12 agosto 2004

Style: a Pleasure for the Reader, or the Writer?

The premise that in many cases writers entertain, move, and inspire us less by what they say (their matter) than by how they say it (their manner) would seem irrefutable. To name some obvious examples, Charles Dickens, Ernest Hemingway, Tom Wolfe, Joan Didion, and Dave Barry are read and honored hardly at all for their profound insights about the human condition, much more for their intoxicating and immediately identifiable ways of expressing themselves -- their styles.

This idea, that the how is more important and revealing than the what, goes without saying when it comes to other creative endeavors. Think of Michael Jordan and Jerry West each making a 20-foot jump shot, of Charlie Parker and Ben Webster playing a chorus of "All the Things You Are," of Julia Child and Paul Prudhomme fixing a duck à l'orange, or of Pieter Brueghel and Vincent van Gogh painting the same farmhouse. Everyone understands that the content is constant, frequently ordinary, and sometimes banal; that the (wide) variation, the arena for expression and excellence, the fun, the art -- are all in the individual style.

How odd it is, then, that style in writing is so overlooked in popular, contemporary books that purport to be about style in writing. The paragon is The Elements of Style, which grew out of a self-published pamphlet that William Strunk, an English professor at Cornell in the early decades of the last century, handed out to his students, one of whom was E.B. White. In 1959 White updated the manuscript and added an introduction and a new chapter. It has been in print ever since and, as I write, is No. 136 on the Amazon.com best-seller list.

[read on]

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