Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Ben Yagoda (My favorite books on writing)

Ben Yagoda, The Sound on the Page: Style and Voice in Writing.

This isn’t a book on writing in the general sense; it is an exploration of a single topic, and it’s like no other book I’ve ever seen on ‘style’ or ‘voice,’ or whatever you choose to call this elusive quality. I first read this book when published back in 2004, and when I finished it, I promptly picked it up and read it again, for sheer enjoyment.

Who needs another book on style? As it turns out, anybody who really cares about the issue. As Yagoda discovered when he read through the existing books on style or voice, there tend to be two classes: The Strunk-and-White school, which emphasizes clarity, transparency, and avoiding anything that calls attention to the writer; and the Follow-Your-Bliss school, which urges self-expression at the expense of the reader. None of the writers we prize are in either category.

I can’t think of a better way to explain Yagoda’s approach to the topic than to quote the opening paragraphs of his Introduction:

This book began with a single and simple observation: it is frequently the case that writers entertain, move and inspire us less by what they say than how they say it. What they say is information and ideas and (in the case of fiction) story and characters. How they say it is style.

For the first of many times, I present an example: Ernest Hemingway. What is Hemingway’s content? He has some fishing and war stories that are pretty good, if a little short in the action department, and some ideas about honorable and dishonorable behavior that would puzzle many contemporary readers. His characters, especially in the novels and most especially in the later novels, tend to be tiresome. But his style!…

Yagoda himself has a marvelous style that slips rather than veers between conversational and erudite. In addition to close readings of passages, he interviewed more than 40 writers for this book, and his definition of ‘writer’ includes some surprising figures (such as Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer, or comic essayist Dave Barry).

He makes some points I’d never considered before—for example, the fact that dialogue dilutes style. Dialogue tends to follow the rules and realities of speech, and, moreover, is a representation of how the characters would speak rather than the narrative voice of the book. This may explain why so many stylish literary novels are short on dialogue, and why so many voice-y novels with ample dialogue are also first-person narratives, so that a big piece of the dialogue is in the same voice as the narrative. (As in Moby Dick, Huckleberry Finn, The Great Gatsby, The Sun Also Rises, Catcher in the Rye…).

His discussion of cliché phrases is also well worth reading. Yagoda contends that clichés pass through phases, beginning as fresh observations, then becoming trendy, then becoming cliché…and finally retiring to become parts of speech that are almost as neutral as well-worn words. He notes:

Evelyn Waugh…advocated sections of narrative written to conventional standards punctuated by moments when the author steps forward. In the former, he maintained, the most unobtrusive language was best, up to and including (gasp!) clichés…

He then goes on to quote the master, Waugh himself:

I think to be oversensitive about clichés is like being oversensitive about table manners. It comes from keeping second-rate company. Professional reviewers read so many bad books in the course of duty that they develop an unhealthy craving for arresting phrases. There are many occasions in writing when one needs an unobtrusive background to action, when the landscape must become conventionalized if the foreground is to have the right prominence. I do not believe that a serious writer has ever been shy of an expression because it has been used before. It is the writer of advertisements who is always straining to find bizarre epithets for commonplace objects.

(I would have shortened that if I could have, but what would I cut from that marvelous torrent? Go, Evelyn.)

Yagoda would never urge, ala Strunk and White, that there is a right style that ought to be adopted. (In fact, he points out that EB White himself was a stylish writer…and that Orwell, in his famous essay Politics and the English Language, happily ignores some of the rules he is expounding.) But he does try to systematize a bit, at least identifying the traits that make up a writing style. The seven he discusses at some length are:

Competence: The basic skill of the writer in handling language.
Iconoclasm: The unexpectedness of irregularity of the constructions.
Extroversion: The “loudness” or “quietness” of the writing itself.
Feeling: The divide between rational and emotive elements.
Single-mindedness: Focus versus elaboration.
Tension: The degree of complacency or edge/irony in the prose.
Solicitousness: The posture assumed before the reader.

He then suggests that

For each of the seven scales, there’s a certain zone of expectation—a place where “transparent” writers gather and presumably look right through each other. Styles that are close to one or the other pole being to attract readers’ attention. And styles that are all the way to one side seem odd, or maybe even pathological…

Normally, writers with extreme tendencies will mute them in the process of revisions; others, however, will retain or even aggravate them. Writers of this kind face one of two prospects: a life of rejection notes and marginalization, or the hope that somewhere along the line, an editor, critic, or reviewer will decide they are a genius and start the ball rolling.

I’m not sure how helpful this book is to writers; it certainly isn’t a how-to book. But it’s a hell of a lot of fun—and wonderfully well-written.


Usman said...

Hi David,

Thanks for this. I am reading Cold Mountain, and Charles Frazier has style. A lot of it.

Tim Stretton said...

The approach sounds an interesting and valid one.

I'd take issue with his point on dialogue. Sometimes, even a third person narrative can have dialogue that reflects the authorial voice rather than attempting "realism".

Vance, of course, is an obvious example of this. You could read a chunk of mature Vancean dialogue and it couldn't have come from anywhere else. That said, his viewpoint characters tend to be less extreme in this regards than the supporting cast.

I think there is a similar, although less pronounced, effect in much of Dickens' dialogue.

Sam Taylor said...

Wow. That book sounds absolutely awesome, but I know that I will never have time to read it. If only I could find an audio book of it, so I could listen to it while I commute!

Sam Taylor said...
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Jen Ster said...

Interesting--I am A. a big fan of Hemingway (I think I was him in a previous life) and B. The Strunk & White "go to" person in my office. (The NALA certification exam is all S&W, all the time.) I haven't learned much on this planet but this I know: Be Ernest, and leave Strunk & White at the office.

David Isaak said...

Hi, Usman--

Yes indeed, Frazier has a very noticeable style. One that earned him some favorable critical comments, but also one that a number of people didn't much like. I've never made up my mind.

David Isaak said...

Hi, Tim--

You make a valid point. Dialogue is usually supposed to appear as a form of made-up reportage, but some writers really push that envelope.

Vance wouldn't have immediately come to mind (or not to my mind), but you're right. Even in his earlier works, the speech patterns of his characters aren't what one could describe as naturalistic; like the narrative, the speech is often an odd hybrid of ornate, formal phraseology with a very tongue-in-cheek (or sometimes forthrightly ironic) undertone.

I think fantasy may encourage/allow dialogue to follow the narrative style more closely, since no one knows how the characters "ought" to talk. True, in most fantasy novels this manifests as if the characters are out of Ivanhoe--but Vance, Zelazny, LeGuin, and a few others see this as an opportunity.

Thanks for bringing that up. Food for thought indeed.

David Isaak said...

Hi, Sam--

Alas, you're right: not much chance of it becoming an audibook any time soon.

David Isaak said...

Hey, Jen--

Strunk and White come in for some serious abuse in this this book--but, then, S&W are all about transparency, and by definition no strong stylist is striving to be totally transparent. You might enjoy this one.

Alis said...

Hi David, interesting post. Just another demonstration of why no-one should listen to so-called creative writing 'rules'.

By the way, David, you're tagged for some random facts over on my blog, if you don't mind (if you don't feel like doing this, ignore it!)

Jen Ster said...

Strunk & White is a guide for business conrrespondence. In that context it makes perfect sense. I'm a paralegal and we want everything to be as clear as possible (unless, of course, we want to obfuscate like crazy). So it's the Bible of our office for a reason. But, again, don't take your work home with you. I don't have too many occasions to use sentences like "Below him stretch miles of twisting streets, tiny pink and blue houses, jangles of telephone wires and laughter and ancient automobiles" in very many motion pleadings, is all I'm sayin'.

David Isaak said...

Hi, Jen--

Yes, and most of academia would benefit from paying more attention to S&W, too.

But meanwhile, you might try slipping that sentence into a legal document and see what result you get.

Jen Ster said...

I might...most of my wry comments get edited out of the final draft but I did have one that made it all the way to the judge, who quoted it in his ruling on the matter. I had it framed on my desk for a while. :)

Here's the sentence -- "This behavior shows Plaintiff's lack of regard for his own safety, as well as something no reasonably sane person would attempt." Thank you, thank you. (Bowing)

David Isaak said...

Hi, Jen--

Alas that the legal profession doesn't say things that sensibly more often!

Yagoda's book does offer an in-depth interview with Justice Stephen Breyer--he's one of the stylists tagged as a major representative. You might find it interesting.

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"The Sound on the Page" is really great book!! I just like your choice about books!!

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