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The Sound on the Page: Style and Voice in Writing Hardcover – June 1, 2004
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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
“...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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Top Customer Reviews
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.
The book is interesting enough, and Yagoda does a good job of keeping things moving with lots of examples of and chatter about style from practicing writers. My problem is with one of the book's enabling conventions: The idea that Strunk & White's The Elements Of Style presents an outmoded and "soul-deadening" idea of style and that only books such as Yagoda's truly plumb the subject to its core.
I've seen this sort of thing before, most notably in Clear and Simple as The Truth, by Thomas and Turner--a book weirdly bent on defying its own title and premise. The idea is to construct a straw man out of the immensely popular The Elements Of Style and then throw eggs at it. But it's an approach that anyone who knows Strunk & White well will recognize as a canard.
It's largely a made-up polemic, probably caused by the fact that writers are constantly being prodded to find and exploit "the angle" of the story. Magazines prod this way, so do agents and book publishers. It's not good enough to present a solid proposal for an article or book that simply discusses an interesting subject; there must be an angle, and the more controversial the better. And though it's hardly Watergate, smearing The Elements of Style is what passes for provocative in this crowd.
Yagoda states that Strunk & White's goal is prose that offers "...no trace of the author--no mannerisms, no voice, no individual style...." And then, in refutation of this fabricated Strunk & White "ideal," he fills his book with examples of writers who write with identifiable styles--ranging from subtle to sledgehammer. The examples are fun--these are really good writers--but he's wrong about The Elements of Style.
The first four fifths of The Elements of Style are largely about style in the sense of mechanics and word usage. No trouble there--that's not the kind of style we're talking about in the Yagoda book. In section five of The Elements, though--the section titled "An Approach to Style"--E. B. White takes a stab at offering beginning writers some simple, sound advice for clearing their prose of dross and deadwood so that they can begin the project of developing their own voice and personality on the page.
White's project, then, is to help a writer clear the decks so that the "self" can escape "into the open." Yagoda's mistake (and Harold Bloom's, on page xxi of Yagoda) is in thinking that White wants writers to stop once they've swept their prose free of clutter--to end with complete, bland transparency. But he doesn't; transparency, in White's view, is simply the necessary precondition for achieving one's individual voice as a writer--just as an empty canvas is the necessary precondition for painting a picture. "As he becomes proficient in the use of language," White says, "his style will emerge, because he himself will emerge." Does that sound like a recipe for "no mannerisms, no voice, no individual style"?
I am an editor who has worked with nonfiction writers for sixteen years. I press The Elements of Style on many of them--particularly those having trouble organizing their thoughts or getting their words out in a clear, compelling way--and it usually helps. It is only after mastering the fundamental tools of clear expression (the craft of bringing thought to page relatively intact) that a writer's personality, his "voice" or style, can begin to permeate his prose.
I have to believe it's been a long time since either Yagoda or Bloom spent an evening grading undergraduate essays (if indeed undergraduates are still required to write essays). The usefulness of The Elements of Style for such writers (if they study the book and apply its lessons) is incontrovertible.
Yagoda and Bloom, in fact, recognize the validity of White's approach, in spite of their trendy protestations. Bloom, page 159: "I have made the conscious effort to write in a more straightforward and accessible way." (Thank you, Harold.) Yagoda, page 236: "...the clearing of brush to create a walkable path, is never-ending for a writer." (That as near a restatement of White's thesis in "An Approach to Style" as you're likely to find.)
As for whether or not a writer can learn to write with "style" by reading this book, as Alex Beam's blurb on the back cover promises, the answer is no. A book such as this, while providing fun examples of style at work, is really no more or less instructive than the rest of a writer's (preferably wide) reading, from which he will sift and sort (consciously or not) the possibilities of voice, tone, and style in the ongoing effort to develop his own sound on the page.