Tuesday, August 10, 2004

Matters and manners of style

A beautiful article on style by Ben Yagoda appears in The Chronicle Review. He journeys through its definition and history, its applications and the teaching of it.

While examining whether style guides or manuals have any style themselves, Yagoda grapples with the differences between "style" and "voice":

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. . . 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?

Language: a means of expression or of communicating truth? Ideally, both.

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.

Yagoda's essay springs out of some common characterizations, which bear further scrutiny (by all readers of books):

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.

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.

Coincidentally, this brushes up along conversations I've been having with J-F over the last few days.

Why do we have such a hard time explaining why Philip K Dick is a "great" writer (who has no style) or why The Da Vinci Code is a "great" book (though poorly written)? Is it only in the English literary tradition that "style" is the final arbiter of a writer's greatness? (Or do other cultures esteem only those literary works that expertly meld idea and execution, the foreign-language trickle-down to English translation being the cream of the crop?) Is North American culture so superficial?

What's the last good book of ideas you read?

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