Feb 27, 2012

On Realism and Strunk and White: Rule 16

Sad to say that I never once owned a copy of Strunk and White, the famed Elements of Style that completes the shelf of any writer (worth his salt).

Most of my adult life I lived amidst the company of other people's books. Now that I am free from the prescriptions of communal living I find myself purchasing books that I never in the past had to own. Strunk and White is one such book.

I read the entire book in one sitting in Washington Square Park today.

One section piqued my interest more than the other sections. Rule 16: Use definite, specific, concrete language. The Strunk and White style guide honors terse, vigorous prose more than anything else. While I am certainly in agreement with this general rule of composition (who doesn't hate inchoate, round-about writing?) I found Rule 16 to be accurate but foul to my philosophical sensibility.

"Prefer the specific to the general, the definite to the vague, the concrete to the abstract" (pg. 21).

"Harry enjoyed some of the rarest of the rare bovine delicacies known to the urbane Manhattanite" is atrocious ornate prose that can be simplified thus: "Harry enjoyed a top quality meal of rare filet mignon at a sophisticated Manhattan steak house."

I have no issue with the meat and potatoes approach to delivering prose that dwells in everyday particularities. It is the stuff of great novels to be sure. What would Charles Dickens be without his attention to detail?
The rule implies that concrete detailed prose rooted in specific particularities of the tangible world evokes pictures for the reader.

The problem is concrete detailed prose, while a testament to fine writing, doesn't evoke a nice picture of reality. Writing is still imitation. To say that terse, to-the-point prose evokes pictures and sets the reader in the world of the writer is not altogether accurate.

I tread lightly here because I do not want to announce that Rule 16 ought to be avoided. It is not the mechanics of the rule I abhor but the audacity of the rule.
Don't think the clear and the particular will get you any closer to "truth" than the obtruse and the universal.
The simple truism that Anglo-Saxon is closer to God's heaven than Latinate celestial expanses is the same fallacy that adheres Hemmingway in the mind of many people as a better writer than Nabokov.

Prose that adheres to the particularities of things rather than esoteric musing is bound to fix any reader's attention (I have to prop myself up with a mechanical device when reading either Kant or Hegel -- although I would argue against the notion that either of the two is obtruse and lost in abstraction).

I simply want to say that any claim to realism in writing is only merited by a more simple rule of thumb: the writer's orientation. 

It is how we orient ourself to truth in writing that matters, not simply that we know how to show (and not tell).

Many readers will dismiss Plato, Clarice Lispector, and Borges because of Rule 16.
While I espouse the hearty admonition to writers to demonstrate vigor, alacrity and authenticity in their prose, please do not be persuaded by this erroneous notion that you have come any closer to realism than us others (who remain by Plato's fire having been scorched by the sun).

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