Monday, June 18, 2012

Christopher Lasch’s Plain Style

Christopher Lasch. Plain Style: A Guide to Written English. Ed. Stewart Weaver. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002. 121 pages. $18.95.

I am grading papers with the usual sense of futility. . . . Every year the illiteracy gets worse.

Christopher Lasch, in a letter to his father, May 1985
O you who teach: there is bitter consolation in knowing that you are not alone, in knowing that even, say, Christopher Lasch (professor at the University of Rochester, eminent cultural historian, author of The Culture of Narcissism) felt the futility of grading student writing. Many instructors hide from that feeling, dispensing cheery grades and wishful comments in the margins (“Take more care!”). But Lasch, in early 1983, began work on a style sheet for his students’ use. What set him to this task: the poor writing of his graduate students and their failure to improve after exposure to William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White’s The Elements of Style. By October 1985 the style sheet had grown into a small guide to writing, typed and duplicated for distribution to students in Rochester’s history department.

Lasch’s final revised typescript is the source for Plain Style, which might be the most streamlined guide to writing now available: just seventy-seven printed pages, with chapters on “Elementary Principles of Literary Construction” (commentary on a short essay by Randolph Bourne), “Conventions Governing Punctuation, Capitalization, Typography, and Footnotes,” and “Characteristics of Bad Writing,” followed by lists of misused words, mispronounced names and words (“Neet′-chuh, not Neetsch or Neet-chee”), and proofreaders’ marks.

Plain Style invites comparison to The Elements of Style: both books began as in-house publications for student use; both number their principles and rules (allowing for brief marginal corrections); both issue confident, no-nonsense directives:
Strunk (revised by White) on interesting: “An unconvincing word; avoid it as a means of introduction. Instead of announcing that what you are about to tell is interesting, make it so.”

Lasch on life style: “The appeal of this tired but now ubiquitous phrase probably lies in its suggestion that life is largely a matter of style. Find something else to say about life.”
You may want to dismiss these sorts of prohibitions as the grumblings of curmudgeons, but any competent teacher would call attention to “It is interesting to note that” or “Agamemnon’s lifestyle” in student writing. There is nothing curmudgeonly about suggesting that a writer show rather than tell or that a writer avoid trite (and anachronistic) phrasing. If you labor in the realm of what Lasch calls “ill-formed, tone-deaf, ambiguous, or downright unreadable sentences,” you already understand that teaching students to become better writers is often a matter of teaching what not to do: don’t write “It is interesting to note that”; don’t use “a famous quote”; don’t begin with “In this essay I will discuss.” Or as teachers end up writing in the margin, Avoid.

Plain Style is a worthy successor to The Elements of Style (a book not nearly as bad as its detractors suggest, though in many ways dated). Lasch values strong verbs, distrusts abstractions and the passive voice, and hates blather and cant. The sentences and passages illustrating his points are wonderfully varied and assume a reader with a lively range of cultural reference: Aaron Burr, Candide, Steve and Cyndy Garvey, Antonio Gramsci, Pauline Kael, Beatrix Potter’s Mr. McGregor, George Orwell, Talcott Parsons, and William Faulkner’s Snopeses all make at least one appearance. Lasch’s guidance is hardly exhaustive: the brief paragraph on the semicolon, for instance, is not likely to cure comma splices. And complications sometimes grow beyond what’s helpful: the discussion of conventions governing quotation marks might create confusion where none existed.

Is Plain Style enough? No, but no one book is enough to solve writing problems. The Elements of Style is dated; Michael Harvey’s The Nuts and Bolts of College Writing is not especially helpful on thesis statements; Joseph Williams’s Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace is at times bewildering (and, always, a typographical horror). Plain Style is beautifully designed and well written, and the soundness of its prose makes a strong case for the soundness of its advice. Lasch of course knew that one book was not enough:
We learn to write well, if we ever do, by reading good prose, paying close attention to our own words, revising relentlessly, and recalling the connections between written and spoken language.
Close attention to one’s words, a healthy (not paralyzing) self-consciousness, is what Plain Style seeks to foster in its reader.

Plain Style includes a lengthy introduction by Stewart Weaver, who places this guide to writing in the context of Lasch’s intellectual development and interest in the political implications of language. Professor Weaver tells me that Plain Style is still given free to the Rochester history department’s incoming graduate students.

comments: 5

Jazzbumpa said...

For more curmudgeonly grumblings I recommend John Gardner's [yup - the "Grendel" guy] "The Art of Fiction." Gore Vidal called him sanctimonious and pedantic, which might be a slight exaggeration.

I found the book to be enlightening and inspiring. And even when he's in "get off my lawn" mode his thoughts are worthy of consideration.

Cheers!
JzB

Sean said...

Thanks for this post; "Plain Style" is new to me. I still like Strunk and White, and not just because it's a "classic", but because of the things that make it a classic. On average I tend to favor usage that seems a little bit older, only because on average, it seems to be more expressive and more meaningful.

I remember discussing this with a colleague, who suggested I was too young to be such a grumpy old man. I explained to him that I'm suffering from early-onset grumpiness. :)

Daughter Number Three said...

I will read Plain Style, and pass on to DN3.1 as she begins her college career.

I know I have a tendency to use "interesting" in just this way.

In Minnesota, it is the favored adjective for those times when you dislike or do not understand a new idea, behavior or object.

Michael Leddy said...

Thanks for the recommendation, JzB. I know his On Moral Fiction but not this one.

It’s relatively new to me too, Sean. I wish I could remember how I learned of it.

DN3, may I recommend Michael Harvey’s The Nuts and Bolts of College Writing? It’s a book I use in every class I teach. Each of my children took a copy to college.

Michael Leddy said...

I meant to add: in Illinois, the word different works in the same way. “That’s different.”