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Excerpt: The Sound on the Page

In the introduction to his new book on style and voice, the author, critic, and University of Delaware professor argues that what writers say is not always as important as how they say it.

By Ben Yagoda - June 11, 2004

So my observation became a premise: style matters. On further review, it accumulated two corollaries. The first is that for writers of the first rank (and many of the rest of us as well) style is unique and irrefutably identifiable, like a fingerprint, or like the sound of close friends' voices, even if they're only saying, "Hi, it's me" on the telephone. Samuel Coleridge, in a letter to his friend William Wordsworth, describing reading some lines from Wordsworth's poem "There Was a Boy" for the first time, wrote: "That 'Uncertain heaven received/Into the bosom of the steady lake,' I should have recognized any where; and had I met these lines running wild in the deserts of Arabia, I should have instantly screamed out 'Wordsworth!'" In the same way, on reading passages for the first time, readers familiar with the respective authors' work would instantly scream out Hemingway, Dickens, Didion, and Barry!

For the second corollary, shift the analogy from fingerprints, which identify us but have no bearing on any other aspect of ourselves, to handwriting, which not only identifies us but, we are told, reveals our essence. George de Buffon famously encapsulated the idea in 1753: Le style c'est l'homme meme ("Style is the man himself "). Style in the deepest sense is not a set of techniques, devices, and habits of expression that just happen to be associated with a particular person, but a presentation or representation of something essential about him or her—something that we, as readers, want to know from that writer and that cannot be disguised, no matter how much the writer may try. "Our style betrays us," Robert Burton observed in The Anatomy of Melancholy. Our style advertises the extent to which we are (or are not) self-absorbed, generous, solicitous, obsessive, conventional, funny, dull, stuffy, surprising, impatient, boring, slovenly, intelligent, or insecure. In his memoir, Experience, Martin Amis recounts a long-standing debate he had with his father, Kingsley Amis, about the merits of Vladimir Nabokov.

When Martin read aloud a Nabokov passage he particularly admired, Kingsley said, "That's just flimflam, diversionary stuff to make you think he cares. That's just style." Martin: "Whereas I would argue that style is morality: morality detailed, configured, intensified. It's not in the mere narrative arrangement of good and bad that morality makes itself felt. It can be there in every sentence. To Kingsley, though, sustained euphony automatically became euphuism: always." Young English novelist Zadie Smith recently observed, "Every genuinely literary style, from the high authorial voice to [David] Foster Wallace and his footnotes-within-footnotes, requires the reader to see the world from somewhere in particular, or from many places. So every novelist's literary style is nothing less than an ethical strategy—it's always an attempt to get the reader to care about people who are not the same as he or she is." This can work for ill as well as good. Wilde, in another Bartlett's moment, once remarked that the chief argument against Christianity was the style of St. Paul.

That the how is more important and revealing than the what goes without saying when it comes to many other creative endeavors. Think of Michael Jordan and Jerry West each making a twenty-foot jump shot, of Charlie Parker and Ben Webster each playing a chorus of "All the Things You Are," of Julia Child and Paul Prudhomme each fixing a duck à l'orange, of Mies van der Rohe and Philip Johnson each designing a twenty-story office tower on the same corner of the same city, or of Pieter Brueghel and Vincent van Gogh each painting the same farmhouse. Everyone understands that the content is constant, frequently ordinary, and sometimes banal; that the (wide) variation, the arena for expression and excellence, the fun, the art—it's all in the individual style.

Encouraged by my premise and corollaries, I began haunting bookstores and libraries. I emerged with a paradox: as important as personal style is in writing, it is strangely overlooked in books that purport to be about style in writing. Exhibit 1 is an 84-page volume called The Elements of Style. I didn't even need to go to the library to read it; like millions of other Americans, I own a copy. It grew out of a self-published pamphlet that William Strunk, a professor of English at Cornell in the early decades of the 20th century, handed out to his students, one of whom was E.B.White. In 1959, White updated the manuscript and added an introduction and a new chapter. It has been in print ever since. At the moment, it's number 48 on the Amazon.com best seller list of the roughly two million titles the online bookstore offers for sale, just ahead of Wild at Heart: Discovering the Secret of a Man's Soul and just behind Weight Watchers New Complete Cookbook.

One odd thing about Strunk and White (as everybody calls the The Elements) is the way it uses style in different, sometimes seemingly contradictory, senses. At the outset we are in the world of The Chicago Manual of Style, The Associated Press Stylebook and Libel Manual, and the sixth and final definition in the Merriam-Webster's Dictionary: "a convention with respect to spelling, punctuation, capitalization, and typographic arrangement and display followed in writing or printing." Thus the first sentence of chapter I in Strunk and White is "Form the possessive of nouns by adding 's." Subsequent rules or customs include "Place a comma before a conjunction introducing an independent clause" and "A participial phrase at the beginning of a sentence must refer to the grammatical subject."

Later on, the conception of style broadens a bit, to mean something like elegance or, more broadly, propriety and effectiveness in written communication. "Use the active voice," the reader is advised, and, "Place the emphatic words of a sentence at the end." In the chapter White wrote himself, he offers a list of guidelines, including, "Place yourself in the background," "Do not affect a breezy manner," and "Do not inject opinion." (All that placing calls to mind someone dropping little people and houses into a model-railroad layout.) "The approach to style," White concludes, "is by way of plainness, simplicity, orderliness, sincerity."

This meaning for the word style doesn't exactly correspond with any of the dictionary definitions. The one that comes closest is: "a mode of fashion, as in dress, esp. good or approved fashion; elegance; smartness." Strunk and White aren't talking about clothing, but that good or approved hits home. They purport to be talking about "style," but they are really advocating a particular style. They define this almost completely in negative terms, as an absence of faults—an elimination of all grammatical mistakes and solecisms, of breeziness, opinions, clichés, jargon, mixed metaphors, passive-voice constructions, wordiness, and so on. The implicit and sometimes explicit goal is a transparent prose, where the writing exists solely to serve the meaning, and no trace of the author—no mannerisms, no voice, no individual style—should remain. They think of writers the way baseball's conventional wisdom thinks of umpires: you notice only the bad ones. One measure of this doctrine's weirdness is that its absolute inapplicability to E.B.White's own prose style, which, although outwardly plain, simple, orderly, and sincere, is also idiosyncratic, opinionated, and unmistakable.

Simplicity, clarity, and invisibility are, in any case, the gospel in almost all post–Strunk and White writing manuals, whether or not they invoke the word style. Richard Marius, in A Writer's Companion, advises, "Don't show off; avoid drawing unnecessary attention to yourself.... When we blatantly insert ourselves into our story, we are like thoughtless people who invite friends to a movie and then spend so much time talking that they can't enjoy the show." (An odd metaphor—it forgets that when we write we are the movie.) In Style: Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace, Joseph Williams states, "The only reliable rule, I think, is 'Less is more.'" Edward Corbett and Robert Connors in Classical Rhetoric for the Modern Student (fourth edition, 1998): "The prime quality of prose style is clarity." William Zinsser's On Writing Well, Jacques Barzun's Simple & Direct, Peter Richardson's Style: A Pragmatic Approach: each time, it's the same minimalist and impersonal doctrine.

But this is a chimera based on a fallacy. Perhaps transparency is possible, or at least a useful metaphor, when one is composing an instruction manual. Dowel A is 10 inches long, no more, no less. It should be inserted in hole B, and nowhere else. This is the information that must be conveyed, and any intimations of personality by the writer would be misplaced and counterproductive. But in communicating ideas, opinions, impressions—indeed, in any attempt to describe or imagine the wide world—content does not exist separate from the words in which it is expressed. Each one depends on the other. When you remove the wrapping of the language, you see that the box is empty.

This is excerpted from The Sound on the Page, by Ben Yagoda. Copyright © 2004 by Ben Yagoda, and published by HarperCollins. Excerpted with the permission of the publisher. You can buy The Sound on the Page at Amazon.com.



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