Thursday, February 15, 2018

Starting with What Matters, Part 9: T. S. Eliot

"What I have to say is largely in support of the following propositions: Literary criticism should be completed by criticism from a definite ethical and theological standpoint."

This opening sentence from T. S. Eliot's essay "Religion and Literature" reminds us that we lose nothing by getting to the point with our premise in our first sentence, as long as we skillfully support that premise.

Here Eliot argues that literary standards alone are not enough to judge a work of literature; a moral standard is necessary, one that coheres with an ethically sound relationship with society. Eliot's proposition is arguable, of course, but his the high quality of his trenchant style is not. 

Thursday, February 08, 2018

Starting with What Matters, Part 8: Ernest Hemingway

He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish. 
With these 26 words, the first sentence of the 1952 Pulitzer Prize-winning short novel The Old Man and the Sea, Ernest Hemingway plainly summarizes old man Santiago's lonely present (who fished alone) and unsuccessful recent past (he had gone eighty-four days now). Some fishermen might actually enjoy fishing alone, taking such an activity as a sign of success. But Hemingway quickly intensifies Santiago's misfortunes and loneliness in the next two sentences by mentioning how a boy, whose parents forbade him from fishing with the old man, pitied him, helping him onshore at dusk to carry his fishing gear whenever he could. The last sentence of the paragraph, describing not Santiago but the sail of his skiff, epitomizes his failure:
The sail was patched with flour sacks and, furled, it looked like the flag of permanent defeat.
The word the preceding flag in this sentence is especially striking. If Hemingway had used a, he would have generalized Santiago's malaise, but the makes clear that only one flag of such futility can possible exist. 

Such simple words, rendered powerful by the imagery they convey, are what made The Old Man and the Sea a great but sad adventure story when I read it at age 14, and a tale of a man's existential defiance in the face of certain defeat when I reread it as a college student at age 21. Recalling this passage, I urge writing students to use plain language because the subject matter they need to deliver is complex enough.

Thursday, February 01, 2018

Starting with What Matters, Part 7: Robert Penn Warren

Why do we read fiction? The answer is simple. We read it because we like it. And we like it because fiction, as an image of life, stimulates and gratifies our interest in life. — Robert Penn Warren, "Why Do We Read Fiction?" The Saturday Evening Post, October 20, 1962
By the time Mr. Warren wrote this fascinating essay, he had already won two of his three Pulitzer Prizes, one for fiction (in 1947 for All the King's Men) and one for poetry (in 1958 for Promises: Poems 1954-1956). He had already co-authored with Cleanth Brooks Understanding Poetry (1939), Understanding Fiction (1943), and Fundamentals of Good Writing: A Handbook of Modern Rhetoric (1950), textbooks used throughout American universities. Most editors of nationally published magazines would not grant writers the license to write the first three sentences of an article with 5, 4, and 7 simple words. But those writers are not Robert Penn Warren. Then his fourth sentence, at 18 words, more than doubles the length of the paragraph with more sophisticated words (stimulates and gratifies) and complex ideas (image of life and interest in life). 

Warren might have justified using such plain language by saying that the article ruminates about children's fascination with literature and that he had a younger audience in mind. I prefer to think that he chose to open with such an uncluttered style because, with his reputation as an author and English professor, he could.  His transparent approach here is a good reminder to all of us who need to write at work or for publication. Get to the point; keep it simple.