The Craftsmanship of Writing/The Question of Style

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The Craftsmanship of Writing by Frederic Taber Cooper
The Question of Style

CHAPTER VII

THE QUESTION OF STYLE

There is, I think, a good deal of unnecessary heartburn experienced by young writers regarding the question whether or not they are beginning to form a style. It indicates a hypochondriacal condition of mind akin to the familiar tendency of so many young medical students to believe that they are suffering from various purely imaginary diseases. A sound mind in a sound body is too busy in performing the numerous activities belonging to each day's work to stop to count the heart-beats or the rate of respiration. Any young writer, possessed of something really worth saying, and a certain driving energy that makes him bent upon saying it in the clearest and most forceful way that he possibly can, ought to be too intent upon the task at hand to be worrying about whether he is forming a style,—whether, in other words, his brave beginnings of to-day are cornerstones in the arch of future fame.

Style is the aroma of literature, comparable to the bouquet of old wine. You cannot age a new vintage over night by any artificial process. No writer, by taking thought, can add a cubit to his height as a stylist. It is a matter of growth, and slow ripening. We have seen that what every young writer should first strive to acquire is a clear-cut idea of what he is trying to accomplish; that, secondly, he should aim at a technical skill which will enable him to build the framework of his creations, whatever their form may be, solidly and according to the proportions demanded by good art; and thirdly, that he must cultivate that infinite patience which will strive to make all parts and all aspects of his work tend toward a unity of effect in subject and structure and language. And when a writer has learned thoroughly to do these things, he need no longer worry about style, for style is nothing else than the ability to express one's thoughts in the best possible way. "Style," says James Russell Lowell, "is the establishment of a perfect mutual understanding between the worker and his material." And Walter Pater expresses very nearly the same thought in somewhat different terms when he writes:

To give the phrase, the sentence, the structural member, the entire composition, song or essay, a similar unity with its subject and with itself:—style is in the right way when it tends toward that.

The ability to express one's thoughts in the best possible way,—that is a rather bigger contract than at first appears. Not merely to express one's thoughts in the clearest possible way, or the most forcible, or the most florid, or the most faultlessly grammatical way. It means a great deal more than any one of these, or all of them taken together. It means the nicest possible compromise between clearness, let us say, on the one hand, and metaphor on the other; or between the realism of colloquial speech, and the dignity of narrative verse; or between the special effects of contrast and a general effect of uniformity. In its widest definition, there is nothing that can be said or written in any language under the sun that has not its special ideal of style,—some one form most appropriate to it: and to some degree the ability to attain approximately this desired norm is an element of the Inborn Talent;—just as marksmanship of any kind is partly a matter of practice and partly also a matter of natural aptitude.

If you examine in succession a series of definitions of style, taken at random from various authorities, you will find the divergence between them rather confusing. The more you read, the more confused you are likely to become. The trouble, of course, is a lack of agreement on the part of the authorities regarding the nature and extent of the quality which they are trying to define. One writer, for instance, assumes that style is a combination of clearness, force and elegance; another looks upon style as a blending of a certain abstract perfection of writing with the personal element, which at best is manner and at worst is mannerism, while still a third considers style as something apart from the personal equation,—a sort of ideal goal towards which we press, but which we never attain. The same discrepancy is noticeable in the use of the word, style, in other connections, take it,—for instance, in the matter of dress. Now clearness of purpose in dress involves the intent of clothing the body and keeping it warm; and in this elemental sense one hears people speak of the style of clothes worn by peasants, or artisans, or savage tribes. A certain proportion of people, on the other hand, think of style in dress as a sort of self-advertisement, a matter of force and emphasis, a question of flamboyance and the dernier cri. And there are still others who, with a finer conservatism, understand style to be that rare art in dress which effects a perfect compromise between the prevailing fashion and the personality, and which unerringly chooses, in color and in form, the garment best designed to suit, most completely and at the same time most unobtrusively the individual need.

Now there is no logic in looking upon any one of these definitions of style as being right and the rest of them all wrong. The one thing needful to know is which view any particular critic holds, for then any apparent contradiction disappears. I am inclined to think, however, for the purpose of good craftsmanship, that the most helpful view to hold is the third of those given above: namely, that style is an ideal goal, towards which we struggle, but forever unattainable. Try to think of style in literature somewhat as you think of the copper-plate line of Spencerian penmanship at the top of the page in a copy-book,—as the model towards which the pupil is faithfully striving, but which it would be undesirable for him to attain with complete fidelity. Without some such model to follow, no one ever acquires a good handwriting; but, on the other hand, no one with any sort of individuality wants to write like a copy-book. Think how character in handwriting strengthens and deepens with the passing years,—and it will do this quite regardless of whether we started with a good or bad model at the top of our page. But what a gulf there is between the handwriting that is clear, and artistic and individual, and that which has individuality and nothing else! And to a far greater extent do we feel the difference between the writer who has style and individuality, and him who has individuality without style.

My advice, then, to the beginner in writing is: do not worry too much about your style: do not be all the time counting your literary pulse. Try to write as simply and as clearly as you can and without self-consciousness. In learning the rudiments of your art you are like the novice in archery learning to hit a target. Concentrate yourself upon the task of making your verbal shafts reach their mark. If you do this faithfully, ease and grace should follow in their own due time.

Do not assume, however, that if you are faithful, you will acquire one of the few masterly styles in literature. It is given to the very few to attain this. Be satisfied if you succeed in keeping near enough to your copper-plate model so that your mannerisms will be overlooked, or if you succeed in say anything of such importance that your readers think more of what you say than how you say it. Wine, as said above, acquires bouquet only in the course of years; but no number of years can ever give bouquet to a poor vintage. Nevertheless a good many attempts have been made, and with some degree of apparent success, to age, a literary style. Certain writers have deliberately set themselves, as part of their apprenticeship, the task of practicing the mannerisms of a few recognized masters of English prose. Stevenson is a conspicuous example of this practice, and the quality of his prose is admittedly a result of such self-training. In his essay, "A College Magazine," he has himself outlined his method as follows:

Whenever I read a book or a passage that particularly pleased me, in which a thing was said or an effect rendered with propriety, in which there was either some conspicuous force or some happy distinction in the style, I must sit down at once and set myself to ape that quality.… I thus played the sedulous ape to Hazlitt, to Lamb, to Wordsworth, to Sir Thomas Browne, to Defoe, to Hawthorne, to Montaigne, to Baudelaire, and to Obermann.… That, like it or not, is the way to learn to write.

Yet, where this method succeeds with one man out of ten, it is quite likely to do more harm than good to the nine others, making them mere copyists,—like a young painter who spends his days reproducing a Raphael or a Rubens, instead of remaining under the open sky, learning to express his own thoughts in his own way. Some teachers, indeed, question whether any real benefit accrues from conscious imitation of another man's style. Professor A. S. Hill has put himself on record in the following emphatic manner:

In a great writer the style is the man,—the man as made by his ancestors, his education, his career, his circumstances, and his genius.

It is idle, then, to attempt to secure a good style by imitating this or that writer; for the best part of a good style is incommunicable. An imitator may, if he applies himself closely to the task, catch mannerisms and reproduce defects, and perhaps superficial merits; but most valuable qualities, those that have their root in character, he will miss altogether, except in so far as his own personality resembles that of his model.

Of course, between these two extremes; the belief, on the one hand, that conscious imitation is the only way to learn to write; and on the other, that it is no way at all to learn, the truth, as usual lies somewhere midway. Yet it is worth noting that even Stevenson has not escaped reproach. Mr. H. D. Traill, for instance, complains that his style "suffers somewhat from its evidences of too conscious art"; Henry James says, in friendly criticism that his style "has nothing accidental or diffident; it is eminently conscious of its responsibilities and meets them with a kind of gallantry,—as if language were a pretty woman, and a person who proposed to handle it had, of necessity, to be something of a Don Juan." And Professor Saintsbury is even more emphatic:

Adopting to the full, and something more than the full, the modern doctrine of the all-importance of art, of manner, of style in literature, Mr. Stevenson early made the most elaborate studies in imitative composition. There is no doubt that he at last succeeded in acquiring a style which was quite his own; but it was complained, and with justice, that even to the last he never obtained complete ease in this style; its mannerism was not only excessive, but bore, as even excessive mannerism by no means always does, the marks of distinct and obvious effort.

Now it is quite likely that in reading Stevenson you are not conscious of this "distinct and obvious, effort" of which Professor Saintsbury speaks; personally, I always am,—although that does not prevent me from appreciating his worth in literature. But the fact strengthens me in the conviction that I am right in saying that to ask oneself continually, "Am I acquiring a style?" is apt to bring one little profit. It is like a novice in painting similarly asking, "Am I learning to mix colours?" A painter does not need to distress himself about the beauty and harmony of all the colours that he may sooner or later be called upon to mix,—the important thing is to do the best he can to obtain the particular colour that he needs for the moment. "Colour is a gift," says Dick Heldar to Maisie, in The Light that Failed, "Put it aside and think no more about it." Similarly, although the parallel is not wholly true, a beginner will certainly do himself no great harm by assuming that in the craft of writing, style is a gift that may for the time be put aside and forgotten. Be sure that for the beginner the least style is the best style. Do not polish excessively; and when you do polish, be sure that you have something that is worthy of polishing. It is well to put a lustre on solid mahogany; but it is foolish to expend energy and good wax upon soft pine.

Of course, if you want to go somewhat deeply into the whole question, you might begin by reading what various recognised stylists have said upon the subject; you might make yourself familiar with De Quincey's Essay on Style and Pater's; and what Lowell has to say, and Stevenson too and half a dozen more besides to whom they will readily guide you. And the chances are that after a few hours, or days, of diligent reading you will come away with a considerable sense of discouragement and confusion; because, while they all fairly agree that style is a question of fitting the method to the material; and that there is not one style but there are many styles, just as there may be many forms of dress to suit different occupations; yet after all they do not lay down rules that are really helpful. Some comfort is to be gained out of Pater, if read understandingly, for he has a broad sanity of outlook that recognises merit in a great diversity of methods. Here, for instance, is a paragraph which embodies the essence of all he has to say on this subject and is well worth pondering upon:

In the highest, as in the lowest literature, the one indispensable beauty is, after all, truth:—truth to bare facts in the latter, as to some personal sense of fact; diverted somewhat from men's ordinary sense of it, in the former: truth there as accuracy, truth here as expression, that finest and most intimate form of truth, the vraie vérité. And what an eclectic principle this really is! Employing for its one sole purpose—that absolute accordance of expression to idea—all other literary beauties and excellencies whatever: how many kinds of style it covers, explains, justifies and, at the same time, safeguards! Scott's facility, Flaubert's deeply pondered evocation of "the phrase" are equally good art. Say what you have to say, what you have a will to say, in the simplest, the most direct and exact manner possible, with no surplusage: there is the justification of the sentence so fortunately born, "entire, smooth and round," that it needs no punctuation, and also (that is the point!) of the most elaborate period, if it be right in its elaboration. Here is the office of ornament; here also the purpose of restraint in ornament.… The seeming baldness of Le Rouge et le Noir is nothing in itself; the wild ornament of Les Misérables is nothing in itself; and the restraint of Flaubert, amid a real natural opulence, only redoubled beauty,—the phrase so large and so precise at the same time, hard as bronze, in service to the more perfect adaptation of words to their matter.

Literature, by finding its specific excellence in the absolute correspondence of the term to its import, will be but fulfilling the condition of all artistic quality in things everywhere, of all good art.

It is Pater who says of the author of Madame Bovary, "If all high things have their martyrs, Gustave Flaubert might perhaps rank as the martyr of literary style"; and in support of this opinion he proceeds to quote the following summary of Flaubert's literary creed:

Possessed of an absolute belief that there exists but one way of expressing one thing, one word to call it by, one adjective to qualify, one verb to animate it, he gave himself to superhuman labour for the discovery, in every phrase, of that word, that verb, that epithet. In this way, he believed in some mysterious harmony of expression, and when a true word seemed to him to lack euphony, still went on seeking another, with invincible pains, certain that he had not yet got hold of the word.… A thousand preoccupations would beset him at the same moment, always with this desperate certitude fixed in his spirit: Amongst all the expressions in the world, all forms and turns of expression, there is but one—one form, one mode,—to express what I want to say.

Now, theoretically Flaubert is right; there are no perfectly equivalent synonyms either of words or phrases,—and even the same phrase will take on shades of meaning when spoken by different lips. Whenever you utter a sentence you have expressed a thought in the only way in which that particular thought down to the last hair-splitting shade of meaning can be expressed. Change a syllable and you change the meaning—that was Flaubert's doctrine and it meant torture to him. And the trouble, of course, was that he tried to practise what can never be more than theoretical. It would be a great comfort to believe, with Emerson, that "There is no choice of words for him who clearly sees the truth; that provides him with the best word"; but to most of us such clearness of vision is denied. If a writer could really know down to the ultimate shade of thought exactly what he wanted to say and exactly the tone in which he wanted to say it, and if his brain was so equipped that it had at command the entire contents of the unabridged dictionary then, theoretically, the one inevitable word-sequence ought forthwith to present itself to him. In practice, however, there are a hundred different ways that occur to us for saying even some quite simple thing, each of them not precisely what we want to say, but representing a compromise, a sacrifice, on the side of meaning, or of euphony, or of rhythm. The one perfect way is the dream of a visionary, a forever unattainable ideal. We may come more or less near to it in proportion to our ten talents or our two talents or our one, but it always eludes us. And the finer the artist, the more he is apt to suffer because he sees so clearly how far short he has fallen. Style, then, practically means the ability to choose the words that will give us just the right meaning, just the right harmony, just the right cadence. And if this is to be done worthily we must attain our results so far as possible without straying afield for queer, exotic words and phrases. It is, says Lowell, "the secondary intellect which asks for excitement in expression, and stimulates itself into mannerism, which is the wilful obtrusion of self, as style is its unconscious abnegation." And Maupassant, in his well-known preface to Pierre et Jean, wrote in similar strain:

There is no need of the bizarre, complicated, extensive and Chinese vocabulary that they force upon us to-day under the name of artistic writing to catch all the shades of thought; but it is necessary to discern with extreme lucidity all the modifications in the value of a word according to the place it occupies. Let us have fewer nouns, verbs and adjectives with meanings almost incomprehensible, but let us have more different phrases.

In regard to vocabulary no better rule has been formulated down to the present day than that old dictum of Quintillian: "Use only the newest of the old and the oldest of the new." We may, of course, assume in theory that no word is so obsolete that it may not under some special conditions be revived; no slang so recent as to be wholly barred out of print. D'Annunzio, the recognised master of modern Italian style, has ransacked the early writers for so many out-of-the-way words that some of his later prose can be more easily read by a college bred Anglo-Saxon with a fair knowledge of the language than by an equally intelligent Italian who does not happen to be well grounded in Latin and Greek. And in the opposite scale, we have Mr. Kipling, who fearlessly enriches our language with such words as he thinks it needs. Nevertheless, the safe norm lies in the simple, every-day vocabulary. A good craftsman can accomplish wonderful things with a limited number of tools: a certain eminent surgeon has been known to perform successfully an operation for appendicitis with no other instrument than a simple pair of scissors. One trouble with many of us is that we overwork just a few words and combinations of words, and neglect other equally good combinations; we have the vice of the hackneyed phrase. A well-known American critic once said in conversation that he would rather be caught stealing a watch than saying that a book "filled a long-felt want"—and unquestionably the two offences differ in kind rather than degree. It was Daudet who expressed the philosophy of the hackneyed phrase perhaps rather more felicitously than any other:

What profound disgust must those epithets feel which have lived for centuries with the same nouns! Bad writers cannot be made to comprehend this. They think divorce is not permitted to words. There are people who write without blushing: venerable trees, melodious accents. Venerable is not an ugly word; put it with another substantive—"your venerable burden," "most venerable worth," etc.,—you see the union is good. In short, the epithet should be the mistress of the substantive, never its lawful wife. Between words there must be passing liaisons, but no eternal marriages. It is that which distinguishes the original writer from others.

It is that, an Anglo-Saxon critic finds himself instinctively adding, that distinguishes just a few of the more prominent British writers of the young school; writers otherwise very wide apart indeed—Rudyard Kipling and Maurice Hewlett, Joseph Conrad and Alfred Ollivant and J. C. Snaith—to mention only a few striking examples. Each of these has a style of his own; some of them, indeed, have a number of styles, to be donned and doffed upon occasion; but the one trait that they all have in common is a frank audacity of new combinations, a tendency to take liberties with noun and adjective, and pair them off with as little ceremony as a hostess pairs off her guests for a cotillion—and with as little malice. De Quincey wrote, not without a grain of literary snobbishness:

Like boys who are throwing the sun's rays in the eyes of a mob by means of a mirror, you must shift your lights and vibrate your reflections at every possible angle, if you would agitate the popular mind extensively.

De Quincey, of course, had a certain ingrained scorn of the popular mind. It was quite unconsciously, while here intending to stigmatise a type of bad rhetoric, that he actually gave us a rather vivid metaphor of the principle upon which language tends constantly to renew itself.

And this brings us to a vital point in the whole question of acquiring style. If you are proposing to learn the craft of building, or pottery making, or carpet weaving, will you be satisfied to know nothing beyond what has been done by England or America? Or will you, just as a matter of business shrewdness, study what has been done in the past in Greece and Rome, in Egypt and Turkey and India? The business man and the scientist always keep a keen eye on the whole world. And the man of letters cannot afford to do less. If you run over the list of the world's great stylists, you will find that they were, relatively speaking, linguists. I use the term, relatively speaking, advisedly; because in some countries and at certain epochs, a man who knew one language besides his own passed as a person of learning; while in another, two or three extra tongues carried slight distinction. One of our professional humourists once said that he knew a man who spoke seventeen languages, and never said anything of importance in any of them. There is a point at which the brain becomes merely acquisitive. But the possession of two or three languages besides one's own is the best of all aids to a distinctive style. It was James Russell Lowell who said: "The practice of translation, by making us deliberate in the choice of the best equivalent of the foreign word in our own language, has likewise the advantage of continually schooling us in one of the main elements of a good styles—precision; and precision of thought is not only exemplified by precision of language, but is largely dependent on the habit of it."

There are, besides, certain advantages to be gained from seeing the purely technical difficulties of language managed with masterly skill in a different medium from our own. We may struggle for years to acquire facility in avoiding harsh combinations of final and initial letters, the exasperating recurrence of some cacophonous but necessary relative pronoun, the jerk and jolt of an awkward rhythm—and at the end of that time we shall not know as much of the philosophy of a fluent and melodious style as could have been learned by one quarter of the effort through examining what can be done in a naturally musical language like Greek; a language in which harsh final mutes have no existence and in which one difficulty of a good prose style was not that of interweaving poetic rhythms, but rather of avoiding them. And similarly we can learn to correct our own tendencies to carry certain principles of prose writing to excess by seeing these same principles carried to a reductio ad absurdum. A good illustration of this point is contained in Zola's account of Turgéneff's amazement as he listened to a discussion between Flaubert and his friends regarding that very point already referred to, the pursuit of the one inevitable word:

Turgéneff opened enormous eyes. He evidently did not understand; he declared that no writer, in any language, had ever refined his style to such an extent. At home, in Russia, nothing of the kind existed. From that day forth, every time that he heard us cursing the who's and the which's, I often saw him smile; and he said that we were quite wrong not to make a franker use of our language, which is one of the clearest and simplest there are. I am of his opinion, I have always been struck with the justice of his judgment; it is perhaps because, being a stranger, he sees us from the necessary distance and detachment.

But whether you accept Turgéneff's view and choose to cultivate the franker use of language; or on the other hand are pleased to pursue endlessly the elusive will-o'-the-wisp of perfection, remember always that style ceases to be good the moment that it is cultivated for its own sake and not simply as an integral part of the whole unified structure. They teach a great deal about the importance of onomatopœia as practised by Homer and Vergil; and I think that a great many young students gather the idea that it is a quality which ought to flaunt itself before the eye and ear so that as one scans certain lines of the Iliad or the Æneid one's predominating thought should be: How wonderfully the rhythm and the consonant pattern here suggests the poet's meaning. Now this, of course, is a fallacy, and there is no better way of showing that fallacy than by quoting Daudet's delicious little anecdote:

I shall never forget the famous: Quadrupedante putrem sonitu quatit.… It was always cited to us as an example of onomatopœia, and my teacher had persuaded me that one might mistake it for the gallop of a horse.

One day, wishing to frighten my little sister, who had a great fear of horses, I came up behind her and cried, "Quadrupedante putrem," and so forth. Well, the little thing wasn't frightened!

Onomatopœia, like everything else pertaining to style, is used properly when it does not obtrude itself, when it helps us to form a mental picture without our being aware by what agency the author has attained his result. Take, for instance, one of the most extreme instances in modern writing of an attempt to fit sound to meaning—the libretti to Wagner's Ring. When you read the text quietly by yourself you feel that the whole thing has been overdone; the various tricks of alliteration stick out like so many bristles. But when this same text is applied to the purpose for which it was intended, you notice none of this, because the sound and the meaning blend so perfectly with the rhythm of the music.

And in all elements affecting style this same principle applies. Any ornament which is used solely because it is ornament, solely because the author wishes to use his subject to call attention to his manner rather than make his manner do obeisance to his theme, is vulgar ornament, as offensive to good taste as over-dress in women. In style, as in everything else pertaining to the craftsmanship of writing, learn to practise "that fine art which so artfully all things conceals."