News & opinion on Greater China and the even Greater Beyond: by Biff Cappuccino.

Sunday, January 23, 2005

My response follows below: Topic for incoming bloggers: Which author do you admire stylistically, and why? Is style equally important as original thought, or more? What is an important stylistic tool, and which examples best reveal it?
Biff C.:It took me a while to put this down because I haven’t thought about style for ages. Content, content, content is my mantra.

My favorite author is H.L. Mencken, who I don’t tend to think of as a stylist, but as someone whose departure points I generally agree with and whose conclusions are thought-provoking and amusing. Unlike most writers in most genres, who trot out filler verbiage like a filibusterer on Capital Hill, Mencken made a conscious point of trying not to waste the readers’ time by getting to the point, generating memorable metaphors and phrases, and by pointing to novel concepts animating various phenomena. As with Nietzsche, practically every paragraph of Mencken’s writing contains something quotable. Quotable because it’s pithy, useful, and often funny. Ex:

Democracy is the theory that holds that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard.

Theology is the effort to explain the unknowable in terms of the not worth knowing.

Creator - A comedian whose audience is afraid to laugh.

Perhaps it’s worth trotting out one of my theories on humor as a ‘stylistic device’. Many writers are too busy affecting to feel people’s pain to have a public sense of humor (Like V.S. Naipaul whose books communicate the sadness of post-colonia but whose reply to one interviewer’s question “Why do Hindus have that red spot on their foreheads” was “It signifies, ‘I have no brain’”) Humor, after all, requires that someone be on the receiving end of something painful (though folly is usually the only acceptable target of humor). Ergo sadism, deftly wielded, is a weapon of any good writer’s (or comedian’s) armamentarium. Surely it’s better to be frank about this than to try to write memorable script with one’s heart on one’s sleeve and a head clogged with bogus pieties.

More Mencken in his own words:

For every complex problem, there is a solution that is simple, neat, and wrong.

Philosophy consists very largely of one philosopher arguing that all other philosophers are jackasses. He usually proves it, and I should add that he also usually proves that he is one himself.

The American people, taking one with another, constitute the most timorous, sniveling, poltroonish, ignominious mob of serfs and goosesteppers ever gathered under one flag in Christendom since the end of the Middle Ages.

Is there a style? Perhaps. If honesty, clarity and novelty of expression, boldness and a willingness to follow a train of logic to its end regardless of its moral or ethical implications constitutes style. I don’t see a style as much as I see a way of thinking which then almost inevitably generates his manner of expression. I also don’t think it’s a matter of calculatedly trying to fit oneself into a style, because this style far from unique. What distinguishes Mencken in my view was his promiscuous range of interests and enthusiasms which enabled him to apply heuristics in one field to the next. This in turn naturally leads to aphorism, which he excelled at.

The same ‘style’ can be found in scattered throughout the works of Wilde, Twain, and others, and even within an essay or two of Tom Wolfe’s. Again, the hardest part of this ‘style’ is the years required to develop a broad interdisciplinary knowledge base, the years of concerted effort devoted to figuring how things ‘really work’ (through prodigious reading but also by getting involved in society at large and meeting the movers and shakers and the idea generators) so that you can emerge with the confidence required to state plainly, without cringing, trimming, or prevaricating, what you really mean in the knowledge that it will occasionally conflict, embarrass, and offend your readers. To cultivate a ‘style’ that will inevitably be seen as anti-social, you have to be able to stand your ground.

As might be imagined, given the conservatism of the US at that time and his column’s national syndication, Mencken received quite a few death threats for what he wrote. This was the era of lynch mobs chasing blacks and Catholics and socialists, the machine-gunning of striking workers in Ludlow, the air-bombing of black rioters in Oklahoma. When people talk of the (imaginary) bravery of the American fringe left (Chomsky et al), they forget how things used to be. And Mencken was just a libertarian.

Another example of something which might be mistaken for style would be Oscar Wilde writing that “nature imitates art”. But if you read the accompanying essay, you discover that’s simply a summing up of what he really meant. He wasn’t being funny or ironic. When a writer comes up with an engaging, even just superficially persuasive, alternative view of the world, be they Dickens, Twain, Wilde, Theroux, etc, as long as they state their worldview in a casual manner, the effect generated is usually parody. (If you harangue with the same worldview, then it becomes ‘deep’, ‘radical’, dangerous and threatening.) The writer develops a reputation for being a jester and his books sell to both the small minority that takes him seriously and to the great majority that belabors him with the unearned and maybe even undesired label of ‘comedian’. (Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, full of quaint humor to most of us, is in fact (if you re-read it) an acutely subversive anti-middle-America polemic and the US Religious Right sees this accurately. Ergo, it’s constant lobbying to ban it from school libraries) Naturally, if you come to agree with the writer’s worldview, what was formerly comedy becomes no more than a statement of the obvious, of reality, as one really sees it.

Two other quick examples of ‘stylists’ (I’ve got to get some of more bad fiction writing out of my system this morning):

A self-explanatory passage from Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language”:
I am going to translate a passage of good English into modern English of the worst sort. Here is a well-known verse from Ecclesiastes:
I returned and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.

Here it is in modern English:

Objective considerations of contemporary phenomena compel the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account.

…The beginning and ending of the sentence follow the original meaning fairly closely, but in the middle the concrete illustrations -- race, battle, bread -- dissolve into the vague phrases "success or failure in competitive activities." This had to be so, because no modern writer of the kind I am discussing -- no one capable of using phrases like "objective considerations of contemporary phenomena" -- would ever tabulate his thoughts in that precise and detailed way. The whole tendency of modern prose is away from concreteness. …

Last of all: Marx to me is an example of a talented writer draping colorful imagery to disguise content and make the otherwise unpalatable appetizing, the otherwise nonsensical persuasive. In Farley Mowat’s memorable phrase, he doesn’t let the facts get in the way of the truth.

From the first page of section 1 of the Communist Manifesto of 1848:

-- The bourgeoisie, wherever it has got the upper hand, has put an end to all feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations. It has pitilessly torn asunder the motley feudal ties that bound man to his "natural superiors" and has left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous "cash payment." It has drowned the most heavenly ecstasies of religious fervour, of chivalrous enthusiasm, of philistine sentimentalism, in the icy water of egotistical calculation. --

The last sentence is a charmer. Marx, the Judaic apostate and publicly professed atheist lauds the ecstasies of religious fervour. Chivalrous enthusiasm means put women back where they belong. Philistine sentimentalism… surely no two words were better married. Then again perhaps the first is redundant. Philistine = low class. Sentimentalism = low-class feeling. “Icy water of egotistical calculation” is his impressive transmogrification of Locke’s “enlightened self interest”.

Do words mean anything here? You can argue for hours about the intended meaning of this or that sentence, not because Marx was ‘profound’ or ‘deep’ (words I have little use for) but because he was poetic and rhetorical, confounded by a love for his own wind-music. He was deliberately obscure because he was in the position of a politician selling a platform to an audience of the unenlightened (Marx wasn’t shy about expressing contempt). A rumble-bumble of fine sounding, melodic, high-flying, inspirational sawdust and oatmeal filler.

So many comedians, so little time…

Perhaps Marx was a writer who deliberately cultivated style. Given his inability to generate persuasive content, that was probably his wisest option.

This is not to suggest that you shouldn’t work on style. Maybe I should too…

Back to fiction-writing for me…

Biff Cappuccino…

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