Thursday, July 13, 2017

The Writing Life: What Do E.B. White and General Robert E. Lee Have In Common?

Six weeks ago I wrote about a lecture series I was listening to about building great sentences in which the lecturer, Professor Brooks Landon, takes a few jabs at Strunk and White's classic volume, The Elements of Style. Prof. Landon's comments were striking because I can't recall anyone ever having dared to criticize this miniature catechism on writing, as if it were a sacred text.

Evidently the tide has changed because  yesterday this story landed on my feed: Why E.B. White Was Wrong About (Some of) the Elements of Style. The subtitle of A.L. Kennedy's article, which begins with a fab Dorothy Parker quote, is Lovers of the Passive Voice Unite. Kennedy's piece is a good read, but the takeaway for me was that it's O.K. to knock over sacred cows.

The critical review of Elements brought to mind a Washington Post article I'd read about General Robert E. Lee earlier this spring, "The truth about Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee: He wasn’t very good at his job." Even though the South lost the war, this mortal man was so elevated in stature that no one dared say an unkind word about his "greatness" and leadership, even a century after the war had ended. But in 1969 a University of South Carolina professor broke from the herd, daring to write an article in Civil War History attacking the revered general.

The criticism didn't end there, as others came forward, emboldened as it were, to question the historical aura that surrounded the great man.

In today's era of immediacy and transparency where people can throw Twitter-tantrums read by millions and log complaints on Yelp about bad service in a restaurant in Bora Bora, this book has garnered its share of prickly comments on Amazon.com. It's open season, as they say. Here's a comment by one reader whose handle is Pax Romana:

It is hard to even judge the helpfulness of the content of the book due to the subjective nature of the tips provided. Many of these tips are even quite obvious, such as the famous statement to "omit needless words". How ever would I have figured that out? The author even admits that many of these rules can be broken in proper moments, and master writers disregard the rules occasionally to their advantage. Because of this, it seems that simply reading from the masters would be immeasurably more helpful than this manual.

Félix Marqués, another reviewer, wrote, It has some great bits on sentence logic, but for the most part it's fussy, outdated, obsessively close-minded or all of it at the same time.

Hmmm. Outdated? The book is so young.

I suppose there was a time when King James English was being challenged and it's defenders complained that if we stop saying thee and thou, the entire culture will be awash in informality that spirals down into debauchery. I dunno. There are probably places one could find out, if one knew where to look or cared that much.

Lest I give a wrong impression, there are far more positive reviewers than bashers. If one wishes to be a basher, let's bash the schools that are sending kids to college who still do not know how to write. The situation has become appalling. No child has been left behind because they keep being pushed p the ladder, despite their incompetence in these basic skills.

Here's an excerpt representative of some of the positive reviews, by JboneCA:

This book can easily double your proficiency in English composition. There are exhaustive books and multi-volume sets that will delve into the peculiarities and nuances of the English language, whereas this one will give you the essentials. Strunk and White do have some opponents in the finer points of English usage, but for the most part this is an accepted primer on the subject....

It really should be handed out to anyone planning on attending university. Too many of today's students are awful writers, and it's simply because they haven't been taught. This can help.

Well, all this is one reason I published a book on writing, or rather, how to teach writing. Writing, like math, is one of the essential skills. People who write well will have more opportunities than those who cannot. You do not have to know what a gerund is in order to communicate, but it does help to know how to turn a singular noun into a plural, or how to express coordinate ideas in a similar form.

Alas. Happy Thursday.

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General Lee photo Source: The Library of Congress

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