Monday, October 19, 2009

For Elements of Style Junkies

It's no secret that SPOGG loves The Elements of Style. We refer to it often. We still have the version we bought in eighth grade, when we first read it and felt the proverbial scales drop from our eyes. We also have the version we bought to replace that first one when the pages started falling out. And we have an illustrated edition signed by Maira Kalman.

It makes us somewhat less delighted to learn that the Unabomber also enjoyed it. Sigh. Still, we remain happy to have discovered Mark Garvey's Stylized: A Slightly Obsessive History of Strunk & White's The Elements of Style. It's the perfect book for people who cherish their slim, little volumes: full of anecdotes, letters, and even photos of the original authors.

Mark was gracious enough to answer some of our questions, which we'll post today and tomorrow. And of course, we had to ask what he thinks of the people who can find no good in the book we love so much.

What do you make of some of the critics of The Elements of Style? Do they have a point? Or is it just nastiness?

It depends on the critic, and on the criticism. Those who fault Elements for being an incomplete guide to grammar and rhetoric have a point. The book is a bit of a hodgepodge, and it's not a thorough treatment of the subject, though it covers many issues that are of fundamental importance to writers. But its incompleteness is not what gets under the skin of most of the noisier critics. Those who are most inflamed by the book often have a political axe to grind (for example: the book demeans women, it protects male privilege, it even promotes violence (the current issue of College English, an academic journal for comp teachers, includes a long piece suggesting, with a straight face, that the Strunk and White attitude contributed to the creation of the Unabomber, Ted Kaczynski, who is apparently a fan of Elements)). Other critics react less against the book itself than against the way it has sometimes been used, bludgeon-like, in the hands of dogmatic teachers. Still others are anti-Elements because they claim that some of the information in the book is incorrect or that S&W "don't follow their own advice."

How to answer these objections? The political criticism seems to be just another outgrowth of the "theory" fetish that has overtaken the humanities departments of our universities, and to that extent I find it irrelevant and largely uninteresting (though it can sometimes be unintentionally hilarious, as in the Kaczynski example). It is also unhelpful to student writers, who would be better served by reading and heeding the advice in Elements than by sweating the politics. To the critics who claim the book has been misused by overzealous teachers: maybe it has, but I don't see how that can be the fault of Strunk and White. As to those critics who decry the book's factual errors, they often turn out to be factually mistaken themselves. For instance, one particularly shrill professor has said (ad nauseam) that Strunk and White advise writers to stop using adjectives and adverbs (they don't) and that S&W don't understand the concept of passive voice (they do). As for Strunk and White not following their own advice, I think both authors would admit to sometimes falling short. But don’t we all? And is that any reason to stop striving toward the ideal?

The overarching concern with many critics is that the book strikes them as too prescriptive, too doctrinaire, too stodgy. But teachers and critics who see the book as nothing more than a prescriptivist cudgel are simply not reading it right. Both Strunk and White went to some pains to be clear on the point: Rules can take you only so far. If they hamper your art, it's OK to bend them, dance with them, and even occasionally ignore them. Elements is simply not as dogmatic as it's sometimes made out to be.

One more point about the critics: You’ll notice that the best of them—those whose arguments are stated clearly and persuasively—tend to follow Strunk and White’s advice even while cursing it.

[SPOGG: Oh, snap!]

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