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The Sound on the Page: Great Writers Talk about Style and Voice in Writing Reprint Edition
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Yagoda begins his penetrating, historically based inquiry into the allure of literature with a deceptively simple premise: "Style matters." But what exactly do we mean by style? And how does style relate to voice? Yagoda, the notably lucid author of About Town: The New Yorker and the World It Made (2000), establishes two stylistic poles: the "transparent" prose advocated by Strunk and White's Elements of Style and style as self-expression and the embodiment of a moral viewpoint. Seeking understanding of a "middle style" that combines the best of both, Yagoda--splendidly well read, inquisitive, and perceptive--spoke with 40 diverse writers about style and voice, and excerpts from his interviews with the likes of Harold Bloom, Toni Morrison, Elmore Leonard, Gish Jen, Dave Barry, Ann Beattie, and Billy Collins enliven his cogent running commentary with revelations of everything from whether writers use pens or computers to how a writer strikes a balance between spoken and written language. In sum, Yagoda has forged a sophisticated and scintillating writer's resource in sync with today's thriving MFA writing programs. Donna Seaman
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
“...the right mix of seriousness and wit, anecdote and insight.” (Billy Collins)
“...offers not only the author’s amazingly informative narrative, but points us toward...the trial and error inherent in creativity.” (Ann Beattie)
“[Ben Yagoda] is witty and offhandedly erudite and unafraid to read between the lines...” (Ron Rosenbaum, author of Explaining Hitler and Secret Parts of Fortune)
“This is an ingenious and memorable exploration of writing’s soul...” (Mark Bowden, author of Black Hawk Down and Killing Pablo)
“Ben Yagoda [is] the best kind of close reader, attentive to writerly choices that most of us take for granted.” (Wall Street Journal)
“A shrewd, welcome meditation on literary style… that rarest of tomes: a splendidly written book about writing.” (Philadelphia Inquirer)
“This entertaining and instructive book should be part of any writing collection.” (Library Journal)
“A stylish exploration of developing a distinctive voice and writing style.” (Chicago Tribune)
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Rather than simply pontificate about how one should write, Yagoda had the bright idea of first consulting the experts, and so decided to "identify some writers with a strong style, seek them out, and ask them questions" (pg. xxvii). The result is a book that, whatever else it may be, is also a collection of provocative observations, beginning with the ancients but concentrating mainly on contemporary writers. Along the way he writes perceptively about Hemingway's "strategic plainness," saying that it "has many of the characteristics of speech but doesn't really emulate it" (pg. 57).
In the end, this book succeeds largely because of the quality and range of the authors he interviewed. Somehow he managed to persuade them to open up about their likes and dislikes, about who influenced and inspired them, resulting in an anthology of their ruminations. In the process he elicited a remarkable confession from John Updike: "In general I am comfortable" (pg. 164), a tossed-out remark which to me says a lot about this particular author and his smugness.
Nor does he restrict himself to representatives of high literary art – he can interview a humorist like Dave Barry, comment on the "middle style" of Oliver Sacks, or select the "mot juste" from an opinion by Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer, and do so in a humorous, not-at-all pedantic way, which is tougher than it sounds. (It's a shame he did not talk to any screenplay authors – an omission he partially corrects in his subsequent book, "The Parts of Speech").
Yagoda also takes full advantage of the circumstance that he happened to be present at a transitional moment in the history of writing: the shift from typewriting to word-processing, which will leave future historians with many fewer first drafts to look at. By the same token, the transition from telephoning to e-mailing means these same historians may well have much more written ephemera to work with.
Though many of his assertions are thought provoking, the effect is marred at times by his tendency to highlight his own style, in the process quoting – by way of illustration – from sentences of his we have just read. And though he admits to past stylistic sinning, most of the personal examples he provides are meant as object lessons in How to Write Well. He criticizes self-indulgence – in others. When it comes to his own prose, he cannot forbear pointing out where he has refrained from self-indulgence. We would regard him somewhat more, perhaps, if he did not demonstrate such regard himself.
If one is going to talk about good style, obviously one has to mention the bad as well. Here it must be said Yagoda picks some rather easy targets. Who reads – or has even heard of – Charles Doughty or Henry Green? Everyone has heard of Gertrude Stein and Samuel Beckett, of course, but they are safely dead and gone. Cynthia Ozick confesses her dislike of Hemingway, and James Wolcott criticizes other writers without naming any of them. Only Martin Amis happily hands out flunking grades to scribblers left and right. Surely Yagoda must have his own living candidates for the academy of the overrated, but except for potshots at the likes of Michael Crichton and John Grisham, he never targets a widely esteemed contemporary. Between these covers, almost all the writers are above average.
All except William Strunk and E.B. White, that is. They are subjected to criticism as relentless as it is unjust. To repeat what others have already pointed out, Yagoda misconstrues the purpose of Strunk and White's "The Elements of Style" in order to make it serve as his punching bag. In the process he overlooks a key word in its title: These are the "elements" of style, the basic building blocks that an inexperienced writer needs, not tips on how to polish your unique, personal way with prose. "Elements" is meant for novices who first have to purge their bad habits before they can develop their own voice. The work's genesis is instructive here: It was conceived decades ago as a handbook for American undergraduates who had not received proper instruction in high school. So of course it was never meant for the established writer. Incidentally, Yagoda does find an ally of sorts in Harold Bloom, author of a self-described "eight-hundred-page monster" – modestly entitled "Genius" – that does not have a single paragraph that could "pass muster in Strunk and White" (pg. xxi). If a learned gasbag like Bloom disapproves, what further recommendation does one need for their slim volume?
In sum, this book is definitely worth adding to your private library. Put it on the shelf right next to Strunk and White.
While this fact makes it merciful when literally anyone else's writing takes up the page, unfortunately this is a double-edged sword. I'd say less than a third of this book is Yagoda's writing. For a book with his giant name on the cover, he leaves a lot to be desired. Please work on your own style, Yagoda, before you try to teach someone else about theirs.
But Yagoda doesn't seem to be denying this obvious truth. He is simply saying that obeying the rigors of S&W is not the same as style in the sense that the word applies to our best writers.
*S&W talk about what makes style possible for any writer.
*Yagoda talks about the nature of style itself after the brush has been cleared, the foundation laid and all the unnecessary metaphors put away.
That said, this is a delightful and provocative book. It suffers, as any book on literary style must, from the necessity of using its subject matter as the means of its own discussion. That is, the style of a book about style is bound to be a little strained. (See Insights and Illusions of Philosophy for both explanation and evidence.)
The best use for this charming book is in forcing the reader's attention to words and style. The most horrific part is that it forces a writer's attention to his own words and style. It's nourishment for the former, medicine for the latter who would be well-advised to take small doses and continue writing.
--Lynn Hoffman, author of New Short Course in Wine,The and
the slightly stylish bang BANG: A Novel
Yagoda's book was the first step toward realizing the mechanics of what makes writer's voice, allowing me to formulate a process to help writers find their own.
Well written, witty, intelligent, practical.