The Devil and Ms. V by Catherynne M. Valente

I firmly believe that one of the circles of hell consists of a single endless undergraduate poetry workshop. They are harrowing by intent and design, so it should be unsurprising that your humble narrator was scarred by one or two in her time, and in times of extremis, draws out the lessons of those humiliating jungle-years with which to instruct and terrify. This is one of those times. Hearken, children! For what I have to say will chill your heart.

The devil of my early writing was man I shall henceforward refer to as Dr. S.

Dr. S was obsessed with the idea of Cliché. I capitalize it because he did—you could hear it in his speech, the awe and fear with which he regarded it. It was a word that came to haunt me, a floating neon noun ready to pounce on my carefully-typed pages and scald them with accusations. It was his main criticism of anything he did not like, lines, images, subjects. He was as vigilant against it as a savvy hunter against hidden panthers—Cliché may leap upon you at a moment’s notice, burrowing into your verse without pity or hesitation, and if you are not so well-read that you say your night-prayers not to God but Ginsberg, you will never even know it is there. Dr. S outlawed an entire index of words from our available poetic vocabulary at the beginning of the semester. I will not reproduce it in full, but among them were: “ocean,” “tears,” “love,” “gossamer,” and “blood.” These are necessary tumors to remove from the undergraduate body, of course.

In later years it seemed odd to me that a man so feared of cliché in poetry could embrace it so in his person. For Dr. S was particularly fond of the following activities: elbow-patches on corduroy jackets, writing poetry about his fatherless childhood in the Midwest, running the campus literary magazine like his personal Chilean junta, and sleeping with his students. It is entirely possible that there is a factory somewhere deep in the wilds of Iowa where such men are stamped out by the dozens and neatly shipped to educational institutions across the world.

Needless to say, Dr. S hated my work. Poetry should be about parental issues, edgy sex, and the Midwest, not magic or myth, after all. Eventually he threw up his hands and declared that if I wasn’t going to change for him, I wasn’t going to change for anyone, and I might as well just do what I do and languish in the purgatory of the unpublished. My response was, I believe, unprintable in such an august venue as the one in which these words abide.

However, despite my personal differences with the dastardly Dr. S, his phobia of Cliché was communicable, and I inherited it full-force.

It is a valuable phobia to have. In poetry, you cannot hide. Your words are naked and unprotected: if you dare to say a woman’s skin was white as snow, you will be caught out and arrested, and no judge in the world will remain steadfast at your side. It’s no more than you deserved, really. And because poetry is so vulnerable, so unguarded, most poets of any quality have figured out how to avoid it, or at least to slow down when they see a critical patrol car in the distance.

But in fiction, you can hide.

A novel consists of so many words that you can get away with murder, so to speak. And if you did not bend under the whip of Dr. S, if you did not discover along the way a phobia, nay, an allergy to Cliché, you may toss about as much snow-white skin as you please, and be forgiven for it. And as I have begun to review books as well as write them, I have come to believe that Dr. S did not make a small hell of enough young writers’ lives.
What is a Cliché, you might ask, so that I may identify it in the wild? A Cliché is something repeated so many times in so many pieces of media that it has lost all ability to move or impact the audience, and is therefore utterly useless to the writer. “Get away with murder,” for example. No one who reads such a sentence is really struck dumb with the raw unfairness of such a thing, the injustice, the violence condoned, the amoral, godless universe implied by such a phrase. Nor is it funny. Yet it is used and re-used as though it carried some kind of mantric power. This is silly, slovenly writing, and I shuddered to type it. Nevertheless, especially in genre literature, such proliferate like foul mushrooms. Not because the writers who use them are bad, or lazy, or anything of the sort. They simply are not poets, and have never been strip-searched for unoriginal phrasing. After all, in a work of a hundred thousand words, what does it matter if a thousand or so have been chewed to death by three millennia of decomposing authors?

It mattered to Dr. S. And it matters to me. The world could do with a little phobia, and if novels could be as naked an accountable as poems, we would all have to endure far less rubbish.

As a start, allow me to fire the following items from the English Author’s lexicon: “vise-like grip.” “His/her blood ran cold.” The word “eldritch,” applied to anything, unless you are Terry Pratchett and therefore making a joke, or H.P. Lovecraft, and therefore dead.

Skin may be any color, however, it may not be compared to: snow, milk/cream/any dairy product, ebony, porcelain, chocolate, coffee/café au lait/any caffeinated beverage.

Eyes, especially if they are green, may not “flash.”

A heroine may have red hair. If you pay a tax, it may even be “flowing red hair.” However, if she does, she may not be “fiery” a “spitfire” or any other combustible substance. She may not be spunky, sassy, or in any other way defined entirely by her hair color. If she has flowing red hair and a fiery personality, under no circumstances may she be named Molly. Or Kate. Or Annie, for god’s sake.

A sword may be many things. It may slice, dice, and julienne. It may cut tin cans and tomatoes with equal ease. Try hard to resist giving it a lineage, or allowing it to be of dwarven/elvish/eldritch make. Or glow. In fact, try writing a fantasy novel without using the word “sword.” It’ll be good for you.

If a hero is spunky or sassy, like his redheaded friend Molly, if he is a scrappy, clever, tricky type, he may be named anything but Jack. If he is an orphan, Oliver is right out.

This one may seem too easy, but like smoking certain vegetable substances, we rarely narc on each other, even though we know it is illegal: if a certain young man is destined for great acts of heroism, he may be raised anywhere but a farm.

The phrase “genre hack” was created for addicts of this sort of thing. This is only a beginning. Search inside yourself—you know others lurk there, panther-like, ready to pounce. They lurk in me, too. Our vigilance must be tireless. It is not that any of the above are bad in and of themselves. But they have been done so many times before—why would you spend precious time that will be counted against you at the hour of your death creating more of it? Life, and the warranty on your wrists, is too short for unoriginality.

If this sort of thing continues much longer, I shall have to institute a Neighborhood Watch. And you know, Dr. S just doesn’t have the vacation time.

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