Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Stuck and Whipped

When I first began to Write (note the pretentious capitalization), all the Authorities (by which I mean Pubbers Who Write Advice Books for Writers) recommended The Elements of Style by Strunk & White.

And in my blissful state of glorious Noobosity, I sallied forth with the milk mustache of the invincibly ignorant, white as a virgin page, framing my pursed lips, down to the Barnes & Noble store near the Broward Mall in Ft Liquordale, Fla. I spent several hours, and several hundred dollars, returning triumphant, having killed or captured every relevant tome on Writing in the place, including The Elements.

My first surprise was how tiny it is.

My second, much more disheartening, was that it was largely a little grammar book with moralizing tidbits. To someone raised on The Royal Readers, I found myself familiar with the style, but disappointed with the advice: one of the first clues that The Authorities were having me on.

Another was its very age. First Pubbed in 1918 or 1919, depending on who you read, and revised several times, it has survived both of its authors, a respectable feat, and has become the King James Bible of the Fundamentalist Pubbers, also known as Prescriptivists. Never mind the fact that most Fundamentalist Pubbers, or Pubbers in general, are political Liberals: War has been waged between the FundyPrescrips on the one hand and the linguistically Liberal Descriptivists, or LibbyDescrips on the other. For those who dislike technical jargon, the Rulers vs. the Users.

Many Writers have lived, toiled, and died in woeful ignorance that the Pub Tribe is divided by this great gulf fixed between those that believe language has certain prescribed forms and rules of expression (The Rulers/Prescriptivists) and those who argue vehemently that language can only derive true worth and validity from actual use (Users/Descriptivists).

The opening blow was struck when William Strunk Jr., an English professor at Cornell, produced a delightfully austere little manual for use in his classes. An adoring young student named Elwynn Brooks White updated it at the urgings of a Publisher, and added a fawning intro to Strunk, along with a closing appendix on Style in which he displayed his own, while warning writers against the dangers of verbal prodigality.

Prescriptive Pubbers loved it.

And used it, along with the Chicago Manual of Style, to mold, shape, chill, and otherwise constrain young writers whose outpouring of souls might otherwise, God defend us, kasplode upon the page. These two Books became the Sacred Scriptures of the Rulers, who took over Pubberdom almost by default. One may imagine the conversations...

"But of course one must adhere to the rules of proper grammar and usage, otherwise language is destroyed."

"Who sez? Good writing soars, leaps, flies. And who made you Ruler?"

"We have a Book. Indeed, we have Books, for reference, while editing."

"A Book?"

"Yes. Do you have a Book?"

"Well, um, no..."

"How do you edit Writers? There must be Standards upon which to base any notion of good and bad writing, or thousands of editors, copyeditors, and Publishing Houses will have nothing upon which to base their decisions."

"But Standards change."

"In which unlikely case we will publish an updated version of the Books. "

And so the Rulers/Prescriptivists won, because the Users/Descriptivists could not decide on a reference Book.

Now Strunk & White may be helpful to students composing formal or technical essays in a college setting: such writing is by definition the literary equivalent of Ambien.

But for fiction? Let's look at a few of the admonitions S&W put forward.

Place yourself in the background.
And if I WANT my opinion heard? Written in flaming letters across the sky? Or even just want to be invited to panels at Writing Conferences?

Do not affect a breezy manner.
Two words: Ray Bradbury. A fresh summer breeze blew my hair back and made my eyes water the first time I opened one of his books, a smell of fresh-mown grass and hot concrete and lemonade. Unless of course you prefer stale prose...

Do not inject opinion.
Well, I have to go and get my Henlein's Stranger in a Strange Land, Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451, and Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, and throw them all in the round file. Oh, yes, and my copy of Strunk & White.

Use figures of speech sparingly.
To tell a Writer not to use metaphors is like asking him not to breathe or pass wind: advice that is neither helpful nor possible.

Avoid foreign languages.
Yes, let's proclaim a jihad against foreign languages. After all, no one groks them anyway. All characters must speak proper English. As we say in the Islands, yinna head mussy slack.

Prefer the standard to the offbeat.
Orly? No surprises, no passion, no voice, no fresh expressions, no drowning the writer in something never seen or smelled or heard before? *dies*

Now don't get me wrong: the grammatical advice in Strunk & White is useful for those whose grade-school English teachers were useless check-cashing dolts who didn't know the difference between an adverb or an adjective, or for those who slept through the classes. And they are sarcastic, which saves them from being total preppies.

So what did I learn from Strunk & White?

I have discovered that if you are presenting a MS to a Pubber, your grammar had better be standard form, UNLESS you know when and how to break the Rules, and suck the reader into the world you have created, even if they are a Fundy/Prescrip.

Don't even get me started on the Chilling Mound of Shinola.

I wonder if Elwynn would ever have RP'd in Goldshire....?