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Wall Street Journal op-ed

Mark Garvey

May 6, 2010. Available here.

Adverbs and commas bring out passion and humour in guides to good prose.

Review of ELMORE LEONARD'S 10 RULES OF WRITING, by Elmore Leonard (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 91pp, $22.99) and STYLIZED, by Mark Garvey (Touchstone, 209pp, $39.99)

By Shelley Gare

In late 1944, Vladimir Nabokov complained to his editor at The New Yorker. She had rejected his story "Time and Ebb," criticising its hackneyed futuristic satire. In a fury of frustration, Nabokov wrote: "I am a little shocked by your readers' having so completely missed the point ... there is ... not the faintest trace of satire in my story ..."

What is surprising is that the seemingly clod-hopping editor was Katharine Angell, a shaping force of that magazine's fiction for 35 years. She nurtured not just Nabokov (eventually) but John O'Hara, John Updike and Mary McCarthy. Angell was also married to the New Yorker essayist E.B. White, one half of the Strunk and White behind The Elements of Style, that prescriptive but good-humoured guide to good prose that has sold more than 10 million copies and acquired mythic status since publication in 1959. Angell even contributed the section on the use of "would."

Such paradoxes only prompt the questions that dog anyone who reads and especially anyone who writes. What is good writing? Who really knows? Can it be taught?

The crime novelist Elmore Leonard has now added his cent's worth. As with his books, his 10 rules of writing mix idiosyncracy and plain-speaking. He is suspicious of adverbs and barks: "Never open a book with weather." (He also insists "said" is the only verb to use with dialogue.)

Overall, his guide has a haze of humour and a touch of curmudgeon and leaves you feeling something else is going on behind your back. Have you been had? The book, with its faux-scrawl portraits by Joe Ciardiello, fills just 91 pages with 1045 words.

Then again, that fits Strunk and White's gold standard: "Omit needless words." The Elements of Style, too, is about the pursuit of "the clear, the brief, the bold" as Mark Garvey relates in Stylized: A Slightly Obsessive History of Strunk & White's The Elements of Style, which turns out to be enthralling. Who would think there could be so much passion, wit and gossipy anecdote in a book about another book about commas, colons and clarity?

Instead of laying down more rules, Garvey relates how Strunk, the Ivy League professor, and White, his former pupil, came by theirs and why their little book of orders, examples and asides has captivated so many.

He admits to obsession and owns multiple copies. He knows that when the guide was turned into an operatic song cycle in 2005 (oh yes), instruments included tea cups and a typewriter.

His research leads to delicious cameos: a parody of New Yorker editor Harold Ross's love of discussions about "that" and "which"; a reader anguished by rule six: do not break sentences in two. There's even a surprise twist: Strunk winds up in Hollywood.

But first, William Strunk Jr. was an English professor at Cornell in Ithaca, New York. In 1918, he self-published his brisk 43-page guide to good writing for his students to save himself the tedium of reiterating fundamentals. The next year, White joined his class and absorbed the guide's brief chapters on word usage, form and composition.

Thirty-eight years later, well after Strunk's death, a college friend sent White another copy as a curio. White, now at The New Yorker and a children's author (Stuart Little, Charlotte's Web), was charmed all over again and wrote a piece about it in July 1957. A Macmillan editor spotted that and commissioned him to produce an updated version of Elements.

In its first year, the book - expanded by 28 pages and with a new chapter five, "An Approach to Style," from White - sold 200,000 copies. Its utility, good sense and humour appealed to students and the general public. Like Leonard, Elements is wary of adverbs, for instance, but also adjectives because "the adjective hasn't been built that can pull a weak or inaccurate noun out of a tight place."

Academics were less welcoming. By the late '50s, English departments were being taken over by what White called "the Happiness Boys," teachers who believed rules stopped creativity.

Garvey's chapter on White's triumph over this "anything goes" crowd is cheering. In late 1958, White wrote to his publishers: "I cannot, and will-shall not, attempt to adjust the unadjustable Mr. Strunk to the modern liberal of the English department ... I have seen the work of his disciples, and I say the hell with him."

Over several editions - four plus an illustrated edition in 2005 - and dozens of reprintings, readers have argued with the guide. It has been attacked for WASP-iness; there have been adjustments, more updates. Feminists disliked a line illustrating the uses of "like" and "as": "Chloe smells good, as a pretty girl should." Chloe the girl lasted until 1999 when, in the fourth edition, she became a baby.

By then, White had died. He had refused to change Chloe's persona for the 1979 third edition. Nevertheless, he answered all letters in good spirit, once joking to his editor: "Do you think this dreadful little book will ever settle down and stay quiet?"

He acknowledged that English usage was "as elusive as a rabbit". Elements wasn't meant to boss, says Garvey, but to help writers find their voice, unsullied by affectation or muddiness.

Garvey tells his story in layers, filling in areas sketched earlier until, helped by breakout reflections from writers such as Frank McCourt, Adam Gopnik, Dave Barry and Leonard himself, he gets to the heart of it: why anyone writes at all. He argues that the central idea thrumming inside Elements is that "careful, clear thinking and writing can uncover truth." Or as Leonard, quoting Steinbeck, suggests in his rules, watch the "hooptedoodle."

It says something about publishing - and possibly us - that Leonard's slighter book is more readily available than Garvey's richer tale. Either, though, will help clear your head.

Copyright 2010 The Sydney Morning Herald

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