Any devotee of Anthony Trollope – and I am one – will be familiar with his habit of repeating his favourite sayings, often drawn from the Bible or classical literature. ‘God tempers the wind to the shorn lamb’, and ‘Out of the full heart the mouth speaks’, spring to mind. Trollope also constantly re-uses expressions like ‘it was a religion to him that…’ or ‘she had taught herself to think that…’ This to me is all part of the joy and comfort of reading Trollope: here is an author’s voice we come to know and trust. (An aside recommendation: Listen to Timothy West’s perfect readings of the Barchester and Palliser novels – it’s as if Trollope himself is speaking.)
But when modern authors display the same tendency to repeat expressions I wince at what looks like laziness or inattention. For example, I’ve just read Joanna Trollope’s reworking of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, where characters constantly ‘sighed’ or ‘let a beat fall’. They were doing exactly the same in her previous books. I can’t help wondering if once an author becomes established and successful their editors no longer like to point these things out. Or whether they matter anyway.
And I am being unfair and inconsistent: forgiving a Victorian writer for repetitions while nit-picking the writing of his descendant. All writers have their funny little ways. It’s worth noting though that a useful tool for us to check out our own is the find and replace key…
In an article in The Guardian back in 2007 Zadie Smith wrote how in each of her novels somebody ‘rummages in their purse’ for something; she was, she said, too lazy and thoughtless and unaware to separate ‘purse’ from its old persistent friend ‘rummage’. She called this sleepwalking through a sentence; re-presenting to readers what is pleasing and familiar, pandering to a shared short-cut understanding. If it’s only a sentence it’s not much to be ashamed of, but Zadie Smith suggested that for many writers there will be paragraphs, whole characters, whole books through which one sleepwalks and for which inauthentic is truly the correct term.