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Kazuo Ishiguro On Clichés

Clichés are a writer’s sworn enemy.

They take up unneeded space, offer no originality and very little insight. But they’ve become clichés because everyone uses them, which makes it difficult for a writer to get out of that habit.

When it comes to clichés, I’m guilty as sin (Did you see what just happened there? The irony!) But I would expect more experienced, award-winning novelists to avoid clichés like the plague (Oh no. It happened again.)

Kazuo Ishiguro takes another approach. The author of The Remains of the Day and Never Let Me Go believes clichés can be “poignant and beautiful.”

I find phrases like ‘to be fair’ and ‘at the end of the day’ very deep. ‘At the end of the day,’ is full of stoic ruefulness. It’s very close to reflecting the human condition.

He added that obsessing over clichés can cause problems for writers:

I feel that for writers, an obsession with what is elegant or what is a cliché or not a cliché can become very inhibiting….When you write fiction but have to be prepared to adopt the language of everyone that you want to mimic. Prohibitions have behind them a kind of snobbery or fear of being seen as lower middle class.

Keep in mind that Ishiguro is talking strictly about fiction, and he makes an interesting point. If you’re portraying a certain group of people in your work, then you want to sound like that group of people, clichés and all.

But I don’t know that I agree with that last sentence, referencing the fear of being seen as lower class. I think certain clichés come about by people actually trying to appear haughty and more well-educated than they actually are, so they throw in a few words that make them sound smarter but don’t really say anything.

Think of unneeded fillers like “Furthermore,” “In regards to,” or “At your earliest convenience…” Maybe those instances or more of a wordiness issue, rather than a cliché issue, but I think they’re overused to the point of becoming cliché.

I like what Salvador Dali had to say on the subject: “The first man to compare the cheeks of a young woman to a rose was obviously a poet; the first to repeat it was possibly an idiot.”

So can clichés serve a useful purpose in fiction writing? Do you agree with Ishiguro or Salvador Dali?

(Source: The Telegraph)

(Photo: Mariusz Kubik/Wikimedia)

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17 Comments Post a comment
  1. Whoa! Two completely opposing viewpoints. I don’t quite know who to agree with. I will definitely be checking in on other comments to see which one wins.

    I don’t recall Ishiguro using too many cliches in his writing though.

    Like

    November 21, 2011
  2. I think that an occasional cliche can be feel nice, like comfort food when it’s written into context. Too many cliches and the book gets put down.

    Like

    November 21, 2011
  3. What an excellent subject. I wonder how many comments this will attract.
    My impatience with the use of clichés began in childhood. It is only during the last decade or two (or three) that my awareness of the mechanics of this phenomenon began to grow as subtle repetitions became more noticeable in virtually every sentence and phrase.

    During the Eighties it was this realization which drew me to certain studies related to the field of neurolinguistics, notably those ideas as expressed in the formation of the social phenomenon known as Transactional Analysis. It was here that I often heard the claim that all of speech contain the elements that encourage the construction of clichés and that our basic linguistic habits are well established by the eighteenth month of human life.

    When we as a society clamor as individuals to be recognized we will use whatever means possible it seems, to attract attention to ourselves even though by so doing we become overnight clones of each other.

    I’m just sayin’………..

    Like

    November 21, 2011
    • Love that. Makes total sense but who knew that there’s a science out there devoted to things like cliches. My son is approaching his 18th month, so I need to get busy teaching him so useful words!

      Like

      November 21, 2011
  4. Whatever (couldn’t resist)

    Like

    November 21, 2011
  5. Siuon #

    Clichés shall be avoided in non-fiction writing as most of them are fillers. But, for fiction writing, clichés may help build a memorable character. For example, in the movie Midnight in Paris, there is a character who starts everything he says with “If I remember correctly..”. This line makes the character stand out.

    Using clichés is different from creating card-board characters which are common in certain genre novels. I simply hate when a military character saying “go..go..go” in a gun-fight scene.

    Like

    November 21, 2011
    • Right. I still think cliches should be used sparingly. We can still get the sense of the character.

      Like

      November 21, 2011
  6. I was taught that your cliches had to be earned, and that the cliches are often all the more powerful for it.

    As an example, one of my favorite novels (which I won’t name for the sake of spoilers) ends with the lines: “…closed her eyes, simply feeling the warmth of being held. And realized that was all she had ever really wanted.”

    It’s a cliche sentiment. And if this line had been used anywhere else in the novel, it would have felt as cliche as it sounds. But after 550+ pages of character development, and after walking with this girl through some very significant events in her life, it’s about as perfect an ending as you can imagine.

    So, for the most part, avoid cliches. But if you have the space to justify its use and can make the reader see the cliche as if for the first time, then it can become a very effective literary device.

    Like

    November 21, 2011
    • Good thoughts. Cliches have to be earned, like that.

      Like

      November 22, 2011
  7. Dang! I read this right before I started working on a paper for one of my classes. I had cliches on the brain and had to catch myself before I started writing phrases such as “his days were numbered.” Thanks for the good reminder to not rely on such overused crutches!

    Like

    November 21, 2011
  8. This blog opened my eyes.

    Like

    November 21, 2011
  9. I like cliches. I think I’ll write a blog using nothing but cliches.

    Like

    November 21, 2011
  10. Well, when we get right down to it, everything is cliché. Everything is plagiarized, copied, even without our cognizance. All aspects of speech — from rhetorical patterns, ways of figuring words, phrases, and syntactical decisions — are borrowed, past on and carried over time. This is inherent in the mere construct of “language”, Of course, we aren’t consistently aware of it, but we are very rarely if ever, fully original. William Faulkner once said, “If I had not existed, someone else would have written me, Hemingway, Dostoevski, all of us”.

    Like

    November 21, 2011
  11. Krysty #

    Having read “Never Let Me Go”, I think Ishiguro strikes a decent balance in using cliches, in the sense that it’s not jarring or particularly obvious. His writing is so fluid and relaxed that even cliches cannot possibly disrupt it.

    Personally, I think cliches are fine, but too much of anything is a bad thing (there you go!) so everything in moderation (again!).

    Like

    November 21, 2011
  12. homec #

    I think a cliche becomes a cliche, in part, because it has been overused. Otherwise, it would just be a phrase. I think they can work well when used to tell the story more efficiently. We all know what it means, so it can provide a visual quickly. When it doesn’t work is when it is used as filler.

    Like

    November 22, 2011
  13. I have to agree with Beverley and Krysty, though I also like what Ben had to say a great deal. I think cliches, like anything come down to moderation. I agree also with Ishiguro that there’s a kind of snobbery in the sentiment that cliches are always bad in writing, or the idea that the first person to repeat something is an idiot (exaggeration or not). We’d all be silenced. Most of us simply can’t hope to be so unique that we are not products of our culture and time. I think part of what Ishiguro is getting at is that perhaps only more educated people would look down on true cliches (as opposed to just gussying up writing with unnecessary words that you also mention) than those ignorant masses – but that’s a big assumption on my part. I agree that they take away from writing if overused, or if they become shorthand for expressing human emotion and experience, but think we’re pretentious if we are overly preoccupied with their use.

    Like

    November 22, 2011
  14. Ishiguro is a genius. I totally know what he means. I just wish it was easier to avoid cliches when you actually want to say something original about the world.

    Like

    December 3, 2011

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