Tuesday, April 25, 2017


In his “Books for Living,” Will Schwalbe refers to a friend as having an enjoyable style in his writing. He does not elaborate on what made it enjoyable. But whatever it was, it had to be basically in one of two modes, formal or informal, literary or conversational. Each is subject to personal variations, but by one or the other category all writing is subsumed.

The formal style (think, for example, Flaubert) is one as close to poetry as prose can get. It uses profuse imagery, vast vocabulary, careful rhythm, and distinct cadence. It can be rightly called elegant or, in French, soigné. The informal is the way one talks, full of hesitancies, parentheses, digressions, often needless elaborations, uncorseted utterance (think, for example, Whitman.)

It is perfectly possible to score in either manner, just as one can fail in either. The former can become too demanding, too tiring; the latter, too casual, too vague. But both can charm us equally. For the formal style, take this speech attributed by Walter Savage Landor in one of his “Imaginary Conversations” to Aesop, who was for a time a Roman slave, to Rhodope, a young female slave: Laodamia died; Helen died; Leda, the beloved of Jupiter, went before. It is better to repose in the earth betimes than to sit up late; better than to cling pertinaciously to what we feel crumbling under us, and to protract an inevitable fall. We may enjoy the present while we are insensible of infirmity and decay: but the present, like a note in music, is nothing but as it appertains to what is past and what is to come. There are no fields of amaranth on this side of the grave; there are no voices, O Rhodope! that are not soon mute, however tuneful; there is no name, with whatever emphasis of passionate love repeated, of which the echo is not faint at last.

No wonder that this is part of an imaginary conversation; no real one can be styled like this. Note what ingenuity, how much, if you will, style has gone into this passage. Observe the refrain-like near repetitions, the balances between phrases, the use of some fancy words (appertains, pertinaciously) the canny reference to Laodamia, who followed her beloved husband into the underworld and in one version of the myth threw herself on his funeral pyre. Catch the echo between “however” and “whatever,” also the dying fall, achieved partly by using “of which” rather than “whose.” 

For another example, take Oscar Wilde’s tribute to Walter Pater, whom he somewhat underappreciated when, as an Oxford undergraduate, he got to know him. “But Mr. Pater’s essays became to me ‘the golden book of spirit and sense, the holy writ of beauty.’ They are still this to me. It is possible, of course, that I may exaggerate about them. I certainly hope that I do; for where there is no exaggeration there is no love, and where there is no love there is no understanding. It is only about things that do not interest one, that one can give a really unbiassed opinion; and this is no doubt the reason why an unbiassed opinion is always absolutely valueless.” Wilde goes on to eulogize Pater, and we come upon this insight: “The critical pleasure . . . that we receive from tracing, through what may seem the intricacies of a sentence, the working of the constructive intelligence, must not be overlooked.” So here we have one great stylist about another one.  Except for the curious double “s” in “unbiassed”(which may be the British spelling), I could not agree more.

But what now of the opposite, the unbuttoned style? Perhaps the most enthusiastic exponent of it I can think of is the music critic of The New Criterion, Jay Nordlinger. Here he is reviewing a recital by the pianist Igor Levit, which focused on a work by Frederic Rzevski, “Dreams II.” Herewith Nordlinger: “Composers have given us many pieces about bells, and one of those composers is Rachmaninoff. Who wrote ‘The Bells.” a choral symphony. . . Rzewski’s  ‘Bells’ is very belly indeed. Each note has its purpose, and each is placed just so. There is an earnestness about ‘Bells,’ even a gravity. The idiom is something like ‘tonal-sounding atonality,’ to borrow phrase from Lorin Maazel. As I listened to the piece, I thought it sounded Japanese. Is that because, in the program notes, I had just read about the connection between Rzawski’s ‘Dreams” and Kurosawa’s? You have to watch these outside influences, these extra-musical influences. . . . The third piece, ‘Ruins,’ begins with Bachian counterpoint. Actually, I thought of Shostakovich, channeling Bach. (Igor Levit began his recital with some preludes and fugues of Shostakovich) ‘Ruins’ gets grand, very grand, and goes on an on, grandly. Is this visionary or merely undisciplined? I’m inclined toward the latter. “ This, however artfully constructed, conveys sheer spontaneity: spontaneous, improvisatory, conversational stuff, however, I repeat, deliberately replicated.

Not all unbuttoned writing is quite this unbuttoned, but all of it is less formal, rhetorical, more natural-sounding, more pajamas than tuxedos. To be sure these categories are not hermetically self-contained: even a formal writer has informal passages; even an informal one has corseted patches. What I am proposing here under the heading Style is for you to consider what is involved in various styles and appreciate the diversity.

In this context, let me give you another example of the natural, even chatty, style. This one is from Mark Twain. “A few years ago a Jew observed to me that there was no uncourteous reference to his people in my books, and asked how it happened. It happened because the disposition was lacking. I am quite sure that (bar one) I have no race prejudices, and I think I have no color prejudices nor caste prejudices nor creed prejudices. Indeed, I know it. I can stand any society. All that I care to know is
 that a man is a human being—he can’t be any worse.” I can’t help feeling a certain irony here. The statement means that to be human is good enough. But can it not imply that there is nothing worse than fallible man? That it is bad enough just to be a man, regardless of race or religion?

As J. A. Cuddon puts it in his wonderful “Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory’—a book I recommend to anyone who is interested in literature or writing in its many aspects—“style defies complete analysis or definition (Remy de Gourmont  put the matter tersely when he said that defining style was like trying to put a sack of flour in a thimble) because it is the tone and ‘voice’ of the writer himself; as peculiar to him as his laugh, his walk, his handwriting and the expression on his face. The style, as Buffon put it, is the man.”

Style, however, is something you choose, not something you’re born with. Accordingly, you choose “heavenly” or “celestial,” “tearful” or “lachrymose,” “jolly” or “cheerful,” “funny” or “droll” or “comical,” “person” or “individual,” “awkward” or “clumsy,” “typical” or “characteristic,” “shape” or “form,” “travel” or “voyage,” “hereafter” or “henceforward,” “choose” or “pick” or “select,” “something or other” or “je ne sais quoi.”  Choosing between them heads you toward Landor and Wilde, or Nordlinger and Twain, informal or formal. It enables you, consciously or unconsciously, to espouse a formal or informal style.

But if you are, or aspiring to be, a writer, a style you must have; without it, you are nowhere, a nonentity.


  1. "When we come across a natural style, we are surprised and delighted; for we expected an author, and we find a man."
    Blaise Pascal

  2. “I am quite sure that (bar one) I have no race prejudices….”
    That “(bar one)” is, of course, classic Mark Twain mischief. As we learn at the end of the Twain quotation that the only “race” he is prejudiced against is the “human race!”

  3. Of course embedded in either the formal or informal style is the personal style of the author, which can be recognized in his own work, or in other works not his, either as formal tributes or informal parodies.

    Aesop, Wilde, and Twain were satirists; Jay Nordlinger is sort of poking fun at the "serious" classical music review, which echoes Twain's statement that Wagner's music is better than it sounds; Walter Savage Landor's fame rests on the imagined conversations of historical figures.

    Does satire make for a stronger style? The style of postmodernism is the juxtaposing of incongruous styles. I dig John Simon's reviews because he digs deep, he's hip to all the borrowings. And though he writes in a formal style he is often quite punny.

  4. Scott's right.

    It's difficult to comment on some of Simon's posts because he says it all so well. What could I possibly say to add to the conversation? I'd feel like Jethro Bodine addressing the graduating class at Harvard.

    "Yes, I thoroughly enjoy Dostoevsky. I applaud how he uses his periods and commas. He usually places a period at exactly the optimum spot in the sentence; never a word too soon, and never a word too late. And, if I may say so, his use of commas is extraordinary. At times, even thrilling. Once, I thought he was going to use a semi-colon, and damn if he didn't shoot a comma in there. Surprised the stuffing out of me. I ran to my colleague in the other dorm room---Johnny! (I said) Look what this bastard does with punctuation!---"

  5. Some accused philosopher Eric Voegelin's writing of sounding "like a Delphic oracle"; which I suppose would be the utmost degree of formal... An indirectly related question: Can formal writing ever be humorous without also being a (witting, and witty) parody of itself?

  6. The great doctor of style was of course Quentin Crisp, here in top form answering audience questions during his one man show:


  7. Quentin Crisp on Hemingway:


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  9. Good to see John getting out and about!