Thursday, March 15, 2018

Starting with What Matters, Part 13: William Styron

Reading a William Styron essay is like meditating on a topic, the very objective a great writer hopes to achieve for readers. As a case in point, read these first two sentences of "An Elegy for F. Scott Fitzgerald" (New York Review of Books, November 28, 1968):
It is perhaps inevitable that all very good writers seem to be able to inspire the most vehement personal reactions. They might be quite dead but their spirits remain somehow immortally fleshed, and we are capable of talking about them as we talk about devoted friends, or about a despised neighbor who has just passed out of earshot.
So what is Styron doing in these 58 words to keep us engaged?

1. He slips in slowly. Leading with the protracted 15-word It is perhaps inevitable that all very good writers seem to be able to inspire, instead of the more concise 5-word Great writers seem to inspire. In doing so, he shows a great reliance on his reputation, a confidence that we will read on regardless of how circuitous a path he sets for us. He also uses this marker language to get us into a reflective mood.

2. He hedges heftily. Words like perhaps, seem, quite, and somehow not only prevents an absolutist viewpoint, but adds a feeling of bewildered existentialism to the opening.

3. He shifts suddenly. The absolute most vehement shows a shifting in gears from the hedging that preceded it, keeping us in a state of surprise.

4. He ditches an unnecessary transition. Styron trusts that his readers know the sentences following the first one are examples of the first, so he doesn't need the useless for example to lead the second sentence.

5. He mixes in the mysterious. Styron's use of somehow in this context evokes the enigmatic nature of writers, baffling us about the inexplicable circumstances that make us react so viscerally to them.

6. He conjures metaphysical imagery. Words such as spirits, immortally, and fleshed elicit flashes of the divine.

7. He uses subtle humor. Before we can ever wonder what it might feels like to be quite dead, we laugh at the thought that he would place these words alongside each other.

8. He shifts person. Styron makes shifts frequently here, notably moving from they (the writers) to we (the readers), and from plural (devoted friends) to singular (a despised neighbor) advancing a conversational style, as if he is sitting on our couch talking to us.

9. He shows our sinister nature. Only when we lose our reason can our most vehement nature emerge, and only when we are at our conniving worst can we unload scornful remarks about a despised neighbor who has just passed out of earshot.

The essay is a worthwhile read not only for a great writer's provocative homage to another great writer but as a study of what makes good writing tick, and makes us readers tock.