In Trouble

We wrapped up our reading and discussion of Strunk and White’s “little book” this week (i.e., the “little book” so tall that it lords over school style all these semesters later). When I say, “wrapped up,” I mean that we ran out of time and suspended discussion rather than getting in a last word or determining, ultimately, what ends The Elements serve. I occasionally feel conflicted about devoting as much focus as we do to such a quirky, popular, and curious collection of stray thoughts on prose style. Consequently, we dwell for many minutes on just how it is we must read EOS, as historical artifact, as trusted primer, as a portrait of the ways arbitrary and capricious fixations creep into a writing teacher’s sensibilities, as a partial and problematic commonplace (oddly captivating and stale, at once). Many, many minutes and yet not long enough.

Over holiday break, while on the dog-fetching sojourn in Syracuse, I chatted with a friend about the course I am these days so thoroughly concerned with teaching well. She asked, Why Strunk and White? It’s a setup piece, staging for the remake project inspired by Derek Pell’s NSFW The Marquis de Sade Elements of Style. I value the remake because it calls into question the plasticity of the elements, checking time honored rules against the many pop culture contexts that are, on the one hand, stylistically rich, but on the other hand, roaming on the roomier side of language’s prison house.

I also appreciate The Elements of Style for how conspicuously it presents style as arhetorical, or, if that is too extreme a characterization, for how it positions style as synonymous with “grammar,” falling, that is, on the side of correctness and clarity first rather than encompassing kairos and ornament (these four terms: correctness, clarity, kairos, and ornament come from the Crowley and Hawhee chapter on style). The style-grammar conflation is, of course, widespread, and EOS helps us see fairly explicitly its limitations, especially in its neglect of language acts as situated and in its inattention to figures and tropes.

The other day, when concluding our discussion of the “little book,” we ran out of time for looking at a surprising turn in the fifth section, “An Approach to Style (With a List of Reminders),” where E.B. White dispatches with “audience.”

Many references have been made in this book to “the reader,” who has been much in the news. It is now necessary to warn you that your concern for the reader must be pure: you must sympathize with the reader’s plight (most readers are in trouble about half the time) but never seek to know the reader’s wants. Your whole duty as a writer is to please and satisfy yourself, and the true writer always plays to an audience of one. Start sniffing the air, or glancing at the Trend Machine, and you are as good as dead, although you may make a nice living. (84)

When he says “most readers are in trouble about half the time,” I’m not entirely sure what he means. Surely the reader he refers to in that context isn’t his former teacher, Will Strunk, right? Could the reader “in trouble” be the adolescents working through a copy of Stuart Little or Charlotte’s Web? I don’t want to harp on this point like I’m driven to a hermeneutic pinning down of “the reader” in this passage. But it seems to me an extraordinarily strange gesture toward pleasure and self-satisfaction at the end of an otherwise conservative handbook.