My writing is not classic, but it can be. This is not to say my writing can be great, nor that it will last, and certainly not that classic writing is the only kind of great writing. But I can learn a classic style, and if you can read the newspaper, so can you.
The most important thing to learn from Thomas and Turner about "classic style" is that it is a matter of intellect (reason and judgment), not superficial correctness of diction or syntactical form. Their definition of "style" is worth the whole book: style is a "conceptual stand" on six topics intimately involved in the writing of prose: "truth, presentation, writer, reader, thought, language, and their relationships." Sometimes they vary the list: "truth, presentation, scene, cast, thought and language." The classic writer's assumptions include the knowability of truth, the capacity of words to express truth without distortion, the essentially (though not accidentally) equal footing and reasonableness of writer and reader, and the interest of the subject. The imagined scene of a classic piece of writing is two people attending to and discussing something, though of course only the writer "speaks."
I was delighted to realize this definition is compatible with the remarks on style I've encountered in George Orwell, C.S. Lewis, and Evelyn Waugh, the three best twentieth-century writers I know. It also fits neatly with the little I've read in philosophy from Jacques Maritain.
Of all of the excellent instructional and exemplary material in this book, what impresses me most is the emphasis on the sanctity of truth and honesty. It's not the sort of thing one usually finds in writing manuals.
The classic writer is licensed, so to speak, by the truth of what he says, not by his social position, political power, or technical knowledge.
There is something at least mildly fraudulent about offering to present a subject and then substituting for it the problematic nature of the presentation.
Before getting too excited, I should note the authors do not actually defend traditional epistemology; while the classic writer assumes, for the purpose of writing, that "truth can be known," that it is eternal rather than contingent, and that prose can and should be a window on the subject, he need not actually commit to these assumptions as philosophical propositions. A traditional theory of truth and language is a good model for communication; in fact, it is the only model that can withstand scrutiny. The classic writer temporarily adopts an intellectual position as an "enabling convention" in order to do his work.
This is not satisfying; Thomas and Turner need to read Maritain. (Everyone needs to read Maritain.) But many other parts of the book are worth savoring. Consider their analogy for the "presentation" of the subject in classic prose:
The classic writer is not like a television cook showing you how to mix mustard and balsamic vinegar. She is like a chef whose work is presented to you at table but whose labor you are never allowed to see, a labor the chef certainly does not expect you to share. There are no salt and pepper shakers on your table.
Elsewhere the authors defend the dignity, appropriateness, and inescapability of abstract language:
A writing instructor or consultant who advises us to write concretely and avoid abstractions offers shallow and impractical advice because the distinction is simpleminded. What matters is not the ontological category of the subject but rather the style in which it is conceived. ...Abstractions are not in themselves bad, vague, or inexact. They are only so in certain styles of conceiving them. When a classic writer deals in abstractions, it takes an effort to remind ourselves that she is not talking about a stone, a leaf, a statue. A classic writer presents the concrete diamond and its aesthetic beauty as if both are visible, clear, and exact.
I am grateful to the authors for introducing me to the notion of "image schemas," a modern term for an old idea in rhetoric, referring to a set of standard sense- and experience-based structures of thought which we use to realize truth, and which provide templates for the expression of knowledge.
The book has an appealing humility, in that the authors recognize the limitations of classic style and its unsuitability for certain occasions. It is not the proper style for oratory, suggestion, or (in a certain way) persuasion.
They illuminate classic style by contrasting it with other styles, such as "plain," "reflexive," and "practical," which they define in reference to the six basic topics and illustrate with quotations. Strunk and White, we learn, do not teach "the elements of style," but certain surface features of "practical style." In romantic style, "prose is a mirror, not a window" because the romantic writer "does not separate thought from sensation, memory, and emotion," nor the experience recounted from the person who has the experience.
All of this material and more comes in the first part of the book, "Principles of Classic Style." The second part ("The Museum") exhibits and comments on classic and unclassic styles in quotations spanning several centuries and languages (always accompanied by an English translation). The third part ("The Studio"), which has been added for the Second Edition (2011), provides an innovative series of exercises for developing a classic style. I look forward to using them in my writing classroom.
As a writing teacher, I'm also grateful for the authors' explanation of undergraduate writing as usually a gander at practical style:
Most writing in schools and colleges is a perversion of practical style: the student pretends that he is writing a memorandum. He pretends that he knows more than the reader, that the reader needs this information, and that his job is to impart that information in a way that is easy for the reader to parse. This pretense is supposed to be practice for the real thing. Actually, the reader (the teacher) probably knows much more about the subject than the writer; the reader (the teacher) has no need whatever for the information; and the job of the writer is to cover himself from attack by his superior (the teacher). The actual scene interferes so much with the fantasy scene that the result is almost inevitably compromised, if not fraudulent. (Chapter 1)
In the model scene of practical style, readers and writers hold standard job slots in existing institutions. The reader has no leisure and does not want surprises; the reader reads not for personal reasons but to accomplish a job. Accomplishing the job depends upon the communication of information, and practical style serves the purpose of keeping the information flowing efficiently through institutions. Since students will go on to such employment, they must be trained to write in practical style. The writer is not an individual writing to another individual but a job description writing to another job description . There is a job to do and practical style is the appropriate tool for doing it: the style is thus fundamentally optimistic, pragmatic, and utilitarian. The motive is the job; eternal and noncontingent truth is irrelevant except as it bears upon the performance of the job— even then its eternal and noncontingent nature is beside the point. (Chapter 1)
Writers in professional or business worlds who want something from readers normally use practical style . Technical manuals, sales pitches, political arguments, undergraduate essays, computer instructions, op-ed pieces, and the great range of prose that attempts to get our attention so it can push us and pull us is typically written in at least an attempt at practical style. (Chapter 2)
This is an indictment of teachers, not students. What should we do differently? I will try two things with this book in my composition classes. First, I want to set truth as the polestar for my students' writing, going a bit further than Thomas and Turner in epistemology. At the Christian college where I work, we emphasize the truth of the Christian faith, and I doubt the authors' standoffishness on the philosophical question of truth will risk our mission. Second, while I won't stop teaching my students to argue -- my commitment to They Say / I Say, while not total, is substantial -- I will follow this instruction with several units on classic prose style, recognizing with the authors that "the most persuasive of all rhetorical stances is to write as if one is not trying to persuade at all but simply presenting truth."