Friday, February 4, 2011

Battling The Elements

In a review of Stanley Fish’s How to Write a Sentence, Adam Haslett slams The Elements of Style and the “old Strunkian superego”:

The trouble with the book isn’t the rules themselves, which the authors are sage enough to recognise “the best writers sometimes disregard,” but the knock-on effect that their bias for plain statement has tended to have not only on expositional but literary prose.

The Art of Good Writing (Financial Times)
Haslett holds Strunk and White (and that guy Hemingway) responsible for the “pared-down prose“ “that has become our default ‘realism.’”

Josh Rothman responds:
[E.B. White] wasn’t an enemy of literariness. He saw, instead, that beginning writers face two struggles. On the one hand, there is lazy inattentiveness; on the other, there’s a self-conscious sense of “literary style,” which can stand in the way of a beginning writer’s progress. His suggestions about finding a middle way are as useful now as they were in 1959.

In Defense of Strunk and White (Boston Globe)
I’ll add one thought: Strunk and White’s emphasis on brevity does not preclude long sentences. The real point is concision — avoiding clutter (e.g., “the fact that,” “the question as to whether”) and combining short, choppy sentences to make longer, more fluent sentences. From the famous “Omit needless words” section of The Elements:
Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.
A related post
Fish on Strunk and White

comments: 1

Richard Henderson said...

What business has Haslet knocking Strunk & White? To judge from the structure his sentence, he very much needs to read and apply The Elements Of Style.