It Was Like, You Know

Today, I bring to you my thoughts on how and whether to use metaphor and simile. That got you running for the advil, didn’t it?

The reason this is today’s topic is because I read recently on the website of a literary agent something about how you shouldn’t use more than two similes/metaphors in an entire work of fiction. Now THAT made me sit up straighter. For one thing, I can never remember the difference between the two. In my defense, I’d just like to point out that it doesn’t really matter if you know the name of the thing you’re doing with words as long as you do it well. For another thing, I don’t use very many similes/metaphors because I can never think of any. When I do think of one, I read it over and over and feel enormous satisfaction at my achievement. In fact, just recently, I began a short story with a simile. I mean, a metaphor. No, a simile.

Here it is, for your amusement and edification. And don’t worry, after we skim over my fiction, we’ll be on to Homer — so keep reading because it gets better. And more ancient and classical.

Here’s me, from a story called The Centerfold Club:

What surprised Emily the most, even more than discovering that she didn’t in the least mind seeing Mark, her husband of twenty years, with his arms around the girl, was how bumpy the girl’s skin felt. Specifically, the skin on her legs, which is where she told Emily to put her hands, after she finished grinding herself into Mark’s lap, and turning around and around, in one suggestive pose after another, like a rotisserie chicken, all heated, bronzed, exposed skin, rotating around them both, for as long as the green light stayed on.

That, dear readers is a simile, I’m pretty sure, because it uses the word “like.” I am also confident that, in the entire history of western literature nobody — and I do mean nobody — has thought to compare an exotic dancer to a rotisserie chicken. Now THAT was a good day’s work.

On to Homer. Homer loved, loved, loved similes. (Take that, literary agent.) They have a life of their own, really, in the Iliad — sometimes, you forget the Argives or the Achaeans or the Trojans (who had other names too, and please don’t get me started on why it is that he couldn’t just stick to “Trojans” and “Greeks”) were even in a big battle because all of sudden they’re bees, or leaves, or cows or something. Here’s a good one:

From the camp
The troops were turning out now, thick as bees
that issue from some crevice in a rock face,
endlessly pouring forth, to make a cluster
and swarm on blooms of summer here and there,
glinting and droning, busy in bright air.
Like bees innumerable from ships and huts
down the deep foreshore streamed those regiments
toward the assembly ground-

Simile! So famous, in fact, that others (Virgil I think) borrowed it and used it again.

There are a million of these things in the Iliad. In fact, there’s an entire web site devoted to them. So, my response to the only-two-similes-per-novel is: bah. I love them (if I could only think of them), Homer, obviously, never met a simile he didn’t like, and Shakespeare clearly knew his way around a metaphor (all the world’s a stage, baby).

Why did they use them? Because simile and metaphor deepen our understanding of what a writer is trying to say, I think. My own modest simile is intended to draw the reader’s attention to the fact that an exotic dancer, the ultimate “chick(en)” is a commodity, an object on display, and something sort of delicious, although not really, because, if uncooked, there’s all that bumpy flesh and, when cooked and displayed, maybe a little too perfect looking. Okay, okay. I totally made that up. The truth is that my own modest simile is in that story because it cracked me up and I happen to like the word “chicken.” (One of William’s favorite jokes is “Why did the baby cross the road? Because he was stapled to the chicken.” This joke is a family favorite because it (a) involves the word chicken and (b) the word staple.)

Really, I think writers use simile and metaphor because thinking up a good simile/metaphor is just plain fun. Wit, as I recall, has to do with combining dissimilar things, in a way that gives the reader (and the writer) pleasure. (That’s probably why I love Donne so much — that flea love thing really gets me, although I know it’s not everyone’s cup o’tea.) So, if you can think of a good metaphor or simile, I say: have at it.

And now I’m off, like a … bad simile!

I’d also like to add that I wrote this post lightening fast (metaphor!), did not check my spelling of things like Argives and Achaean (is it possible that word has THAT many vowels in it?) and apologize in advance if that literary agent — whose name and site I cannot now recall — said three was okay, rather than two. And, finally, I think I might be incapable of short & sweet blog posts because it actually takes more time to write something witty and short — like a simile or metaphor — than it does to write a loooooong post yammering on about simile and metaphor.


27 thoughts on “It Was Like, You Know

  1. I prefer metaphors because they seem subtler to me, less obtrusive — but yours was definitely a one-of-a-kind simile, no question!

    The agent who set that impossible limit must only represent highly commercial fiction, because I can’t imagine a single literary novel that isn’t full of figurative language.

    As usual, it all boils down to: do your own thing well, that’s all that matters, i.e., you go girl! ;>)

  2. I love the rotisserie chicken simile!
    And no one can knock Homer.
    And I also love Donne, very much because of the ‘mark but this flea’ thing.

  3. your post was as sweet as bed of roses, like a good conversation with an old friend, and was a fertile farm of thought.

    only two similes and metaphors per book? is this person insane? i must use two per paragraph. perhaps the agent was frustrated by overuse of similes and metaphors, which is like getting run over one to many times by a bus and is as frustrating as…as…as, well, you know.

    never posted here before. glad i visited.

  4. Yes, why, why, why is it suddenly such a no-no to use simile and metaphor?! By now, anyone who reads me must know I’m a HUGE fan of both. So glad to have you point out what good company I’m in, although people probably don’t read Homer as much as they read 21st-century-most-popular-non-simile-and-metaphor-using-author-of-the-moment, do they? Sigh! Your rotisserie chicken is just plain brilliant.

  5. 1. I, too, can rarely think of similes, except for the ones that are already taken and thus cliches. I envy people who can.

    2. Loved the rotisserie chicken!

    3. This was a long post? It was over just as I was settling in! (I happen to prefer long anyway.)

    4. I adore Homer’s metaphors!

  6. Donne was great with metaphor – “every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.” Like the scientists who disclaim their own achievements when they say “We stood on the shoulders of giants”, I often feel good writers achieve greatness because they have read the similes and metaphors of previous genius.

    And a successful publisher is one who doesn’t (or is unlearned enough not to) notice the recycling.

    On your very effective simile – I shall never be able to view a pole-dancer in the same way again – rotisserie indeed!

  7. I know exactly which literary agent it was, and his comment provoked me to post too. Two or three similes per book! Shocking! In the comments to his post, people were saying adverbs should be avoided too.

    I don’t take it very seriously and will continue to write what I like, but I can understand his point about over-used similes that are no longer fresh.

    Your chicken, on the other hand, is very very fresh. Fabulous simile, Lily.

  8. I like you just as much as Homer, Lily. Yes, I saw that simile thing too, and wondered where writers like Michael Chabon and PG Wodehouse would be without them. If you took all the similes out, you’d have about a paragraph left!

  9. As a linguist I’d have to take the argument against that agent even further, because some linguists would claim that even, for example, using the word ‘sprinkling’ as you do in ‘I’ve decided to start sprinkling my name throughout my blog’ is metaphor. It all depends on how you’re defining your terms. I should imagine that trying to write without taking account of metaphor by that definition would soon reduce you to the level of the very worst of children’s school reading schemes.

  10. Dear Ann, That’s an interesting perspective! I’ve noticed that there are a lot of rules of writing floating around, and most people seem to respond to them, quite rightly, by pointing out the ways in which language no-nos can be done so well. Except, maybe, dialect.

    Litlove, As much as Homer! I’ll be mailing you the check in a few hours.

    Charlotte, Yes, I think most rules really boil down to “write well,” young man/woman. I liked what Ursula LeGuin had to say about adverbs (in that post you had up a few days ago) — it is the case that a verb and adverb are almost always weaker than a really specific verb, just as an adjective and noun combination is surpassed by a stronger noun. That’s something worth knowing, I think. avoid simile/metaphor is not so helpful.

    Dear Archie, I am busy now trying to think of how the pole dancing community in Australia would feel about metaphor and simile.

    Diana, Now that I’ve been alerted to the simile ban, I keep finding good ones. Maybe that’s all it takes to start making up some of my own. We should try that, don’t you think, literalists that we are?

    Emily, Why don’t people read Homer much? I’m going to guess they never read Homer much, which is too bad. Or maybe they should get to read him, as I did when I was a child, in comic book form. Anyway, I am giving you, forthwith, the BlogLily License To Compare, which entitles you to unlimited similes and metaphors. You’re welcome.

    Dear Bookfraud, Welcome! I’m glad you stopped by and hope to see you around here a lot. As for overuse of simile and metaphor, it seems like that could be dialed back through a good edit. But to deny the pleasure inherent in thinking them up is so… puritanical really. I’m glad to hear you’re a frequent user.

    Becky, Yes, I agree, Homer, Donne, Hamrick? It’s like the frieze at the San Francisco Public Library, the one that has all the famous writer’s names. In the House of Simile, there would be a similar frieze, one that would be chock full of the names of those who use metaphor and simile to great effect.

    Thank you Sylvia. You are the most wonderful of readers!

    Dear Marie, Your comment made me realize that maybe what underlies this complaint against simile is the desire for a literal fiction — something that reproduces the world verbatim rather than transforms how we look at the world. I don’t know, though, it was a way too complex theory for me to nail down this morning. Let’s just say I agree with you — one must do one’s own thing.

  11. Generally, I have no problems telling a simile from a metaphor, thanks to Wren and Martin. It was for me the Bhagavadgita of Grammar :). I loved the chapter on Figures of Speech, especially the sections on the pun and the oxymoron.

    Now, I’m tickled by the thought that the book was in fact written by two birds.

  12. Since one can never share too many examples of why the agent is wrong, here’s the third paragraph in East of Eden:

    I remember that the Gabilan Mountains to the east of the valley were light gay mountains full of sun and loveliness and a kind of invitation, so that you wanted to climb into their warm foothills almost as you want to climb into the lap of a beloved mother. They were beckoning mountains with a brown grass love. The Santa Lucias stood up against the sky to the west and kept the valley from the open sea, and they were dark and brooding—unfriendly and dangerous. I always found in myself a dread of the west and a love of the east. Where I ever got such an idea I cannot say, unless it could be that the morning came over the peaks of the Gabilans and the night drifted back from the ridges of the Santa Lucias. It may be that the birth and death of the day had some part in my feelings about the two ranges of mountains.

  13. I agree with your regarding the similarities between humor & simile. This is something that I have pondered for several months. If humor is the recognition of the intersection of two incongruent thoughts, certainly simile and metaphor is likewise. I like to think of simile as like a venn diagram. (Sorry — couldn’t help myself…just had to use a simile there!). Each circle (set) is disparate, but where they overlap, in the unexpected, not previously explored, region is where the writer uses figurative language to clarify something for the reader. It is where our limited vocabularies are stretched to convey the imagery of our minds.

  14. Fencer, That’s really good! I guess that a steel dog WOULD bark bricks, but the “he” of the sentence is what really gets you wondering.

    Cam, I like the stretching of our vocabularies. Maybe you should be writing an article about this!

    OP, I know! I’ve noticed that too.

    Q & Ben, “the lap of a beloved mother” — that is beautiful.

    Polaris, I’ve never heard of Wren & Martin, and see that now I must go & search them out, grammarian/birds.

  15. I think that I shall never see / a tree as lovely as a simile . . . I won’t go on from here, don’t worry. Happy Birthday, friend! I’m sure you will soon be on the shelves of bookstores nationwide– that Centerfolds story is really something. I’m sure that’ll have them sitting up and taking notice– errr, publishers, I mean. That’s the kind of story men love for their wives to read, especially right before birthdays and anniversaries. Can’t wait to read it and SW. Love-M

  16. I like metaphors and similies. In fact, I discovered them very young, probably third or fourth grade, and they are in my very oldest essays and papers saved from grade school. So I have a sentimental fondness as well as an aesthetic appreciation for them.

    My favorites are by Stephen King. But I like your chicken one too.

  17. This Homer guy wouldn’t stand a chance on the agent market nowadays… An agent would also surely object to heroes called Achaeans: much too difficult for the reader to remember!

  18. Lily, the chicken rotisserie simile is great–all that bumpy skin and the dry golden color as the thing rotates–perfect, perfect, perfect for a lap dancer! This is a WONDERFUL way to begin a story! And your saying you wrote a long blog post even though you meant to write shorter reminded me of that great quote from Mark Twain: “I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.”

  19. Lily, I don’t know about an article, but certainly a blog post. One’s been in draft since shortly after I posted that comment. Along with one about book clubs, and one about shale brownies and the dinner that even the dog wouldn’t eat, and a few dozen meme tags from Emily, and an idea for one about Spitzer that will never be written now that I’ve read Bookfraud’s post since there isn’t anything else left to say. Now, if I can only move from draft to publish. Maybe that will happen soon if I don’t continue to fall asleep watching the news only to wake up at 3am and think, I could write since it’s too early to do something like vacuum…., but then that doesn’t happen either.

  20. Figurative language is what good writers use to pack more meaning into their writing. It’s a form of “economy of language” that great writers have understood since the beginning of the written word! Setting some arbitrary limit like “2 per book” is like setting a limit on the number of times you can use the letter “f” in a book. What nonsense!

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