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The Art of Writing Well

Obsession with originality in art has proven just as destructive as conformity.

The Fortnightly Review has put together a nice dossier on the French writer Remy de Gourmont, a contemporary of Alfred Jarry who influenced both Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot. Gourmont’s most important critical work is The Problem of Style (1902)—a response to Antoine Albalat’s The Art of Writing in Twenty Lessons (1899), which, like many writing manuals, proposes to teach readers how to write well by providing annotated examples of good prose and poetry, lists of clichés to avoid, and so forth.

The context of Gourmont’s Problème is important. Albalat had argued that style is entirely the result of imitating writers of “taste”: “One should always have in front of oneself,” Albalat writes, “the great classical models. One should obsess over their thought, their form, their style…And ask, following Longinus: How would Homer have said this?”

Gourmont will have none of this:

No. This is absurd…One should ask oneself [rather]: How do I feel this, how do I see this? And ignore the Greeks, the Romans, the Classics, and the Romantics. When he is writing, a writer should not concern himself with either his masters or his style. If he sees, if he feels, if he says something, it will either be interesting or not, beautiful or mediocre, but he must take a chance. But to try and trick the ignorant or the stupid by cunningly using a few famous lines? It’s dirty work and a stupid attitude! Style is feeling, seeing thinking, and nothing more.

Albalat’s Art of Writing is, at times, overly simplistic, and Gourmont is right to skewer his advice to mindlessly imitate Homer. But Gourmont’s response also goes too far in associating style with personal experience. This obscures what writers gain by reading others and the importance of looking not only inward, but outward. As T.S. Eliot put it in “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” which is, in part, a response to Gourmont, “if the only form of tradition… consisted in following the ways of the immediate generation before us in a blind or timid adherence to its successes, ‘tradition’ should positively be discouraged. We have seen many such simple currents soon lost in the sand; and novelty is better than repetition.” But the poet “must be aware that the mind of Europe—the mind of his own country—a mind which he learns in time to be much more important than his own private mind—is a mind which changes, and that this change is a development which abandons nothing en route, which does not superannuate either Shakespeare, or Homer, or the rock drawing of the Magdalenian draughtsmen…the poet must develop or procure the consciousness of the past.”

Furthermore, Gourmont’s emphasis on the individuality of style in one of the many selections excerpted at Fortnightly leads him to make a false distinction between two kinds of writers and readers:

The writer with an abstract style is almost always a sentimentalist, at least a sensitive. The artist-writer is hardly ever sentimental and very rarely a sensitive; that is to say, he incorporates all his sensibility in his style, and has very little left for life and the profound passions. The one takes a ready-made phrase or writes a facile phrase wherein, deceived by his own emotion, he thinks there is an emotive value; the other takes words which are merely handfuls, constructs the limbs of his work and erects a statue which whether beautiful or ugly, heavy or winged, will yet keep in its attitude some of the life which animated the hands by which it was moulded. Nevertheless the vulgar will feel more emotion from the banal phrase than from the original phrase; and this will be the counterproof: to the reader who draws his emotions from the very substance of what he reads is opposed the reader who only feels what he reads to the extent that he can apply it to his own life, to his griefs, to his hopes. He who enjoys the literary beauty of a sermon by Bossuet cannot be touched by it religiously, and he who weeps for the death of Ophelia has no aesthetic sense. These two parallel categories of writers and readers constitute the two great types of cultivated humanity. In spite of shades and over-lappings, no understanding is possible between them; they despise each other, for they do not understand each other. Their animosity extends in two wide, sometimes subterranean, streams throughout literary history.

There’s something to Gourmont’s view that abstraction, which includes jargon and clichés, and sentimentality go hand in hand. Abstract words are vague and capable of evoking an emotion that may or may not be warranted in a particular context or circumstance. Sentimentality is a feeling that is inconsonant with the event that produced it.

Gourmont is wrong, however, that readers who weep “for the death of Ophelia” have “no aesthetic sense” and that those who are touched by the beauty of a sermon can learn no dogma from it. This is silly and makes imaginative writing the domain of specialists whose interest in it is merely technical. If “for ‘the intellectual’ everything is in the manner in which the subject is treated,” as Gourmont states, God save us from intellectuals.

Throughout Problème, Gourmont refuses to distinguish between style and thought—one is the other. Again, there is something to this. Good writing, he states, is “irrefutable.” At the same time, “Nothing perishes more quickly than style unsupported by the solidity of vigorous thought.”

But, again, he goes too far when he writes that “style and thought are the same.” This wrongly elevates originality (which is almost always what Gourmont means by “style”) to a degree that in practice diminishes the importance of truth and emotion in a work of art. Gourmont could care less about truth. “Truth tyrannizes,” he writes, “doubt liberates.” But, contra Gourmont’s self-defeating praise of it, doubt has proven just as tyrannical in art and literature as any number of other false truths. Nothing, it sometimes seems, can be expressed today in certain circles with authentic feeling without the risk of being labeled simplistic or naïve.

Furthermore, Gourmont’s principles of originality and doubt are just as susceptible to being gamed as Albalat’s classical ones are. If writers who imitate Albalat’s classical style can dupe readers into thinking they’ve created something worthwhile by an allusion here or a turn of phrase there, they can also, following Gourmont’s creed of originality, trick readers into thinking they’ve created something worthwhile because it seems new or shocking. While Gourmont argues, as noted above, that “style unsupported by…vigorous thought” perishes quickly, the problem is as long as the thinking remains squishy, the ashes of bad writing will continue to give birth to bad writing.

Elsewhere Gourmont writes:

Conformism, imitativeness, submission to rules and to teachings is the writer’s capital crime. The work of a writer must be not only the reflection, but the larger reflection of his personality. The only excuse that a man has for his writing is to write about himself, to reveal to others the sort of world that is mirrored in his own glass; his only excuse is to be original; he must speak of things not yet spoken of in a form not yet formulated.

While this may have been necessary over a hundred years ago, it’s terrible advice for our self-absorbed, rule-breaking, originality-obsessed age.

There is no formula for writing well, no one, unchanging definition of good writing, and no such thing as pure originality. In my own limited experience, reading well has been important (reading all of Derrida—yes, all, at least at the time—nearly ruined my prose), but it probably was not as important as writing often and allowing editors and colleagues I trust to rip an essay or article to shreds. The latter is essential—at least for aspiring nonfiction writers. Writers who refuse to submit their work to others for criticism almost always remain failed writers.



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