Saturday, October 31, 2009

On Writing

Alan argues:
We could all write as Strunk demands, but we would have to say adieu to literature and all forms of enjoyable prose. Writing is communication. Writing is also art. Imagine if every picture painted was a realistic representation of a bowl of fruit on a table. No, thank you, I will appreciate variation--pretentious and otherwise.

I think he misunderstands artistic writing. Yet, I understand how he misunderstands because I used to misunderstand as well.

Let's consider poetry. Poetry is the highest form of artistic writing. Yet, a good poet will know precisely why he chose each word. Therefore, a good poem lacks unnecessary words. This doesn't constrain the artistry.

Likewise for prose, there should still be no unnecessary words. Each word should be written for a purpose. My issue with "in order to" and "the fact that" is that they are signals to me that the writer isn't considering his words carefully. Writing is communication. Writing is art. Writing is also a craft. Sloppy writing is poor craftsmanship.

If we consider your example of a painting as a realistic depiction of fruit on a table, then we need to consider the craft and skill involved. It's far more difficult to create a realistic representation of a bowl of fruit than an abstract one. For example, one of my favorite paintings at the Met depicts a violin hanging on a door. The skill level required to create that piece is much higher than something like this. Craftsmanship and skill are tremendously important. There's a lot of modern art that's crap. Straight up shit. There's no demonstration of craftsmanship.

I remember complaining to an English teacher that if e e cummings didn't have to follow the rules of grammar and style, then why should I? The teacher said, "Because he knows when he is breaking the rules and why. You are breaking the rules out of ignorance. There's a huge difference."

Most people are aware of the basic rules of grammar, if we're lucky. Very few possess a sense of style. Therefore, I typically assume that superfluous words aren't consciously chosen for some purpose explicitly known to the writer, but rather simply sloppy writing. In the case of something qua something, it's not only pretentious but also distracting from communicating meaning.

To put my objections to your artistic rebuttal to Strunk's writing advice in terms of painting: Most people haven't put in sufficient effort to acquire the skills to paint a realistic bowl of fruit. They are painting lopsided triangles, circles, and squares in solid colors. It ain't art simply because Picasso did something similar. Picasso knew what he was doing. There are infinite possibilities with language just as there are with a brush and paint. Admonishing people to be better craftsmen isn't constraining.


arethusa said...

Alan, I just can't agree with you. Literature and enjoyable prose are not badly written by nature. In fact, I would argue that a large part of their enjoyment comes how well or not they are written. I tend to avoid authors whose clunky constructions set my teeth on edge. If an author has something to make up for it - a great, suspenseful plot, say - I'll ignore it, but it really has to be something special. Authors who ignore the Strunkian conventions of writing often obviously know those conventions. It's quite clear when you compare their work to someone who doesn't know how to write, as FLG's teacher said. I say this having spent far too much time recently grading the work of college students with no clue about Strunk, and one of their greatest sins is that they include tons of unnecessary words.

Withywindle said...

And on the qua-qua, when we're not being quaquaversal: "...a personal God quaquaquaqua with white beard quaquaquaqua outside time without extension who from the heights of divine apathia divine athambia divine aphasia loves us dearly with some exceptions for reasons unknown but time will tell..."

alan_howe said...

"I apologuise, Shaun began, but I would rather spinooze you one from the grimm gests of Jacko and Esaup, fable one, feeble too. Let us here consider the casus, my dear little cousins (husstenhasstencaffincoffintussemtossemdamandamnacosagheusaghhobixhatouxpeswchbechoscashcarcarcaract) of the Ondt and the Gracehoper." - "Finnegans Wake" Jame Joyce.

But I digress... The difference between what Strunk demands (and please note it is Strunk whom I contest) and what people enjoy reading is rather vast--much like the difference in a very scholarly history and one for the general audience that will actually be read. When Strunk says vigorous writing is concise, I don't think he is making a distinction among writers.

A poem often has meter, which obliges the poet to select words as much for their contribution to pace as to their meaning. There are plenty of "good poems" that include unnecessary words. Edit one and see if you don't agree.

And a personal example: I sometimes purposely leave what are properly considered "clunky" or awkward sentences in my essays because they demand the reader go over the sentence a second or third time to be sure they understand my point, just as one must read Joyce repeatedly to gain insight. I do refrain from using 100-letter words, however.

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