Saturday, May 02, 2009

As birds will come

Early this morning, Patrick Kurp meditated on style, quoting several writers on the theme. My favorite is from Liebling: “The way you write is well, and how is your own business.”

At about the same time, exiled from my computer by the laws of the sabbath, I happened to be reading Max Beerbohm’s theatrical reviews. In his hilarious and unsparing dismemberment of “Mr. Pinero’s Literary Style” (originally published in October 1903), I read the following explanation.

Literary style, Beerbohm says, is “the exact expression of a writer’s self through means of written words. Some people—most people—die inarticulate. A few can express themselves in talk, a few in public speaking. The specific gift for conversation or for oratory is always denied to the man who is born to express himself in writing; for one means precludes another. Shut him in a room, with pen and ink and paper, and then only will he reveal himself. Words will come to him at his bidding, even as to some people (we know not why) birds will come. They are not shy of him, and he knows them one from another, and can make them do what he wills. His little game, like the talker’s or the orator’s, is self-expression; and his material is the same as theirs, but must be very differently used. They can make words live, and live variously, by modulations of the voice, by movements of the hand, by facial play. These tricks are quite as apt to the purpose of self-expression as are the words themselves. But for the writer words are the all-important and the only means, and they have to be used so cunningly as to supply all that in the medium of literature is lacking. Special words, special constructions, which would be ridiculous and unmeaning from live lips, must be used for just this or that effect which from live lips could be produced. Good writing is a thing of infinite formality. Yet the formality must not reveal itself. So soon as that happens, the writing ceases to be good, becoming lifeless. Such, then, is the making of a literary style.”

The only objection I have to this is Beerbohm’s blather about self-expression, which was a literary cliché of the time. Your assignment, then, is the memorize the above, with one small correction submitted by John Collier, author of His Monkey Wife. The writer must never ever be sincere. Sincerity, which the urge to self-expression invites a young writer to indulge, is the antithesis of style.


Rebecca V. O'Neal said...

"Good writing is a thing of infinite formality. Yet the formality must not reveal itself." <-- This seems to be the crux of the THING! Defining one's style is an elusive task (one's = my).

"So soon as that happens, the writing ceases to be good, becoming lifeless." <-- not unlike your clearance item about elaboration murdering wit and explaining the joke... but STYLE is certainly no laughing matter.

By Wuthering Expectations' dissection of Melville's evolution of style I was inspired to analyze Woolf's coming into her mature voice, in my attempt to "consider literature as a productive science" - the best advice I've ever received concerning writing and literature, but I fear I've taken it too literally.

My close readings haven't explained the joke of good writing, rendered any piece of literature lifeless, or taken away the magic - if anything, my reading has made such mastery seem MORE fantastic, witty, alive, (unachievable?).

As I read Revolutionary Road, Yates' infinite formality is evident, intricate, and I'm awe. Even if every formality were revealed to me, this book (and every other like it) would remain far more than the sum of its parts.