Bad habits that refuse to part

Palash Krishna Mehrotra | Updated on January 15, 2021

Edged out: Worn-out metaphors such as an axe to grind have lost all evocative powers   -  ISTOCK.COM

While good writing wars against the cliché, television gives it a natural home

* ‘Necessary trouble’. Two simple words that make the difference between good and bad writing

* The distinction between good and bad writing matters only to the writer, not the academic or the reader

* One of the greatest books on the subject is Gustave Flaubert’s The Dictionary of Accepted Ideas

* In fact, not having a television was taken as a sign of intellect


In the introduction to his collection of reviews and essays, The War Against Cliché, Martin Amis writes, “All writing is a campaign against cliché. Not just clichés of the pen but clichés of the mind and clichés of the heart.”

It is a thought echoed by George Orwell in his famous essay, Politics and the English Language. “Modern English, especially written English, is full of bad habits which spread by imitation and which can be avoided if one is willing to take the necessary trouble. If one gets rid of these habits one can think more clearly, and to think clearly is a necessary first step...” The language becomes “ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.”

‘Necessary trouble’. Two simple words that make the difference between good and bad writing. A good writer is aware of this difference; she understands the value of erasing ‘bad habits’. It also makes the process of writing harder and slower, even tortuous and stultifying. The distinction between good and bad writing matters only to the writer, not the academic who contextualises the work of literature or the reader who is more interested in page-turning ‘escape’ than the aesthetics of the written sentence. Amis again, “Literature is the great garden that is always there and is open to everyone twenty-four hours a day. If you do see an official, a professional, nowadays, then he is likely to be a scowl in a labcoat, come to flatten a forest or decapitate a peak. The public wanders with its oohs and ahs, its groans and jeers, its million opinions.”

As Fran Lebowitz tells Martin Scorsese in the new Netflix documentary Pretend It’s a City, “I know only one really good writer who loves to write. Most people who love to write are horrible writers, so of course they love to write. If you really love to do something that you’re bad at, it’s nothing surprising.” Lebowitz herself is known for her decades-long writer’s block, which she jokingly refers to as ‘writer’s blockade’. In 2018, she told InsideHook, “My editor — who, whenever I introduce him as my editor, always says, ‘easiest job in town’— he says that the paralysis I have about writing is caused by an excessive reverence for the written word, and I think that’s probably true.”

This was also what David Hume was referring to when he said, “I dine, I play a game of backgammon, I converse, and am merry with my friends; and when after three or four hours’ amusement, I would return to these speculations, they appear so cold, and strained, and ridiculous, that I cannot find in my heart to enter into them any farther.” Hume was a philosopher but also one of the greatest stylists of the English language. He didn’t find writing easy. He wanted to run away from it. Coming back to Orwell’s essay, he goes on to enumerate several instances of easy, lazy, assembly-line writing, of ‘hackneyed prose’ where “phrases (are) tacked together like the sections of a pre-fabricated hen-house”. He mentions dead metaphors like ‘iron resolution’ as well ‘dying metaphors’, “worn-out metaphors which have lost all evocative power and are merely used because they save people the trouble of inventing phrases for themselves.” He offers examples: ‘Take up the cudgels for’, ‘toe the line’, ‘ride roughshod over’, ‘stand shoulder to shoulder with’, ‘play into the hands of’, ‘no axe to grind’, ‘grist to the mill’, ‘fishing in troubled waters’, ‘Achilles’ heel’, ‘swan song’, ‘hotbed’.

Orwell then moves on to ‘False verbal limbs’ phrases such as ‘render inoperative’, ‘militate against’, ‘prove unacceptable’, ‘make contact with’, ‘be subject to’, ‘give rise to’, ‘give grounds for’, ‘have the effect of’, ‘play a leading part (role) in’, ‘make itself felt’, ‘take effect’ and ‘exhibit a tendency to’, ‘serve the purpose of’. Under ‘Pretentious diction’, he includes adjectives such as ‘epoch making’, ‘epic’, ‘historic’, ‘unforgettable’, ‘triumphant’, ‘age-old’, ‘inevitable and inexorable, which are used to “dignify the sordid processes of international politics”. The final category, ‘Meaningless words’, features words used in art criticism like ‘vitality’.

The essay was written in 1946 but these ready-made meaningless phrases are still all around us. One of the greatest books on the subject is Gustave Flaubert’s The Dictionary of Accepted Ideas. It was meant to form the second part of his novel, Bouvard and Pecuchet (about two petit-bourgeois dunces), but he died before finishing it. It was an attempt at capturing the vapid platitudes, truisms and clichés of the age. Again, like with Orwell, the book was written ages ago (1880) but remains ‘on point’ (‘on point’ being the latest ready-made phrase) even today.

Here is a small sample of the entries:

Accident — Always ‘deplorable’ or ‘unfortunate’ (as though anyone would find cause to rejoice in misfortune).

Age, the present age — Always denounce vigorously.

Ambition — Always describe as ‘insane’ except when it is ‘noble’.

Animals — If only they could talk. Some of them are more intelligent than humans!

Aristocracy — Treat with contempt. Regard with envy.

Beethoven — Don’t pronounce Beet-hoven. Praise the legato.

Toys — Should always be educational.

Traveller — Always ‘intrepid’.

Walls — Good phrase to use in an official speech: ‘Gentlemen, within these very walls...’

Wit — Always ‘sparkling’.

Worker — Honest and reliable. Except when he’s rioting

Old People — When discussing a flood or thunderstorm they cannot remember ever having seen a worse one.

Nigerian-American writer Teju Cole, writing about Flaubert in The New Yorker, came up with some new ones of his own, custom-made for present-day America:

“AFRICA. A country. Poor but happy. Rising. ALMOND. All eyes are almond-shaped. AMERICAN. With the prefix ‘all,’ a blonde. Artisan. A carpenter, in Brooklyn. AUSTRALIANS. Extremely fit. Immune to pain. If you meet one, say ‘Foster’s.’ The whole country is nothing but beaches. BLUE. The color of purity. Countless mysterious ads are devoted to pads and liners that absorb blue liquid. CHILDREN. The only justification for policy. Always say ‘our children.’ The childless have no interest in improving society. CLARIFICATION. Reversal. COMMUNITY. Preceded by ‘black.’ White people, lacking community, must make do with property.”

Flaubert wrote that after reading his book, “the reader should be afraid to talk, for fear of using one of the phrases in it”. The same goes for the writer who wants to avoid cliché. After reading the book she is wary of picking up paper and pencil, connecting keyboard to mouse. All of this now brings me to the clichés in television and movies.


There was a time when writers didn’t watch TV. Many didn’t even own one. In fact, not having a television was taken as a sign of intellect. The idiot box was an alien invader, an unwanted immigrant; it belonged outside, not inside, the house.

Committed readers watched the occasional film or TV show, but more often than not it left them dissatisfied. Rarely did one derive the pleasure and sense of accomplishment that one did from finishing a book. TV-watching was also an intermittent activity; several power-cuts a day didn’t exactly provide a favourable climate for binge-watching.

Television is not what it used to be. And then came the pandemic, lockdowns and home quarantine, forcing even the most reluctant viewer to take the plunge into the streaming waterfall.

I have never watched so much TV in my life as I have over the last year. When one binge-watches indiscriminately, over several hours, two things happen. One’s eyes glaze over; often one doesn’t even remember the title of the films one has watched. The other thing that happens is that a pattern begins to emerge from this blur of images. This pattern is a kaleidoscope of cliché. If literature will go to lengths to avoid cliché (to the extent of the writer not writing at all), the moving image serves as the perennial refuge of the stereotype.

On repeat: The moving image serves as the perennial refuge of the stereotype   -  ISTOCK.COM


The cliché is both visual as well as script-based; I’m thinking about the monotony of plot development: Story arcs major and minor, plots and subplots, conflict and resolution. As far as images are concerned, I have never seen so many doors open and shut: Car doors (generally speaking, movies love cars), main door of the house, a concealed door that leads to the basement. People in films spend a lot of time going up and down ladders and steps. When not ascending or descending, characters tend to make several trips to the park where they jog, walk in pairs, or sit on benches.

If anyone is using a laptop, it most likely will be an Apple. There is always a house dinner-party scene. Couples go to restaurants and ignore the waiter. Characters frantically text each other and the texts appear on our TV screens in little bubbles and boxes. Suicidal characters can’t stop switching the table lamp on and off and throw multiple failed suicide notes into the wastepaper bin. Most of these paper balls miss the rim of the bin.

Television and movies love the bar. There is always a bar scene. No one drinks vodka because it is not photogenic. Characters mostly drink beer and red wine. Younger characters do shots of tequila at the bar. When the whisky comes out, it’s usually a sad moment or a moment of tension and introspection. In American sitcoms, a male character in a plaid shirt walks in the front door and straight to the fridge and pulls out a pint of beer. The children are always sitting at the kitchen table at breakfast; on the table is an oversized cereal packet, milk and a beaker of orange juice. Most of the action takes place in the living room, the bedroom or the bathroom.

Movies also love aeroplanes. Planes usually take off or land. Sometimes they do both. Speedboats appear in the middle of oceans. There are aerial shots of the city. Even the quietest of dramas feels the need to throw in at least one murder, some guns and knives and a cop or two, a torch or a flashlight, a chopper, a courtroom, some shattered glass. Characters go swimming but rarely do they cycle. Only single losers in trailer parks watch television. On the whole, the TV’s only role in a movie is as a source of breaking news, which has a bearing on the character’s life. Characters on the first floor often peek from behind curtains and Venetian blinds. The ticking clock had a good run until clocks and watches disappeared from our lives. Like the landline phone and its pregnant ringing. No character, in any show, has ever cooked instant noodles, plugged in a blower heater or switched on a desert cooler. There are plenty of shots of people’s feet, shoes, walking. If it is a documentary, the viewer can rest assured that there will be a close-up shot of the speaker’s hands. Movies also like horses.

Whether it is images or story development — the back story is always a terrible past event that defines the character’s present — television and cinema seem to revel in the readymade.

If, for Amis, writing is a campaign against cliché, the moving image is a campaign for the cliché. If Orwell asks us to take the ‘necessary trouble’ in order to get rid of ‘bad habits’, cinema is all about taking the necessary trouble to not let go of bad habits and reinstate the stereotype. It’s about putting together ‘the pre-fabricated hen-house’. One can hear the conversations in the story room: “Now that will be too much for the viewer. Let’s throw in some clichés of the mind and heart and make it more familiar and relatable.” Cliché, it seems, is comforting, and television its natural home. If one prefers the unadulterated joys of the clear eye and lasting memorable insight, of what Orwell called “the fresh arresting phrase”, then literature remains our best bet. And friend.

Palash Krishna Mehrotra   -  BUSINESS LINE


Palash Krishna Mehrotra is the author of Eunuch Park and the editor of House Spirit: Drinking in India

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Published on January 15, 2021
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