Ride Into Battle, Writers, Astride Style’s Glorious Steed
THE SOUND ON THE PAGE
Style and Voice in Writing
By Ben Yagoda
Don’t read this unless you have ever tried to write something. That is: unless you’ve struggled with blank page or screen, dwindling self-worth, the pitiable shrivel of a grand idea the moment your fingers touch the keys or keyboard, and the recalcitrance of an elegant phrase trying to emerge from the gluepot of English syntax without getting sticky and tangled.
The ”this” refers right off to what’s written here, but mainly, of course, it refers to ”The Sound on the Page.” Ben Yagoda’s book is not so much for the reader as for the writer in the reader. But this is hardly exclusionary, considering the propensities of most who do in fact read book reviews.
As an outsider, Mr. Yagoda wrote ”About Town,” one of the clearest and least ghost-ridden of a host of books about The New Yorker, many of them haunted efforts by its veterans that teetered between grievance and a hint of unrequited love. Now, with a book subtitled ”Style and Voice in Writing” he has entered a different mist, one with an age-old dragon inside it. He hasn’t dispelled the mist, much less disposed of the dragon, but he has set off some illuminating muzzle flashes and an invigorating din of combat.
What is style, what should it be (and not be), how is it engendered, what part does it play in our experience of what we read? Mr. Yagoda, a writing teacher himself, charges, dodges, retreats and recharges. It may sound dry, windy and not especially fresh.
What is fresh and engaging is the struggle. Like Fabrice in ”The Charterhouse of Parma,” the author makes his way through the Battle of Waterloo — its literary equivalent, that is — and comes away not with grand strategies, though in his case he attempts them, but with the enduring life of particular and obstinately colliding details.
Mr. Yagoda’s grand strategy is a circling maneuver around the old theme of content versus form. He expounds the argument for simplicity and transparency that runs from Aristotle through ”The Elements of Style” by William Strunk and E. B. White, an authority still widely deferred to, including at this newspaper. The point is to leave unimpeded what is to be said.
He contrasts it with the argument for an individual style: first as freeing the writer’s artistic power to shape the content — irradiate it, you might say — and then in transforming and raising the reader’s encounter with it. The difference, say, between ”The cloud looks like a dragon” and Mark Antony’s ”Sometimes we see a cloud that’s dragonish.”
Here and elsewhere he is a moderate. He finds Strunkian dogmatics too limiting for great writing, and mostly acknowledges the stylistic artfulness in avowedly plain writers from Montaigne to Orwell. (There is more individuality in either than in the high elaboration of the Victorian Walter Pater or, for that matter, contemporary mannerists like David Foster Wallace.)
He has interesting things to say, though sometimes arranging them confusedly and doubling back on his own trail. Mainly, his generalities draw life and focus from his particulars. He has a keen eye for individual styles, noticing among the barked-out declaratives in an early Hemingway story the peaceable effect of a subordinate phrase. Its introductory comma, he ventures, ”feels like a consoling arm around our shoulder.”
He writes of Dickens’s ”mordant, funny, metaphor-mad and itchily omniscient voice.” Shrewdly he links Joan Didion’s style to the faintly menacing shadow she finds in our contemporary life. Her long sentences are ”constructed with a precision that borders on the compulsive and thus hints that language is a construction erected to protect a vulnerable self against many unnamed assailants.”
The best particulars, though, come from the writers themselves. He interviews living ones — Cynthia Ozick, Harold Bloom, Nicholas Baker among others — sometimes confronting them with bits of their own writing. He quotes dead ones, and because the written word is as close as we get to imperishability, they are just as alive. Often they point up his excursions more sharply than he does, but that is the book’s virtue. Mr. Yagoda’s farmer’s market is even better than his farm.
Take a shivering phrase of Isaac Babel’s: ”No iron spike can pierce a human heart as icily as a period in the right place.” Style over content? Perhaps. But even though the subject was Maupassant it took Babel’s time with the Cossacks to tip his phrase with iron. Suburban despair wouldn’t do it. The rider requires the horse to give peril to his dexterity.
More familiar in a time of zippy anomie is Donald Barthelme’s definition of style: ”Both a response to constraint and a seizing of opportunity.” His writer’s horse masquerades as if only painted, but it’s dangerously alive. Vladimir Nabokov’s hauled him into lifelong exile from where, uprooted, he declared that ”an original style is the only true honesty any writer can ever claim.”
From living authors, Mr. Yagoda elicits all kinds of response. Sometimes it is nervous refusal because to talk style — like an aerialist talking tightrope — is to lose it. Sometimes it is complacent mirror-gazing. But what a lot he does get.
Jonathan Raban on the need to construct ”a strategic personality” to find a voice for each book: for an early one about travel in the Arab states he borrowed Lewis Carroll’s Alice — astonished, prim and judgmental. ”Traveling Englishmen abroad tend to see the rest of the world as consisting largely of mad queens and talking rabbits and the rest.”
Abraham Verghese on evolving into style: ”Typically, when your mother starts to dislike your writing, that’s when you’ve really found your voice.”
And the baroque polymath, Harold Bloom, denouncing Strunkian plainness and transparency: ”It outlaws everything that I care for in writing, in literature, in the act of writing.” There’s worse, he asserts. The qualities it rejects, ”which are my essence as a human being, a writer and a teacher — those are exactly the qualities that Yale would not tolerate in me. That tells me what this is. The genteel tradition — or the Gentile tradition — is what Strunk and White comes down to.” Was ever ”the style is the man” so extravagantly expounded? But then, the style is the man.