Posted on Aug 31, 2015 in Non-fiction

by Ben Yagoda
Harper Resource, 2004

Yagoda’s title alludes to the curious fact that though we read the written word silently, it nonetheless reverberates imaginatively in our ears.  Some of this has to do with our contemporary confusion between the written word and oration.  The ancients did not have that problem.

In fact, in the ancient world the written text was always read aloud. Yagoda notes silent reading was still a rarity even in the fourth century when Augustine was surprised to find Ambrose, the bishop of Milan, “consuming a book” without uttering a word.

The writer/orator’s task, according to Cicero was to “first hit upon what to say; then manage and marshal his discoveries, not merely in orderly fashion, but with a discriminating eye for the exct weight…of each argument; next go on to array them in the adornments of style; after that keep them guarded in his memory; and in the end deliver them with effect and charm.” (p 5)

Reasons rooted in history then, that in revision we recognize the need read aloud, hear our words.

Author of About Town:  The New Yorker and the World it Made, Ben Yagoda teaches nonfiction writing and directs the journalism program at the University of Delaware.  And he’s after a definition of writing style that ferrets out how to make our words resound.

He doesn’t think much of Natalie Goldberg’s definition –  “Style in writing…means becoming more and more present, settling deeper inside the layers of ourselves and then speaking, knowing what we write echoes all of us….”  Yagoda finds her thoughts mushy, and her goal merely  “self-expression, self-fulfillment…I almost wrote self-abuse.” (xxvi)

Yet neither is he a fan of Strunk and White’s rigid definition in the classic Elements of Style.  They view readers as “delicate invalids” who can only handle grammatically plain and perfect sentences.

These extremes aren’t new.  They go back 2,000 years, says Yagoda, to Socrates (words as mere agents of Truth) vs. Gorgias (yes but also agents of beauty and expression).

I happen to love Goldberg.  Her definition and methods have freed many a writer to cut to the bone, find the story we can’t forget.  But there is also a need to write clearly and well.  So I’m not as offended as Yagoda is by these two definitions, believing that we must hold a certain tension between the two.

But I’m open to a middle way.  The trouble is, Yagoda isn’t easy to follow.  His style is often ponderous and his interviews with authors – asking them to offer a definition of style – confuse the issue or merely irritate (as when Clive James runs on for nine pages!)

My suggestion, dip into this one at random.  Part I is theory, Part II Practice.  At the very least you’ll come away with seeral great quotes.  Here’s a favorite:

As if the soul’s fullness didn’t sometimes overflow into the emptiest of metaphors, for no one, ever, can give the exact measure of his needs, his apprehensions or his sorrows; and human speech is like a cracked cauldron on which we bang out tunes that make bears dance, when we want to move the stars to pity.  – Flaubert.