Friday, October 16, 2009


They tell you, and they are right, that it is not wholesome to write a bad review. That it is impossible to do so without sounding snotty. That you had better not even attempt it unless you can match the mastery of a Dorothy Parker (“The House Beautiful is the play lousy”). That you would spend your time, and the reader’s, more profitably by praising good work.

And yet, sometimes you are put in front of a target so gorgeous that every scruple falls before the temptation.

An early tipoff of misplaced enthusiasm in Stylized: A Slightly Obsessive History of Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style (Touchstone/Simon and Schuster, 209 pages. $22.99) is Mark Garvey’s boast of the number of copies of The Elements of Style he owns, as if he harbored in the basement a cache of Gutenberg Bibles.

Later, he compares the Little Book (so called by its enthusiasts) in its simplicity, directness, and authority to the Decalogue and the Rule of St. Benedict. Still later, he compares gazing at the manuscript of the first edition to viewing Magna Carta in the British Museum.

In apparent disregard of Rule 9 (“Do not affect a breezy manner”) he writes that Harold Ross’s prospectus for The New Yorker “reads like a sort of literary bat signal that must surely have twiddled the antennae of E.B. White as he worked over his desk in the Frank Seaman agency.” And I think that Mr. White, if present, would sigh over Mr. Garvey’s preference for gauntlet over gantlet on three occasions.

In short, Mr. Garvey’s little book on the Little Book illustrates the terrible, terrible fate of the writer that Auden identified in his elegy on Yeats: “he became his admirers.”

It will profit me nothing to criticize the Little Book myself. Professor Geoffrey K. Pullum, like Jupiter Optimus Maximus, has been hurling thunderbolts at it from the summit of Olympus for years, to no discernible effect. *

But if you can nerve yourself against the gush, there is some interesting matter between these covers. The account of the writing of the book and its early reception is a plainly told piece of literary history, as are the respective accounts of the lives of William Strunk and E.B. White — who knew that Professor Strunk had a brief career as a Hollywood consultant?

There is also considerable advice on writing from the people Mr. Garvey consulted.

Some of them edge themselves discreetly away from worshipfulness: Will Blythe says: “Yes, but there’s still something really Waspy about that notion of style. ... And with many writers, the ideal of simplicity can sometimes be limiting.”
Keith Hjortshoj at Cornell says, “It’s a wonderful myth that applies not just to writing, but to all kinds of endeavors: that there’s a simple way to do this, and that amazingly talented, brilliant practitioners demonstrate that you can reduce it to a little compendium of rules or procedures. ... If I’m skeptical about the book, it’s because of the way it’s used—by teachers who think they can just assign this book to students and it will refine their prose. ...”

Adam Gopnik says, “One of my reasons for ambivalence is that there are many kinds of wonderful writing that don’t conform to the rules in The Elements of Style. Dr. Johnson’s writing is full of ten-cent words and very complicated Latinate constructions, and Dr. Johnson is a better writer than Strunk ever was—maybe even a better writer than White. Herman Melville doesn’t write that way. James Joyce doesn’t write that way. Wallace Stevens doesn’t write that way.”

One of the blurbs for Mr. Garvey’s book admires the author’s “infectious enthusiasm.” Gowns, gloves, and masks, everyone.

*Mr. Garvey presents Professor Pullum briefly as a bellicose academic without actually describing his arguments about the defects of the Little Book and its misguided adherents. He goes on to stack this particular deck by juxtaposing Professor Pullum with a couple of genuine academic zanies. For a serious look at the criticisms, you will need to consult the various Language Log entries on the subject.


I received a review copy of Stylized from the publisher. In addition, if a reader of this blog should order a copy from by clicking on the link below, I will eventually receive a minuscule portion of the proceeds.


  1. (I mentioned this at the old site, but the URL got dropped, so I'll repeat it here.)

    It seemed to me that a sensible response to Strunk's deficiencies was to revise the little book instead of bemoaning it. And this I have done, using Strunk's original as a base (White's parts are still in copyright). Strunk & White lovers and even haters, if open-minded, are urged to check out Strunk & Cowan instead.

  2. I think bad reviews, especially for works that looks as if they would be interesting / entertaining / useful but are not (we're not talking Dan Brown here), are a valuable service. People need to know that something is disappointing, and specifically why that is the case. This can (and should) be done without snark, but if you can be snotty and genuinely funny, go for it!

  3. There are many things to quibble about in the Little Book, but I shall always revere this sentence:
    "A sentence should contain no unnecessary words and a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts."
    Every copy desk should have it framed and displayed prominently.

  4. I have nothing against bad reviews, but a reviewer should be cognizant that negative thoughts carry more weight than positive ones. Decades ago I read a glowing review of a dinner theater on its one-year anniversary. The only negative assertion was that the peas were boring, but that was the one assertion that stuck with me. I've since associated that dinner theater mainly with boring peas. Asked on my death bed how life was, I may answer, "Not terrible, but the peas were boring."

    In their defense, Strunk and White didn't say that they were right and dissenters were wrong. Strunk wrote: "It is an old observation that the best writers sometimes disregard the rules of rhetoric. When they do so, however, the reader will usually find in the sentence some compensating merit, attained at the cost of the violation. Unless he is certain of doing as well, he will probably do best to follow the rules." Not to be picky, but the "he" in "Unless he" should be "Unless the writer" instead. The "he" seems at first to refer to the reader. At best the word is unclear. Unclear brevity is no virtue.

  5. Part of the point of Stylized is that Elements is not really the prescriptivist cudgel it's often said to be--that it really does not demand blind obedience to the EOS doctrine. Criticism that faults the Stylized author for not following the "rules" in Elements has pretty clearly missed that point.