Sunday, May 20, 2007

And Now For Something Really Controversial

Posted by olvlzl.
You might find it surprising to hear me say so, if you know I'm a native of Maine, but there are few things you can do that will get my back up faster than bringing up The Elements of Style, also know as Strunk-White. It starts with the second name, E. B. White, who many call the most prominent of all “Maine authors” was from away. The first thing of his I ever read was a story about the disasters that befell an island family. It embodied his famous style, simple, warm, sentimental, just skirting the cloying. But for a native Mainer it also embodied an amused and patronizing condescension that has plagued my people for as long as we’ve been the subject of reports sent to Boston and New York concerning the manners of the natives*. I don’t like E. B. White.

The matter of style, now, that’s something I don’t like for another reason. I’m not a trained writer. I’ve never really studied the craft of writing. You are getting it pretty close to how I’d say it if someone would let me go on without pulling the talking stick out of my hand. Needless to say, that’s never been allowed to happen in real time. I tried Strunk and spent a lot more time wondering where he came up with his unconditioned pronouncements and dicta on writing than I did in producing specimens as practice. And what might the results be if I’d practiced? Did I really want to write like White, an author I really didn’t see the point of anyway?

Last year I tried again. I got a book, cheap, published by a popular writers magazine and read through it’s advice on simplifying style. It looked mighty familiar and I remembered reading through one of Rudolph Flesch’s books. Which while more detailed and practical than the sage of Yale, wasn’t much less prone to arbitrary advice. I noticed that some of those sentences containing “fewer syllables” weren’t objectively better than the rejected alternatives. The newer book was largely cribbed from Flesch, though at a dollar from the remainders bin, I wasn’t out much.

I turned to technology and found out that the “Grammatik” feature of Word Perfect had tools to analyze your writing based on Flesh’s theories. You could see how your style matched Hemingway or Lincoln. I fail both tests, though I come closer to Lincoln, which is good. If White annoys me, I’ve never gotten Hemingway. It’s not just his homosexual-hysterical machismo, it’s that when you reduce writing to mono-syllables and sentences of five words on adult subjects the results tend to be entirely vapid. I’ve heard endless streams of praise for the Hemingway style, notably more florid than the model, but I’ve heard few people talk about Hemingway moving them deeply. Why he is more respected than Katherine Anne Porter is a complete mystery. I didn’t test my writing against the income tax instructions model, also provided in Grammatik. Income tax instru ...?

If you could last through that rant, you might want to read this column on the hot topic of adverbs. I don’t understand the fuss, considering that adverbs are probably the second most endangered part of speech, after prepositions. They’re being supplanted by adjectives at an alarming rate. Maybe Strunk is to blame. He hated adverbs.

Now! To your corners!

* My favorite Maine author is Ruth Moore, though I’m not from the coast or a New England Yankee. Sanford Phippen, another real Maine author, has written a lot about the colonial aspects of our literary and artistic culture and the way it thwarts native talent.

Update: Thanks to the comment who pointed out the slightly embarassing mistake. Though I didn't really feel it.