Clear and Simple as the Truth: Writing Classic Prose
Forthcoming in The Dolphin Handbook (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1999). copyright © Mark Turner 1996
Writing is torture for the writer who has not selected a style. A style comes not from surface choices large or small but from a set of answers to basic conceptual questions about truth, presentation, writer, reader, thought, language, and their relationships. Can truth be known? Can language be adequate to presentation? Who is speaking? What is the motive? Is there symmetry between writer and reader? Is the occasion formal or informal? Is writing a presentation of a completed thought, an engine of discovery, a self-replicating organism, a prison, or a fun-house mirror?
Questions like these are the elements of style. A consistent and mature suite of answers to them is a stand on the elements of style, and styles are defined by such stands. There are many styles, some specialized, some general: classic style, practical style, plain style, contemplative style, romantic style. We learn to write by learning a general style. From it, verbal skills and surface mechanical features flow. Writing is an intellectual activity that leads to verbal skills, but the verbal skills themselves do not lead to the activity. The relationship is not symmetric.
The distinction between the stand of the style and the acutal conditions of the writer is all-important. The writer may be nervous, unsure of facts and locutions, motivated by an imposed task, obliged to try to persuade an audience of a proposition he does not have the knowledge or experience to understand, driven to avoid punishment, or afflicted by any of the other conditions typical of the first-year student in a composition course, but he may choose a style in which the writer is competent and assured, the motive is truth, the purpose is presentation, prose is a window, the occasion is informal, and the model scene is conversation between equals. This is a substitution of classic style for an actual scene of mock argument, and it has an illustrious history of success.
What is good in one style may be bad in another. If you start off with a view of style as a list of verbal skills and surface mechanical elements at any level, then you can end up with the “correct” list and present it as constituting style rather than a style. There are many mature and effective styles. Each offers the qualities that follow from its stand on the elements of style. The virtues of classic style, for example, include the clarity and simplicity that come from matching language to thought on the motive of truth. Other styles have other virtues.
copyright © Francis-Noël Thomas and Mark Turner, 1996
Writing programs are a major industry in American colleges and universities. Publishers sell handbooks and manuals by the truckload every year. The days are gone when freshman composition was taught by newly-minted PhDs who had just finished dissertations on Wordsworth or Milton and who had no special preparation for teaching writing. Today, there are writing directors and specialists in writing, writing centers and “composition studies.” There is also wide agreement that the general level of American prose is worse than ever.
The deep thinkers of the profession have been engaged for some time in explaining why all “discourse” is radically incoherent and have paid little attention to what are often looked upon as sub-intellectual “skills,” such as writing expository prose. They have paid even less attention to the way these sub-intellectual skills are taught. Those who teach writing today include many who attempt to teach some version of “the rules” and others who want to “politicize” such instruction because they think that teaching ideology is teaching writing. Neither of these strategies seems to work very well.
How can learning to write be so difficult when learning to talk is so easy? With little or no formal instruction just about everybody born with a full natural endowment learns to talk. Writing seems to present a curious contrast. Years of formal education leave a majority of us incompetent at writing. Watching a child learn to talk, however, points to the main reason that writing courses succeed so poorly. Talking is a coherent activity to children, and it is an activity they want to master. They make lots of mistakes and may not be able to deal with pronouns, or tenses, or the approved social forms of address and request for some time, but these are refinements that they can work out because they do not attempt to learn them as isolated “rules.” They have a map of the whole activity into which these details can be fitted, so they can subsume great ranges of lower-level detail into what is conceptually a single and globally coherent activity. They do not start by learning details and end up with a coherent activity. They start with a coherent activity and then add details and refinements.
Writing courses that are centered around “rules” fail because they tacitly assume that by learning a lot of separate verbal skills and conventions, people can learn to write. But the activity “writing” is not the total of subject-verb agreement, pronoun reference, the building of lexical strings, consistent paragraphing, organization according to introduction, body, conclusion, and so on. For most students, there is no coherent activity into which these details fit. So while it is possible to get students to learn a lot of rules, these rules do not generally become an unconscious part of a coherent activity. They remain isolated, arbitrary, useless. Naturally, the isolated rules are easily forgotten once the course is over.
Writing courses that avoid this problem by treating only “topics” or “themes” almost always concentrate on what beginning undergraduates are least equipped to do: engage in adversarial dispute. Should capital punishment be abolished? Should term limits be imposed on members of Congress? Should women be given combat commands in the U. S. Armed Forces? These are typical “themes” in freshman composition courses. The teacher tries to select a “theme” that will engage the emotions of at least some of the students; the students who can emote articulately, or fake it convincingly, and who can give some simulacrum of sequence to their assertions get high grades. These themes almost always require knowledge of subject matter and knowledge about the mentality of real-world readers that almost no freshman student can reasonably be expected to have. The atmosphere of these courses quickly acquires an aura of fraud. In many cases, the teacher is corrupted by his own opinions, so the student learns which unargued assertions will go down without resistance. If the teacher is bent on shaping social policy instead of teaching rhetoric, you know which answer he likes to the question about whether women should be given combat commands; you just fill in the appropriate sentiments, available either from the class reader or from what the teacher has said in the “class discussion” that is supposed to stimulate the required paper.
The weakness of this strategy for teaching writing is obvious if we consider that the topics or themes are almost always current. If the object actually were to teach methods of argument, it would make sense to propose a question that requires something more than emotional involvement or acquaintance with current clichés to answer. Offering a question that is enveloped with received opinion—like “Should Affirmative Action be Eliminated?” “Should the Federal Budget Be Balanced?”—distracts most students from thinking about argument. Yet these are typical College English topics. The topic is never going to be: Are people who want to forbid the use of icons in Christian worship heretics? Although this was the central question of the Second Council of Nicea, no freshman has strong feelings on this question, knows anything about the subject, or has a clue about how to structure an argument on one side or the other of such a question. Except for the possibility of “strong feelings,” this is also true about any subject: from whether dropping atomic bombs on Japan was wrong to whether condoms should be distributed in high schools.
Freshmen can do a lot of things, but probably the thing they are least equipped to handle in a mature manner is adversarial dispute. Later, when they know something about what they are talking about, they can have an idea of what the specific good moves might be; they can know what bad arguments they can get away with because the discipline is mesmerized by them; they can know how to cite people and how to structure their introductions for their disciplines. But when they are freshmen, they don’t know any of these things.
As a group, what are freshmen equipped to handle? What kind of writing can they do that avoids the fraud inherent in sham adversarial dispute? What can they conceive as a coherent form of writing? There is no doubt in our minds that the answer is presentation—the act of placing before the reader something the writer has already recognized. In presentation, the writer has recognized something he finds engaging and places the reader in a position to recognize it, too. Presentation does not require, as competent adversarial dispute does, knowledge of the complex system of assertions and evidence that give structure to a domain—like public policy, constitutional law, or institutional culture. Presentation begins with whatever a student can recognize. It then requires the student to learn to turn that recognition into a written expression. It does not require the student either to acquire or to pretend to have acquired substantive knowledge. Everybody is competent in something, but almost nobody is competent to present what they recognize to a general audience, and this is what freshman can reasonably be asked to learn.
Every specific field has its characteristic special styles of presentation. That’s why lawyers don’t sound like computer analysts, and why mathematicians don’t sound like anthropologists. Students will learn the special styles of whatever discipline they enter, but what they need to learn in College English is a style of presentation suitable for a general audience. The most fundamental and useful such general style of presentation is classic style. Classic style—used by highly successful writers from Thucydides to Jane Austen, Thomas Jefferson to Mark Twain—adopts the classic stand that its purpose is presentation and its motive is disinterested truth; that successful presentation consists of aligning language with truth, and the test of this alignment is clarity and simplicity.
The stand that defines classic style is not a creed; it is a set of enabling conventions. Any consistent style rests on a stand that answers questions about truth, presentation, writer, reader, thought, language, and their relationships. The questions are the intellectual core of writing. Answers to them make writing in a style possible. The writer of the following passage about shrikes takes the classic stand that language can align with truth; that truth can be known; that truth needs no argument but only accurate presentation; that the reader is competent to recognize truth; that the symmetry between writer and reader allows the presentation to follow the model of conversation; that a natural language is sufficient to express truth; and that the writer knows the truth before he puts it into language. “Unusual among songbirds, shrikes prey on small birds and rodents, catching them with the bill and sometimes impaling them on thorns or barbed wire for storage.”
To the freshman student, there is all the difference in the world between presenting shrikes and pretending to know enough about ornithology and ecology to engage in adversarial dispute over managing the environment.
Trying to teach writing by teaching rules obviously ignores the intellectual core of writing. But so does treating only topics. It substitutes the topic—capital punishment, birth control, habitat destruction—for the intellectual core of writing. Ignoring the intellectual core of writing has always been what’s wrong with College English.
copyright © Mark Turner and Francis-Noël Thomas, 1997
People normally do not think they want to learn a style of writing; they think they want to learn to write about a particular subject. But in fact what they develop is a style of writing, unconsciously acquired by reading in their subject. What motivates them to read is their interest in the subject, but in opportunistic fashion, they conduct a secondary hunt for insight into writing. Sooner or later, almost all writers will find a predecessor who speaks to their temperament and therefore teaches them something about writing. But this is a random and inefficient process because when readers follow their interest in a subject matter, whatever insights into writing itself they may carry away are random, unsystematic, and episodic. Absorption in a subject matter will often draw attention away from the problems writers must solve as writers. Our Museum, by contrast, offers a selection based not on subject matter in the conventional sense but on the exemplary success of the writers’ command of a style. What these writers know about constitutional law or the germ theory of disease may be wrong or outdated, but what they know about writing can never be outdated and is permanently useful to anyone writing about anything.
Paradoxically, masters of classic style have the power momentarily to absorb readers in the most unlikely subjects. The pleasure of thinking with the writer is not the pleasure of being absorbed in the subject, although in the act of reading, it may seem to be. It is possible to be under the illusion that we are fascinated by the proof of the infinity of prime numbers for the fifteen minutes we spend in G. H. Hardy’s company in this exotic field even though once we close his book, we may never give it another thought for the rest of our lives. The pleasure we think derives from subject matter derives from a consistently gratifying motion of thought.
What our writers have in common is a style of writing congruent with a basic style of thinking. It is this congruence that makes their style classic. The classic grammar of understanding postulates an objective situation that is “the world.” It postulates that our understanding of that world depends upon our focus and our attention but is not created or altered by our understanding. Classic recognition is a kind of clean interaction, and during our moments of recognition we do not count ourselves as part of the world that we recognize.
This classic grammar of understanding is misleading—it takes the stand that it produces an objective description, when in fact it produces a selective sequence of recognitions that amount to a distinctive presentation. It is not really an invitation simply to see what is there, but rather an invitation to recognize what can be seen once it is pointed out by a guide. The classic guide, however, pretends to be doing nothing but pointing you in the right direction, as if the rest could be left to your own competence. If the reader merely occupied the same perch as the writer, the reader would see the same things. Classic writing is an invitation to think with the writer, that is, to follow what may be a highly idiosyncratic sequence of recognitions, but this invitation is always framed as if the writer had merely selected a post from which to observe, as if the reader is to do his own thinking, and as if that thinking would agree perfectly with the thinking of anyone else who happened to occupy that same post. The reader is actually taking pleasure in someone else’s thought, but with the sensation of performing the thought himself.
When this is done successfully, an individual set of recognitions constituting one of many possible paths through a complex reality is offered and accepted as an inevitable presentation of what is undeniably there. The product of the classic recognition is simplified, unambiguous, presented as if it is objective and never merely personal, but animated by the force of individual cultivation. The result is presented as self-evident truth. Much of the charm of classic writing lies in its peculiar combination of eternal freshness and inevitable finality.
The experience of reading classic prose is the experience of a refined pleasure. The reader has a sense of accomplishment without any sensation of labor. People would rather think than not think just as they would rather see than not see. But very few of us enjoy thinking or perceiving in a systematic and careful manner from scratch over difficult terrain to a finished and definite recognition. It is more pleasing to arrive at a definite thought or perception than to arrive at amorphous and incoherent fragments, but it is also much more work. The classic writer is an unobtrusive guide who gives us the sensation of spontaneous thinking that nonetheless effortlessly arrives at a definite and finished recognition of what is coherent, inevitable, and true.
To the perfectly focused and relentlessly attentive reader, the selection and arrangements of our authors will be the best exposition of classic prose. But these writers are so successful at communicating and expressing the fascination of their subject that their achievement as writers is almost inevitably lost to sight. For some exhibits, we provide a headnote to focus on what the writers are doing as writers.
copyright © Francis-Noël Thomas, 1992
Whenever I teach a course in English composition, I want to see a sample of each student’s writing as quickly as possible. I want to know if my students have mastered basic points of grammar, syntax and usage, but I also want to get an idea of what kind of students I am trying to teach. Are they observant? Are they at home with ideas? What do they think is interesting?
The first assignment, I have learned through experience, ought to be vague enough to call forth a sense of adventure in the adventuresome, a sense of invention in the inventive, a sense of imagination in the imaginative. In recent years, I have asked my students to begin with what I call the “Who is . . . ?” paper. It’s supposed to be short, and it’s supposed to give an account of someone sufficiently well known to have been mentioned in a newspaper.
I get back papers about politicians and generals, rock musicians and television “personalities,” baseball players and—from my foreign students—soccer players; now and again I get one on a scientist. I have never received a paper on one of my dream subjects: Louise Brooks, Art Tatum, Dick Nen, Alan Turing, Braulio Baeza, Alain Chapel, John the Baptist, Stevie Smith, Pascal, Sonny Liston.
Most of these papers are dull and mechanical. Very few of them try to account for the subject with an anecdote. Most of them are written by people trying to play safe. They rarely contain an original conception of anything. But all of them use concepts, usually default concepts. Taken as a group, they confirm what I have learned from historians and anthropologists: contemporary urban people are almost certain to identify themselves and others solely or largely by referring to individual accomplishment.
Like all contemporary default concepts, this one seems “natural.” How else can we account for a person? Isn’t it inevitable to account for a person by explaining what she does or what she did?
It is certainly normal in our culture tacitly to accept the concept that a person is what she does, but it isn’t inevitable, and it wasn’t always so. I take the default concepts my students have used and begin to make them conscious of them as concepts.
I turn to the the oldest books of the Old Testament, the books of Samuel and the books of Kings, and read them the account of Elkanah. This account is quite different from any “Who is . . .?” paper I’ve ever read from one of my students or, for that matter, any Man in the News column I’ve ever read in The New York Times.
“There was a man from Ramathaim, a Zuphite from the hill-country of Ephraim, named Elkanah, son of Jeroham, son of Elihu, son of Tohu, son of Zuph, and Ephraimite . . . .”
I am not enough of a Hebrew scholar to understand the nuances of this genealogy, but it takes Elkanah back to his tap-root in four generations. I think I do not know anyone who can name his ancestors going back four generations. I can’t. I know that my grandfather barely spoke English and before that no one in any earlier generation in my family spoke English at all, but this didn’t disqualify me from becoming an English professor. No one asked about my ancestors’ language when I applied to graduate school. Like most urban people in this century, my roots in the place I am “from” are shallow; should I be offered the right job, I suppose I’d leave for California, North Carolina, New Jersey, Paris quicker than any Ephraimite ever left for Ramathaim.
Sometimes people ask me where I got my Ph.D. or even who my dissertation director was, but no one has ever asked me who my great-great-grandfather was or where he came from. I don’t think it matters; not many other people do either.
Yet I know this indifference to descent would astonish not only Elkanah, but people who lived much closer to my own time, people whose work I admire, study and teach—and sometimes imagine I understand. I am thinking now of Velásquez, who died as recently as 1660. I know that this painter, a great master in a century crowded with great masters, spent a fabulous amount of energy trying to establish claims—in some cases impossible to document, in others simply false—about his ancestors. He expended this torrent of energy over many years in order to qualify for membership in one of the royal orders. He wanted to be a certified hidalgo, a word that means, more-or-less, “the son of a somebody.”
It took a papal dispensation and a royal patron eager to accept the patently false claim that Velásquez did not do so sordid and vulgar a thing as work for money, but Velásquez got his wish. The insignia of his order is painted on his tunic in his only certain surviving self-portrait, a self-portrait included in Las Meniñas, one of the most famous and most admired paintings in the world.
It stupefies me to think that being the painter of Las Meniñas did not seem to Velásquez a sufficient basis on which to ground a satisfactory sense of who he was. What he wanted was to be a certified son of a somebody.
Theodore Zeldin, a historian I admire, says in the introduction to his fascinating study of French culture from 1848 to 1945, “I believe historians can make a contribution to clearer thinking about present ideals, habits and institutions, in which the inherited element is always large.” This expression of belief comes just a few lines after Zeldin’s characteristically pithy and original description of history as “an essential part of the constant process of re-assessment that every generation makes of itself, of the constant debate about what is worth keeping of the past and what is not.”
I don’t know anyone who can do anything as well as Velásquez could paint, but even people of very modest achievements identify themselves by those achievements and give little thought to whether their remote ancestors qualify as “somebodies.” I do not doubt that I belong to a generation whose re-assessment of the past has included a decision to abandon a sense of identity derived from ancestry. If I were to write a “Who is . . .?” paper, I might pick a subject none of my students has ever written about but, like them, I wouldn’t spend a line on genealogy. I know who Alain Chapel’s father is, but I wouldn’t dream of describing the greatest French cook of the post-war period as Roger Chapel’s son. If I were describing Roger Chapel, competent and honorable cook that he was and champion swimmer to boot, I might, of course, describe him as the father of a somebody.
Are you wondering what Elkanah the Zuphite’s great-grandfather, Velásquez’s passion for a royal order and Roger Chapel’s son have to do with English composition? After all, none of these people ever spoke an English sentence. What about sentence structure? What about commas? What about verb agreements?
My answer is that I know something about Elkanah, Velásquez, and Roger Chapel and while they may never before have been considered in the same essay, I have included them here to illustrate a concept about how people identify themselves. What gives life to writing is not spelling and punctuation or even rules of grammar and syntax but concepts and the desire to express them. I cannot realistically ask my students at the beginning of a composition course to write something interesting, but that is what I hope they will be able to do at the end. To reach that goal, it is necessary to help them conceive of writing as an intellectual activity, not a mechanical one. Punctuation, spelling, syntax, grammar are a kind of top layer to the presentation of concepts and ideas. No ordinary writer is interested in them for their own sake; until they become important to the presentation of a writer’s subject, they are as irrelevant and as invisible to non-linguists as the activities of theoretical sub-atomic particles are to non-physicists. But writing itself is an intellectual performance not a slalom event in punctuation and syntax, and any composition course I have ever seen succeed begins with ideas. Frequently, the only ideas available at the beginning of a composition course are default concepts that almost no one gives any thought to. Fortunately, they are as stimulating as any other ideas once we become aware of them as ideas and, of course, absolutely everyone has them.