Man Without Qualities

Friday, October 14, 2005

The Molecules of Style

David Gelernter today is celebrating Strunk and White's "The Elements of Style" in OpinionJournal, and defending that book from some who love it badly. I like "The Elements of Style," but it can also drive me to distraction. Professor Gelernter says, "If the English language is one of the finest homes ever devised for the human spirit, "Elements" is the best guided house tour we've got." Well, no. Maybe that sentence is true if one adds to it the phrase "... for those whose writing should resemble that found in the better New York literary magazines of the twentieth century."

That's not a small category of writing. Most business letters and memoranda are included and, obviously, most newsmedia writing. But the only purpose of a writing guide is to help a writer to achieve the effect the writer desires to have on the intended reader. In other words, a style guide facilitates an intimate relationship, even in business or public writing. "The Elements of Style" is often a clinical third person in that bed.

For example, Professor Gelernter correctly notes that E.B. White and his versions of "The Elements of Style" defended the use of the traditional "he" against gender neutral constructs such as "he or she," and that White didn't care about thereby giving offense. That's fine for a writer in a sparkling, min-century literary magazine. But a writer very seldom desires to offend his or her reader even for what E.B. White considers a good cause. And it is a fact that many people - especially, but not only, women - will be offended by the traditional construct. Or, worse, the reader will view the writer as clueless. I conclude that most writing should employ the awkward gender neutral constructs - although I strongly disagree with the social attitudes that lead to that conclusion.

"The Elements of Style" is not just dangerous when in contact with modern political and social developments. Applied as it was intended to be, "The Elements of Style" produces a document that is efficient, realistic and friendly, with apparent clarity: a clean, well-lighted prose. That's a good thing - except when it isn't.

In "A Street Car Named Desire" Mitch confronts Blanch Dubois (William's alter ego) for managing to be with him only in poor light, which Blanch does because she has misrepresented her age. Mitch tears off a paper lantern that she had placed over a light bulb. Blanch famously screams, "I don't want realism. I want magic, MAGIC! Magic is what I try to give to people. I do misrepresent things to them. I don't tell the truth. I tell what OUGHT to be the truth. And if that's sinful, let me be damned for it. Don't turn the light on!"

Clarity is not always the point, even for beginning writers and in the most public writing, even where the reader craves clarity. When obscurity is the effect the writer intends to produce on the reader, "The Elements of Style" fails badly. It is likely that most writers and successful people want to be obscure much of the time. ("Don't worry Jim, if that question comes up, I'll just confuse them.")

Yes, it is probably the case that most employers prefer clarity in employee writing, although that desire probably wanes considerably when it comes to memoranda opposing counsel may later desire to see in high-stakes litigation. Conversely, a subordinate is often well served by providing something clear and crisp to superiors on-the-go. But not always. A subordinate will sometimes prefer not to have his or her thoughts easily called to account - that is, prefer more "magic." In those cases, "The Elements of Style" can seem more like an addendum to a corporate employee handbook (which it often is) than an aid to the writer.

My reservations with "The Elements of Style" do not end with its sometimes poor fit with writer strategies. It's implied criticism of great stylists, from whom even the beginner has much to learn, is loathsome. Yes, E. B. White admitted that the rules of "The Elements of Style" should not be applied rigidly or "inappropriately." But these are defensive tautologies, and the book may as well include a disclaimer like: "This book says it is not to be used to create bad results, so this book can never be said to have produced bad results." Hooey. That kind of disclaimer wouldn't spare the manufacturer of a metal step ladder from liability, and it doesn't undo the fact that this book strongly tends to produce that clean, well-lighted prose and a comfort like that of a nice diner in a dark neighborhood.

Setting aside all the supposed, generally meaningless exceptions ("you can try to write like Shakespeare when you can write as well as Shakespeare"), consider for a moment what would become Portia's lines from "The Merchant of Venice:"

The quality of mercy is not strain'd,
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath: it is twice blest;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes:
'Tis mightiest in the mightiest: it becomes
The throned monarch better than his crown;
His sceptre shows the force of temporal power, The attribute to awe and majesty, Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings;
But mercy is above this sceptred sway; It is enthroned in the hearts of kings,
It is an attribute to God himself;
And earthly power doth then show likest God's
When mercy seasons justice.

Put through "The Elements of Style" meat grinder, this becomes something like:

"Even kings should give their mercy generously, and so should you. God says so."

It's not that "The Elements of Style" is completely inconsistent with literary writing. But that book is far more consistent with a charming story about a girl and her spider and pig than it is to, say, "Tristam Shandy."

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