In Favour of “Compelling”

Earlier this year, Michelle Kerns’ “Book Review Bingo” went viral on the Internet. Having first assembled a list of the top twenty most annoying book reviewer clichés, Kerns added a few more to the list and then inserted them all into a series of Bingo cards. “Print them out,” she wrote. “Distribute them among your reading fellows. See who can get to Bingo first. … Wallow in the joy of artificially inflated, knee-jerk, ultimately meaningless book reviews.” Soon enough, The Guardian picked up on the story, and a couple of months thereafter Kerns was interviewed here in Australia on ABC Radio National’s The Book Show alongside Laura Miller, the book critic for Salon. Kerns and Miller were both asked to open the interview by naming their “favourite” (ie. least favourite) book review cliché. Kerns opted for “unputdownable.” I cannot take issue with that choice. Miller, however, opted for “compelling,” and that seems to me misguided.

I understand the logic behind Miller’s choice. “Compelling” is vastly overused in book reviews, and, worse, it is used almost exclusively as a synonym for “unputdownable,” “captivating,” or simply “interesting.” In the more literal sense of the word, though, “compelling” denotes some overpowering force that drives those who feel it exerted upon them to follow a course of action that they would otherwise be inclined to resist. For a reviewer to declare a book “compelling,” then, is for the reviewer to implicitly acknowledge that he or she initially resisted entering the book and perhaps resisted the early stages of reading it, only to discover something within the reading experience that forced the reviewer to acquiesce to the book itself and to read through to the end. In my personal reading practices, I find myself resistant to a book whenever I pick one up — there are a thousand other things to which I could devote my time, and, of course, countless thousands of other books to read — so that, if I were to know which books a reviewer very literally found “compelling,” I would know which books are most likely to induce me to relax my resistance and thus which ones are most worth my attention and concentration.

When I say, however, that a compelling book is one that forces its readers to acquiesce to it, I do not mean to suggest that it is in any way necessarily a “page-turner,” a book in which readers gradually “lose themselves.” It may well be such a book, of course, but the books that I find most compelling are the very opposite of “page-turners.” Rather than breaking through my resistance and allowing me to lose myself in them, they acknowledge my resistance and manipulate it and toy with it in various ways; and, as a result, I find myself so deeply engaged in the back-and-forth of what the book is doing to me that I am more content to linger over the pages, to luxuriate in them, to prolong the engagement in the back-and-forth, than to turn them and turn them until they have been exhausted.

One response to “In Favour of “Compelling””

  1. I like your thoughts on “compelling.”

    The quality you describe is an essential part of the reading experience of many of my favorite works. Many times, I find myself struggling to work through difficult sections or long stretches of pedestrian prose, only to then breakthrough to the passage or sequence that is often stunning.

    In the best books, when you get to the end, you realize that what you thought was pointless literary landscape is actually the groundwork for the climax that stopped you dead in your tracks.

    Regarding reviewer cliches, I find myself overusing and obusing “robust.”

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