Here's how it's done-2

June 18, 2014|By John E. McIntyre | The Baltimore Sun

When, for a change of pace, I turned last week to actually good prose, a few of you suggested that I might make such an excursion a regular feature. Let's give it a try. 

Here is an extract from Adam Gopnik's "The Back of the World: The Troubling Genius of G.K. Chesterton," in The New Yorker of 7 and 14 July 2008. 

The text

There are two great tectonic shifts in English writing. One occurs in the early eighteenth century, when Addison and Steele begin The Spectator and the stop-and-start of Elizabethan-Stuart prose becomes the smooth, Latinate, elegantly wrought ironic style that dominated English writing for two centuries. Gibbon made it sly and ornate; Johnson gave it sinew and muscle; Dickens mocked it at elaborate comic length. But the style--formal address, long windups, balance sought for and achieved--was still a sort of default. ...

The second big shift occurred just after the First World War, when, under American and Irish pressure (Flaubert doing his work through early Joyce and Hemingway), a new form of aerodynamic prose came into being. The new style could be as limpid as Waugh or as blunt as Orwell or as funny as White and Benchley, but it dethroned the old orotundity as surely as Addison had killed off the old asymmetry. ... Writers like Shaw and Chesterton depended on a kind of comic and complicit hyperbole: every statement is an overstatement, and understood as such by readers. The new style prized understatement, to be filled in by the reader."

The commentary

Mr. Gopnik states his argument succinctly: that the luxuriant overgrowth of Tudor and Stuart English was disciplined into a formal garden in the eighteenth century, leading to a reaction in the twentieth. For the sake of an argument, one can forgive some oversimplification; there was plenty of Latinity in seventeenth-century prose, but of a different sort. I puzzle a little over aerodynamic, too, but let that pass, unless you want to argue about it in the comments. 

He is careful to choose representative examples--Gibbon, Johnson, Dickens--and you will note how aptly he chooses adjectives for a shorthand description of their distinctive effects. You will have probably picked up that the parallelism in the Gibbon-Johnson-Dickens sentence mirrors the balance and order of the writing of that era.

Surely he is also right at the end of the passage quoted to identify a distinctive quality of Modernist and post-Modernist writing, that the reader is expected to recognize and be complicit in the technique, to fill in the full meaning. 

The nine-word sentence that opens the passage I've quoted and the twelve-word sentence that ends it are the only short ones, but the others show that a writer in command of his syntax and careful with his examples can write longish sentences without fatiguing or puzzling the reader. 

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