Benjamin Rosenbaum

Comments on "Clichés vs. allusions"

What gets up my nose is the sense (from certain people) that the enjoyment of cliche-free prose is morally superior to the enjoyment of referential prose. This is, I think, implied in "The good writers, the ones I respect, are authentic and original." I have no idea what authenticity is, frankly, so I will leave that one alone, but I like and respect lots of writers for whom originality is secondary. Such as, oh, William Shakespeare. Or P.G. Wodehouse. Or John Barth. Or Carol Duffy. Or the committee of the King James Bible. I am also fascinated by the process of adaptation--are the writers who adapted "Cranford" for television to be sneered at for failing to be original? Surely the thing is to judge on the merits, with originality being one criterion, and not among the most heavily weighted.

Now, having said that, novelty is awesome, too. There are plenty of writers I like and admire for their originality. Either for their originality of plot or of phrasing, or sometimes (not often) for both. Often for novelty in world-building, although not often, then, for the other kinds as well.

There's a Santayana line about consistency that says that consistency is a jewel, and that like a jewel, it is surprising how much some people are willing to pay for it. I think that applies to, well, nearly every good thing, but certainly to originality. Because, yes, shiny, great. But also? Have we not all struggled to comprehend the prose of someone too successfully avoiding common turns of phrase?

And yet--if you like that sort of thing, then that's the sort of thing you like. I like a different sort of thing (well-handled plot, mostly, and flamboyant characterization, and evocative language, with lots of predictability to make it all go down smooth), and I try not to allow myself to feel morally superior because I would rather read that someone had ham and eggs for breakfast than eggs and ham.

Hm. That wound up a ranty-rant, didn't it? I suppose as a reader I shouldn't take advice for writers personally, but I do.


Posted by Vardibidian at October 8, 2012 04:52 PM

I'm glad you brought up the issue of allusion, Ben (even if it wasn't precisely what Dora was talking about ;) because it's something I tend to enjoy/appreciate, especially in songs. Antje Duvekot's "Judas" ( is a perfect example: by casting a potential school shooter and his victim as Judas and Jesus the song humanizes both versions of Judas and alludes to two important stories (the Gospel stories of Christ's Passion and the American stories of families and schools and school shootings), making for a much richer song. (Plus, it's pretty.)

I think this could also apply to fanvids, though I'm not sure what you think of that. While fanvids are a dime a dozen, there are some that are very specific in which scenes they show at which points in a song so that you have to know the show/movie/whatever really well in order to appreciate the significance. (The end of is a good example of this. is one of my favorites but may not mean much to someone who's less of a JAG junkie, or less devoted to Webb. No, I don't know why I like him so much either.) Others take a song that isn't a duet but distribute the lines/verses between two different characters in order to comment on them individually as well as their relationship, thereby changing also the interpretation of the song. ( and are two of my favorites for that.) This latter type might also appeal to a broader audience: I think the Kirk/Spock vid especially requires relatively little background beyond to appreciate, though it's more meaningful if you know which bits take place on Vulcan and who certain side characters are.

Posted by Emily Gilman at October 8, 2012 10:58 PM

I've come at the idea of Allusion Culture primarily from the direction of reference humor, something I make much use of and have done some philosophising on. One facet of my thinking on this is that we're not really living in the same kind of world as that which made such wide use of Biblical or mythological allusions, because though there are far more potential sources of common references now (The Simpsons, Monty Python, dozens of successful movies/comics/TV shows...), that very fact makes each source less widely known. We're not a culture where you can reasonably expect everyone who hears you to understand the reference you're making, whether it be Loaves and Fishes or "I'm not dead yet!".

Instead, references can be a way of *separating* subcultures, rather than providing a common vocabulary. Spec-Fic folk will be able to pepper their conversations with Lord of the Rings and Firefly references, making some people get much more out of their words... but making them more opaque to those not in that subculture. The same would go for groups revolving around Reddit, or pop-celebrities, or whatever. So I can only partially agree with your notion that we're entering an allusion era equivalent to that of 9th-century Geonim. If anything, we're making that type of common reference-currency harder to come by, except in narrower, siloed, groups.

Posted by Jim Moskowitz at October 9, 2012 03:06 AM

Jim, I think, though, that to some extent the groups were always siloed, and that that goes hand-in-hand with a culture of allusion. Those Geonim were walking down crowded Babylonian streets amid Eastern Christians, Mithraists, Zoroastrians, and Tartar and Slavs animists who wouldn't have known a passage of Talmud had it bit them on the butt, and even within Judaism there were various strands and mystical traditions in which super-secret allusions would convey piles of meaning inaccessible to outsiders -- Karaites wouldn't get the same gags as Rabbinicals, nor Chariot-mystics as remnant Saducees. You'd have fractal layers of associations-of-allusion, which feels very much like now..

Posted by Benjamin Rosenbaum at October 17, 2012 04:22 PM

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