Friday, January 27, 2006

A Brief History of ReviewSpeak

I've been meaning to tie this in to a discussion of review journalism, thence Games journalism, let alone teh NGJ, but it's too good not to wave about on its own. This is Jonathan Raban in his wonderful For Love and Money:
As with cartoons, there's a congenital streak of cruelty in the form of the review: it's easier to tell good stories about bad books than it is about good ones, easy to seize on small deformities and make much of them, easy to fall back on the big, red nose and the tombstone teeth as the handiest method of conveying personality. The reviewer, especially if he's new to the job and trying to make his name, finds a style of pert mockery ready and waiting for him like an off-the-peg suit...
The beast Raban then quotes at length a Clive James review, which I'd seen somewhere before and thoroughly enjoyed. No need to quote it at any length here, you should get the flavour from Raban's dissection.
...The style is boisterously smartyboots in tone and fake-Augustan in its grammar. The surest way to sound as if your vast learning is tempered by sturdy common sense is to go in for showy latinisms; a mastery of sarcastic inversion, circumlocution and the ironic negative is the official mark of a superior intelligence at work...the tricks, or tics, of style keep on nudging the reader to remember that the reviewer is a sight more clever than the the man he's reviewing. He's also one of the boys...the dialect is as recognizable as Mummerset; at once donnish high-falutin' and come-off-it-mate low slang, it is the received standard English of the smart English book review
Now I'm a big fan of James, who works hard to entertain even as he's putting over his most tenderly held beliefs. I likewise applaud the pun-bedecked ilk of Andrew Collins and Stuart Maconie, and also the previous generation of music/culture writers that inspired and frankly edited them: Dannies Kelly and Baker, Mark Ellen and the other NME/EMAP uberhacks. I like it when they write with the witty. Their example has spurred me to my least excusable excesses, this organ foremost. But Raban's scalping of that (or rather my attempted) faux-faux-Pompous tone has thrust a silent steely stiletto of doubt into my bosom. It's not like I conciously adopted a classic style, but what is it about that Baroque, facetious and fake-affected style that attracts? And does it attract writers more than readers, being more fun to write than read?

Also, where did it come from? Is there a straight line to be drawn from the pantomime wryness of Dickens, through the polite drawl of Twain, the more-in-sorrow-than-anger Mencken, the madcap sagacity of S.J. Perelman, the Mandarin diction of Cyril Connolly, through NME-Q-TheWord music journalism to the rather sorry current state of games journalism and this blog, buckshot with in-jokes, and popkultureferencen? I made that last word up.

Speaking of Mummerset, I wonder if West Country English is creeping towards the vogueish, entirely due to the unmediated diction of Ricky Gervais and Steven Merchant? It's generally held to be a laughable yokel accent, but then that used to be said of Geordie, which is compulsory for Bright Young Thing TV presenters these days.

Stap me vitals, that aforementioned Andrew Collins has a blog. And it's really good. I may just give this up. I once entertained worryingly-less-than-vague ambitions to write a book about Coffee, or indeed all those strange crops that only grow at certain altitudes in certain places and have gone from luxury to staple (i.e. tea as well). All wind was lost from my sails however when I beheld a coffee book with so magnificent a title, I realised all hope was lost and I might as well take my spats and toothbrush elsewhere. The title? See here.

1 comment:

Andrew Collins said...

I may have something to add to this. There truly was a house style at Smash Hits, albeit one that evolved organically. Because this was an EMAP publication (the one upon whose fortunes the company was built, nay), the people who launched Q came directly from Hits orthodoxy, hence the hand-me-down baroque language and preponderence of "double" "speech" "marks. On arrival at said magazine in 1993, I felt it only proper to adopt this house style. It was never forced upon new writers, but adopting it was a good way to show willing. It's fun. That's why writers love it. It's perhaps becoming a bit old hat now, but it certainly has its roots in pub speak, especially country pub speak, I'd say, where a commoner (as they used to be called) might adopt the fancy tones of a landowner, in mockery, to order a pint of "foaming ale" or somesuch. Unlike Clive James, one of my writing heroes, not least for his ability to flit between high and lowbrow, who comes from a classless society and presumably sees less need to social-climb in words. He wears his planet-sized brain lightly, I think. This is a man who learned to read Japanese so that he could properly enjoy Japanese poetry. So, yes, the ornate, laboured language of Smash Hits has permeated magazine journalism, and it lives on in Word (where those very founding fathers now reside), having been expunged from Q so that they can fit more pictures in. We should cling to it.