Book Review: Better Than Great by Arthur Plotnik

Book Review: Better Than Great by Arthur Plotnik

A review of Arthur Plotnik's latest book, designed to help writers eliminate the use of drab and humdrum superlatives.
Penlighten Staff
Last Updated: Jun 3, 2018
Back in the 1980s, the Partnership for a Drug-free America launched its famous, fried-egg, "This is your brain on drugs" campaign. The image of the egg, crackling and sizzling in the frying pan, apparently left an indelible impression on me, for it popped into my head again as I finished reading Arthur Plotnik's latest book, Better Than Great: A Plenitudinous Compendium of Wallopingly Fresh Superlatives (Cleis Press), the follow-up to his 2005 book, Spunk & Bite: A Writer's Guide to Bold, Contemporary Style.
But while the Partnership used the fried-egg image to imply harm, my take on it was far more writer-centric (and much less menacing): "This is your writing; this is Better Than Great; this is your writing on Better Than Great." Clearly, I'm not bastardizing that campaign here to suggest that Plotnik's latest book will fry your writing; on the contrary, if you want to add insane quantities of crackle and sizzle to your writing, look no further than this engaging book.
Plotnik's latest work is a no-holds-barred thesaurus, a let-it-all-hang-out language guide, for any writer looking to rid themselves forever of the stale, cumbersome baggage of overused and boring superlatives. Plotnik organizes his book using themed chapters ("Large," "Delicious," and "Great," for example) and introduces each with a brief discussion of tired, lame, examples that writers wishing to blow readers' minds should avoid. He also includes short but fascinating histories of how those now-deflated words, once fresh and new, arrived at their current sorry states. Take the word 'great,' for example:
"Today, if the word doesn't quite put listeners to sleep, neither does it wake them to the wonders of anything. Approaching some two billion appearances in a Web search, it certainly has lost whatever specialty it had. If two billion things are special, what's left to be ordinary? In conventional uses, great generates about one nanowatt of energy."
After carving each chapter's list of humdrum terms into dejected little bites, Plotnik then helpfully provides thorough, meaty lists of alternatives, considerately arranged in alphabetical order. The lists are deep and far-ranging, including new uses, adaptations, or combinations ("greatness in alto-relievo"); refreshing synonyms ("euphorigenic"); obscure references ("Golcondan," which Plotnik explains refers to the legendary Golconda mines in India and which equates to a promise of great wealth) ; and über-hip utterances designed to remind you just how square you have become ("ownage," "shreds," and "skizziest").
As an antidote for the reader's resultant feeling of being suddenly and hopelessly antiquated, Plotnik charitably includes short "Vintage Gold" sections throughout the book, which contain superlatives and descriptors that have long since faded from our lexicon (some of them understandably). "Ripsniptious," "hot tomato," "whangdilly," and the other gems making the "Vintage" lists are, at the very least, good for a chuckle, and may even inspire a few walks down memory lane for nostalgic readers.
As if all that weren't enough crackle and sizzle for you, Plotnik also offers up a handful of appendices, even including one specifically for texting terms of praise, very helpful for the age of Tweets and posts. (Caveat: If you're someone who occasionally lets fly a "Your Aunt Mitty!" or a "He's one hep cat!" You might find that appendix a trifle bewildering, so do us all a favor and skip it.)
In an earlier review, I called Spunk & Bite "a literary 'Date Night,' reminding us of our early, heady days of romance with language, and urging us to rediscover it in our own writing. "Well, if Spunk & Bite was like Date Night, then Better Than Great is more like a crazy uncle who shows up when you least expect it, turns the household on its ear, then roars off into the sunset on his "freakin' freaky cool." Harley, leaving you standing on the front lawn, shaking your head, and secretly wishing you could be more like him. Crackle and sizzle, indeed.