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....?


Araken said...

Strunk and White? I've heard of that! Um...lemme think. Oh yeah: give me a sentence with two pronouns.

Who me? LOL! ok, better go...

gdtownshende said...

Never end a sentence with a preposition? That is something up with which I will not put! :P

gdtownshende said...

That said, I do enjoy S&W (and I do read it again from time to time), but I don't agree that Bradbury 'affected a breezy manner'. I think White's analysis of the example is what's key. No one I would know would accuse Bradbury of having 'nothing to say', or of 'showing off and directing the attention of the reader to himself', or of 'using slang with neither provocation or ingenuity', for example.

Bradbury's prose has the appearance of a 'breezy manner', but is not.

Also, I hate to say it, but White advises to 'use figures of speech SPARINGLY'. He does not tell the writer to NEVER use metaphors or similes.

On foreign languages, saith White: "The writer will occasionally find it convenient or necessary to borrow from other languages." What he's advising against here is showing off for the sake of showing off, and he says so explicitly, in fact. It's the reader who is important, unless what's being written is solely for self-consumption, in which case, tu peux écrire dans une langue étrangère, jusqu'à ce que ton coeur est satisfait!

I hate to say it, but methinks you've not only overstated your case on some of these, but also misquoted S&W.

gdtownshende said...

A minor correction (if you don't mind me being prescriptive of my own writing :P) -- "No one I would know would accuse (...)" should've been "No one I know would accuse (...)"

gdtownshende said...

One more obseervation (since it only just came to mind)...

The old rule about not splitting an infinitive...

Too many people wouldn't understand what a bloody infinitive is, let alone if they had unwittingly split one.

English, though a Germanic language, has French (Norman) and Latin roots, too. It's the Latin shit that's the cause of this bane of many a writer. In English, an infinitive has two words, "to" + an unconjugated verb. For example, "to shit" or "to read" or "to write". In French (to provide an example in a language closer to Latin), infinitives are one word. For example, "chier" (to shit) or "lire" (to read) or "écrire" (to write). Thus, in Latinate languages, it's virtually IMPOSSIBLE to split an infinitive. However, there are some exceptions. The easiest example I can think of is in Portuguese: Não posso (I cannot) esperar (wait) para estar (to be) contigo (with you) outra vez (again), meu amigo (my friend). In this example, 'to be' is written 'para estar' and not simply 'estar'. Without the preposition 'para', the Portuguese would understand you, but the fact is that's simply not how it's said, both in practice and as a rule. Change the position of 'para' in the sentence, put it in front of 'esperar', for example, and it creates havoc with what you actually mean to say. You're better off leaving 'para' completely out of the sentence.

The most famous split infinitive in English is...

"To boldly go where no man has gone before."

Now, Gene Roddenberry could just as easily have written "To go boldly where no man has gone before" but it would not've sounded half as good had he done so. This is a rule that some editors might use to justify the rejection of a manuscript, but there's no doubt that some split infinitives sound better than their prescriptive counterparts, and Roddenberry's quip is an excellent example of one.

Zonk said...

Et tu, GT??

Of course it 'only looks like' Bradbury affected a 'breezy manner': that was the point I was making, perhaps rather tongue in cheek :P

And I assure you that I have quoted S&W verbatim...

As for 'overstating my case', I don't think so, old friend. It's a fine primer for writing classes in an academic setting (for which it was originally written...), but I don't find it particularly helpful for me as a fiction writer, and your last (excellent) post is the reason why. Some of its grammar rules are outmoded, and it gives no real advice as to write in such a way as to stand out. Indeed, following its precepts actually prevents one from doing so.

As to 'using metaphors and similes sparingly', take a gander at Bradbury's From the Dust Returned, or Something Wicked this Way Comes: either is an excellent example of how to write with a complete disregard for that particular S&W dictum.

Honored to find you still read and think about my verbal ozone...


gdtownshende said...

I don't believe S&W has ever hampered my own writing. In fact, I think it's done the opposite. It think it's enhanced it. My ideas are my ideas, and how I handle them are my business. S&W, however, help me to ensure that they are readily and easily understandable by my readers. That's my view of S&W and how I go about using their advice.