a word or phrase naming an attribute, added to or grammatically related to a noun to modify or describe it.
Ursula Le Guin’s Steering the Craft includes an exercise called Chastity, which involves stripping all adjectives and adverbs from one’s writing. It’s an exercise I often use when teaching: the point is not to suggest that there is anything essentially wrong with adjectives, but rather to abstain from them temporarily so as turn attention to the other parts of the sentence, especially the verbs, the muscles which drive it along. Adjectives do of course play a vital role in many kinds of writing, including, for example, book reviews.
Paradise & Elsewhere was launched in the spring of 2014 and the response to it has been one of the most cheering aspects of the past year. From the start, this book found its readers and they rose to meet to one of its challenges: how on earth to describe a slim volume (128 pages) which offers a kind of history of the world, plunges the reader into the back rooms of the psyche, and refuses to commit to particular genre? Even I had struggled with this. In the publisher’s “About Your Book” questionnaire, used to help with publicity and marketing, I drew a complete blank when asked to compare it with other books.
But early signs were encouraging. Amy Bloom baptized the book with a sprinkle of adjectives that included compelling, moody, and shape-shifting; Barbara Gowdy added vibrant, startlingly imaginative, wise, smart, and very funny and very humane. Even so, as publication loomed, I began to be anxious about the possibility of reviews. There were two adjectives that I was especially dreading, both perfectly fine words and applicable to the book, but which have accrued an unfortunate undercurrent of dismissal of disapproval: different, and weird. Different, when used alone, suggests the quality of being uncommon, at variance with the normal, which on this side of the Atlantic often seems to have a pejorative ring to it; weird means supernatural or uncanny, but it also has the connotation of something (or someone) preposterous, hard to identify with, or beyond the pale.
Neither word has been used (in print at least) and the book’s very first reviewer, Charlene Van Buekenhout, writing in the Winnipeg Star, erupted in a torrent of adjectives that included intelligent, sharp, raw, sexy, unsettling, to the point, disturbing, beautiful, realist, feminist, and apocalyptic. Since then, reviewers of Paradise & Elsewhere have been inventive, authentic, prolific and generous… As you’ll see if you read the selection at the end of this post, the past months have been studded with adjectives. Common themes emerge, but what I’ve found both humbling is the sheer variety of words that have been used to describe the book and/or individual stories, and the lengths reviewers have gone to in order to find the right combination of words. My favourites? Surprising, astounding, startling and extraordinary and unexpected, because I did very much want these stories to take the reader to somewhere new. Beyond that, it’s impossible: Transcendent? Sexy? Expansive? Wicked? Wise? Lush? I’m spoiled for choice and grateful to all those who so far have taken the risk of reading Paradise & Elsewhere, to my editor John Metcalf and all the clever, passionate, and dedicated people who work at Biblioasis, the super-indie publisher who took the book on. Thanks, too, to all those who have talked with me or emailed or blogged about the book.
Description is one thing, action another. Now it is time to move deeper into new work: something completely different. Here’s hoping that in the coming year to come we will all write, paint, dance, print, sculpt sing, speak and dream new things into the world.
Beautiful, daring, giddy, startling, intricate, fine, always intriguing, often dazzling – and while neither comfortable nor flawless – immensely fun to read... Dan Vyleta, choosing Paradise & Elsewhere as his favourite book of 2014 in The Walrus
Dark, haunting, truly original… Scotiabank Giller Prize Jury/CBC Best Books 2014
Lyrical, fabulist, sometimes brutally cautionary, unexpected, erotic… Shawn Syms, Quill & Quire
Sensuous, verdant, lyrical, wicked, fresh, exuberant, impeccable, perfectly timed and executed, startling, surprising, horrific… Stephen W. Beattie, National Post
Immersive, eerie, mystery-laden, restless, memorably skewed, neither imitative nor derivative, simultaneously exotic and recognizable… Brett Josef Grubsic, Vancouver Sun
Tight, strange, nifty... Margaret Atwood on twitter
Compelling, unexpected, memorable… Tobias Carol, Volume 1
Transcendent, nuanced, strange, expansive, intimate, remarkable… Dustin Kurtz, Music and Literature
Lush, mythic… Kate Hargreaves, Cover to Cover in Quill and Quire
Expansive, amazing… Leland Cheuk, The Rumpus
Mind-bending, startling, singular, unexpected, capricious, uncanny, boldy illuminating, elastic, extravagantly outlandish… Malcolm Forbes, Minneapolis Star Tribune
Deeply mysterious, astounding, perfect… Caroline Adderson interview with Kathy Page in The New Quarterly
Brilliant, smart, deep, moody, incendiary, wondrous… Literary Press Group, Full of Lit
Well-honed; there is not an image or a word wasted, full of surprises Lynne Van Luven, Coastal Spectator
Heartfelt, shape-shifting… Barnes & Noble Review selection for their Long List, wherein the author was described as “the Alice Munro of the supernatural.”
Beautiful, profound… Daniel Perry, Malahat Review
As insightful as their older counterparts Globe and Mail
Extraordinary, dislocating, dark, wonderful Kim Forrester, Reading Matters
Thanks too to those who reviewed the new Biblioasis edition of my novel Alphabet, which earned starred reviews in Kirkus, Publishers Weekly and the Library Journal, and its own collection of descriptors.