or even writing) in clichés may be “true and strange”.

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