The Chronicle of Higher Education"

From the issue dated August 13, 2004

Style: a Pleasure for the Reader, or the Writer?
By Ben Yagoda

The premise that in many cases writers entertain, move, and inspire us less by what they say (their matter) than by how they say it (their manner) would seem irrefutable. To name some obvious examples, Charles Dickens, Ernest Hemingway, Tom Wolfe, Joan Didion, and Dave Barry are read and honored hardly at all for their profound insights about the human condition, much more for their intoxicating and immediately identifiable ways of expressing themselves -- their styles.

This idea, that the how is more important and revealing than the what, goes without saying when it comes to other creative endeavors. Think of Michael Jordan and Jerry West each making a 20-foot jump shot, of Charlie Parker and Ben Webster playing a chorus of "All the Things You Are," of Julia Child and Paul Prudhomme fixing a duck à l'orange, or of Pieter Brueghel and Vincent van Gogh 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 -- are all in the individual style.

How odd it is, then, that style in writing is so overlooked in popular, contemporary books that purport to be about style in writing. The paragon is The Elements of Style, which grew out of a self-published pamphlet that William Strunk, an English professor at Cornell in the early decades of the last 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 and, as I write, is No. 136 on the best-seller list.

Strunk and White (as everybody calls the book) uses "style" in different, sometimes contradictory, ways. At the beginning it's in the sense of The Chicago Manual of Style, The Associated Press Stylebook, and the 16th of the 16 definitions in my dictionary: "the rules or customs of typography, punctuation, spelling, capitalization, etc., used by a newspaper, magazine, publishing house, etc., or in a specific publication." Thus the first sentence of Chapter One in Strunk and White is, "Form the possessive of nouns by adding 's." 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. "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." "The approach to style," he concludes, "is by way of plainness, simplicity, orderliness, sincerity."

This is a meaning for the word "style" that 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 "good or approved" hits home. They are really putting forward a negative normative. That is, they and their followers view style 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, in which 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.

White understood that The Elements of Style offered a particular perspective on writing style and did not (as he wrote in the Introduction) "pretend to survey the whole field." Moreover, his own style, although outwardly plain, simple, orderly, and sincere, was also idiosyncratic, opinionated, and unmistakable. Yet in an odd extrapolation, nearly all post-Strunk-and-White writing manuals equate style with simplicity, clarity, and anonymity. 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, a textbook whose seventh edition was published in 2002, Joseph Williams states, "The only reliable rule, I think, is 'Less is more.'" William Zinsser's On Writing Well, Jacques Barzun's Simple & Direct, and Peter Richardson's Style: A Pragmatic Approach all advocate the same minimalist, impersonal doctrine.

In recent years a group of popular commentators has appeared who are willing and eager to give individual style its due. If White, Williams, and Zinsser are the senior faculty of a button-down school of writing instruction, these authors belong to an alternative academy, dressed, as it were, in Hawaiian shirts, drawstring hemp pants, and sandals. They believe that everyone should have a style. Except they prefer the word "voice," and usually put it in the titles of their books: Developing a Written Voice and The Intuitive Writer: Listening to Your Own Voice and Let the Crazy Child Write: Finding Your Creative Writing Voice and (my favorite) Writing the Mind Alive: The Proprioceptive Method for Finding Your Authentic Voice. The general tack can be seen in a passage from another volume, Natalie Goldberg's Wild Mind: Living the Writer's Life: "Style in writing ... means becoming more and more present, settling deeper inside the layers of ourselves and then speaking, knowing what we write echoes all of us; all of who we are is backing our writing. ... We are each a concert reverberating with our whole lives and reflecting and amplifying the world around us."

If "turning in his grave" weren't already a cliché, one would have to invent it to imagine E.B. White's reaction to those two sentences. Yet when you get past the muddy syntax, mixed metaphors, and confusing or downright meaningless formulations (when she says "all of us," does she mean all of us, or the particular person who is doing the writing?), the stuff Goldberg says is true. The same, as far as I can tell, with the other voice manuals. What limits them, even more than the mushy way in which they are written, is their therapeutic approach. The object, from page one to the end, is self-expression, self-fulfillment ... I almost said self-abuse. The goal of writing something that could or should be of interest to a reader never comes up. But the traditional purpose of writing is communication, equally true in an e-mail message and a published book; if it leaves the person on the other end bored, bothered, or bewildered (or if it permanently remains bound in a journal), it is of extremely limited use.

The Strunk-and-White people privilege readers, viewing them as delicate invalids, likely to scurry off to their bedchambers when faced with any sentence diverging in the slightest from the plain style. (Using another metaphor, White wrote that his old teacher Strunk "felt that the reader was in serious trouble most of the time, a man floundering in a swamp, and that it was the duty of anyone attempting to write English to drain this swamp quickly and get his man on dry ground, or at least throw him a rope.") At the other extreme, the Goldberg group coddles the writer the way an overindulgent parent would a sensitive child: Are you sure you've shared everything that's on your mind or in your heart?

Like almost everything else, these two camps and their tussle have historical roots. Since ancient Greece, people interested in language have argued whether it should be primarily a means of expression (Gorgias, the original sophist) or of communicating truth (Socrates and Plato, the Strunk and White of their time). The first camp favors eloquence and doubts the existence of external "reality"; the second favors clarity and has few doubts about anything. Dominance has tended to swing back and forth between the two, like a pendulum. (Very) broadly speaking, Camp One held sway in the Renaissance and Camp Two in the 18th century. Romanticism shoved the pendulum all the way back, with a new wrinkle articulated by Comte de Buffon in 1753: "Style is the man himself." That was probably the first and certainly the most striking articulation of the Charlie Parker/Julia Child notion of style as individual expression and revelation. Such 19th-century writers as Gustave Flaubert, Walter Pater, and Walt Whitman took the idea to extremes, putting forth style as a unique, supreme, and sometimes mystical expression of soul.

Strunk and White is merely the best-selling example of the most recent pendulum swing. It has lasted for more than a century, at least since Matthew Arnold wrote (in 1880), "The needful qualities for a fit prose are regularity, uniformity, precision, balance." Similar prescriptions were later dispensed by H.G. Fowler, Robert Graves, George Orwell ("One can write nothing readable unless one constantly struggles to efface one's personality. Good prose is like a windowpane."), and countless others.

All of those writers were British, and, in fact, the United States didn't truly warm to the theme until after World War II. The galvanizing agent seems to have been the arrival of Rudolf Flesch, who emigrated from his native Austria in 1938. He wrote a Ph.D. dissertation about readability and in 1946 expanded it into a book, The Art of Plain Talk. The great appeal to Americans of this and Flesch's subsequent works was that they broke down the issue of writing and style into a formula and thus made it seem scientific. Flesch and his progeny also expressed themselves with a Dale Carnegie, Kiwanis Club breeziness, full of italics and direct address, that made achieving a good style seem nothing fancy, just good business sense. It was so simple! One could analyze every piece of writing to find its "reading ease" score, and the easier the better. "The simple style -- the style that meets the scientific tests of readability -- is the classic style of great literature," Flesch wrote. "If you start to analyze what style is, the only possible general rule is that the reader must be able to understand what the writer says; and the surest way to that is simplicity." Flesch was silent on the nature of the general rule when the writer is trying to say something subtle and complicated.

Strunk and White's The Elements of Style, published 13 years later, is more sensible in every way. Yet its success and Flesch's sprang from the same cultural soil.

I have been speaking mainly of popular instructional works. The academy, in its study of the great writers, held on a bit longer, but it, too, eventually abandoned style in the sense (in White's words) of "what is distinguished and distinguishing" about a particular author's work. The 20th century saw the rise of literary criticism as a scholarly discipline. And in the long effort to shift the discipline from Victorian impressionism to a more scientific stance and stature, style was always a reliable specimen to put under the microscope. The subfield of "stylistics" emerged in the 1950s, attracting prolific adherents who borrowed terminology and techniques from linguistics, including complicated computer-aided means of quantifying style.

Today in English departments in the United States and Britain, stylisticians are few and far and between and tend to be graybeards approaching retirement. What happened? In a word, poststructuralism. Perhaps the most influential of the many ideas of the deconstructionists and other theorists who emerged in France in the 1960s was that "privileging" writers, as the Romantic tradition had done for some 200 years, was a grave mistake. All they were doing, after all, was unconsciously inscribing power relations in society and other circumstances beyond their control. That being the case, wasn't it silly for critics to sit at their feet, as it were, endlessly describing their attributes, one of which was style? One might as well analyze a magazine advertisement or a comic book, and, in fact, the deconstructionists did so. In 1969 Michel Foucault closed his essay "What Is an Author?" with a quotation from Samuel Beckett: "What difference does it make who is speaking?"

Cultural studies, gender studies, queer studies, the new historicism, postcolonial studies, and the other subdisciplines that have dominated the academic study of literature over the past three decades take widely varying approaches, but they agree on one thing: Style is not the man, nor the woman. It is, rather, the manifestation or symptom of core trends or truths, next to which the personal projects of individual authors are puny and irrelevant.

Stylistics lives on, however -- barely -- in an endeavor that has been termed "literary forensics" or, in deference to its number-crunching proclivities, "stylometrics." The prime practitioner is Donald Foster, a professor of English at Vassar College, whose first book argued, on stylistic evidence culled from a computer database, that an anonymous 1612 poem, "Funeral Elegy by W.S.," was in fact by Shakespeare. Foster became a celebrity in the wider world in 1995, when he accurately fingered Joe Klein as "anonymous," author of Primary Colors.

In the teaching of writing, as opposed to the analysis of literary texts, style isn't faring much better. I profess journalism, where stylistic idiosyncrasy and even individuality are universally deemed no-nos, notwithstanding the fact that such journalists as Richard Ben Cramer, Russell Baker, and Susan Orlean have outstanding and unmistakable styles. And composition classes? From talking with colleagues who teach (and teach the teaching of) freshman English and advanced comp and from looking into textbooks, "handbooks," and scholarly essays on the pedagogy of writing instruction, I gather that versions of the two competing schools -- clarity versus expression -- have duked it out for years. The dominant meaning of "style" has long been a mix of correctness and (in the words of Joseph Williams's subtitle) "clarity and grace." The work of the late Edward P.J. Corbett added to this -- via an exploration of classical rhetoric -- the idea that a variety of styles can be deployed for different compositional situations, and that students can learn these through imitation, numerical analysis, and other exercises.

Peter Elbow and other "new romanticists" in the 1970s and early '80s shifted personal expression and "voice" to the forefront but fell out of favor, in part because of the difficulty of teaching voice, and in part because it became apparent that their ignoring and sometimes scorning the notion of audience was counterproductive and perhaps self-indulgent. (Their ideas live on, however, in the work of Natalie Goldberg and her posse.) Today, I am told, the word "style" is not often used, and the issue of personal voice has been shoved aside in favor of an emphasis on argument, genre, and writing across the curriculum.

Of course, anyone who's ever been hired to turn a couple of dozen undergraduates into competent writers will discern at least two problems with the notion of putting individual style on the syllabus. To put it bluntly, not just students but a vast number of our citizens are poor writers. A sort of triage is clearly called for: Sloppiness, mistakes, clichés, jargon, and obfuscations need to be addressed before one moves on to finer points of style and voice. The second problem might be called "proprietary." We all would grant that the singularity of Charles Dickens's or Dave Barry's prose is a good thing. But would it be wise -- or sane -- to suggest such singularity as a goal for the average English-composition student? We are not all destined to be Hemingways, nor would most of us want to be.

However, every writer who has mastered "style" in the Strunk-and-White sense has, or at the very least is capable of having, a style in the broader sense. Take me, for example. I am big on parentheses.* Up to now, this essay has contained 19 pairs of them -- nearly one for every paragraph, on average. But I would be surprised if many readers even noticed my parentheses. They certainly do not approach the conspicuousness of Hemingway's monosyllables.

So are my parentheses part of a style? Actually, yes. I am drawn to them in part because they express my belief that the world and language are multifarious, knotty, and illuminated by digression. As I compose, they proliferate before my eyes. Indeed, the first draft of this essay had about 40 pairs. If I had left them all in, they probably would have been noticeable, and annoying, to most readers. One of my main tasks in revising was to take out enough of them to smooth the path, but leave in enough of them to satisfy myself and the one or two readers out there who may actually get some pleasure out of my style.

And there you have a paradigm of style for the rest of us. It emerges when writers are comfortable and proficient with their tools. Style is expressed unconsciously, but shaped consciously, in revision. It is a whispering, not a shouting voice; whether readers discern it depends on their familiarity with the writer and their own skill as readers. The writer himself or herself is aware of it; identifying, developing, and shaping it is one of the main pleasures of the craft.

It would be nice if the popular conversation about and the academic instruction in writing could recognize and honor style in this sense. But I'm not optimistic. That would mean simultaneously acknowledging a pair of historically incompatible, though hardly contradictory, ideas: Writers express themselves through style, and readers draw pleasure and sustenance from it. If past practice is any guide, both views of style will perpetually attract adherents. Quite regularly they will mock, scorn, and deride each other. But recognize that their view is fatally incomplete without the other side? Not likely.

Ben Yagoda is a professor of English at the University of Delaware and author, most recently, of The Sound on the Page: Style and Voice in Writing, published this summer by HarperCollins.

*The parentheses are in green. Note that with one exception "(Very)" they are really parenthetical -- they could be omitted with no loss in meaning. This is in contrast to many scientific manuscripts where the "meat" is in the parentheses.
Copyright 2004
The Chronicle of Higher Education
Section: The Chronicle Review
Volume 50, Issue 49, Page B16