As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, this year’s read on writing is Richard Lanham’s Style: An Anti Text Book. It’s a rare person I guess that loves to understand the detailed nature of prose writing approaches. I guess most people enjoy reading and accept a particular writer’s style, but I like to break it down: sentence structure, sentence sequence, paragraph development, rhetorical approaches. It’s really the nuts and bolts of the writing craft. And so I read at least one book on writing per year.
I’m a third of the way through Lanham’s book, and though he irritated me with an overly extended gripe on how poorly schools teach writing, I think we share some fundamental approaches to writing that go contrary to what Lanham refers to as “the textbooks.” And so, he subtitles his book, “An Anti Text Book.”
I just enjoyed reading these two paragraphs opening his third chapter, titled, “The Opaque Style. Just observe as he describes the nature of prose style, how he constructs his style for simple elegance.
Prose style knows but a single taxonomy: the classification into high, middle, and low. That this has lasted with little protest from Cicero’s day to our own demonstrates its flexibility more than its precision, but any explanation of the Expository Prose Vision Moralized must pass through it to a more satisfactory categorization. The threefold division emerges from an earlier one, earlier in logic as well as time: thought will demand one style, emotion another. Thought will find a style that is logical, clear, unornamental, largely unpatterned. Emotion will devise a different strategy, appealing through form and stock response rather than through clarity and logic. An intermediate position pops up like a mushroom. It will do something of both. Argue with feeling, move with logic.
These three positions form the basis for several discriminations. We discriminate by purposes: reason within the low style, move in the high, or “conciliate” (as Cicero calls it) by some combination. Or we separate by subject: high style for serious subject, low for humble tasks of ordering life, middle for the mixed world between or small subject that promises greatly. But neither purpose nor subject tells us about the style itself, the pattern of words. Three additional specific criteria can animate the threefold division: syntax, diction, density of ornament. The high style chooses specialized or unfamiliar or highly resonant words and puts them into careful patterns of balance, antithesis, and climax. It allows itself the ornaments of sound (alliterations, assonance, rhyme), puns, the whole range of metaphor and simile, the pleasures of repetition and restatement. The low style uses none of these; the middle style, some, but moderately and in moderate combination.
Every sentence is so finely constructed. It progresses logically as one would expect, but it moves with a beating rhythm. The one ornament is the mushroom simile in the first paragraph, and that enacts the very thing it describes, the muddle of the middle style. I love how he uses the colon to separate appositive nouns. Notice this graceful yet daring sentence: “The threefold division emerges from an earlier one, earlier in logic as well as time: thought will demand one style, emotion another.” Have you ever seen a sentence with a right branching, free modifying participle phrase “earlier in logic as well as time” tack on a modifying independent clause (“thought will demand one style, emotion another”) connected by a full colon? If I have, I’ve never noticed, but I don’t think so. Even the most boring of subjects—the nature of prose writing—can be originally and beautifully written.
UPDATE (Aug. 21):
I meant to add but I now realize I forgot to say that Lanham rejects the high, middle, and low classification of prose style. I was focused above on Lanham’s writing and his own graceful style and not so much on completing Lanham’s thoughts. After fully describing those categories he goes on to reject it. A few pages later he states:
The trouble with the tripartite division is not that it is vague and thus inapplicable. It is so vague it is nearly always applicable—especially so if you redefine it thoroughly, either morally or effectively. You can even adapt it to the dictates of clarity and scientific prose. The high style becomes bad, the middle good, and the low “colloquial.” No, the trouble lurks in the tripartite division itself. Because it renders comparison invidious, it introduces the dispute that invidious comparison inevitably brings. It cannot just describe, it must evaluate. Which purposes are best? Which subjects most serious? Who, what, most moral? More than this, it has repeatedly proved itself tone-deaf. It can tell you what was said and explain why it was said that way, but it seldom reveals the spirit in which it was said. It defines badly the kind of agreement struck between writer and reader. It forces us, finally, to take an attitude be formal (diction, syntax, density of figures), moral (as with [Northrop] Frye’s definition), or scientific. It asks, in composition course, to teach things that cannot be taught.
There is more of course and Lanham goes on to re-categorize style, but we’ll leave it here.