Precision and what it means to Style

As I seem to be doing a lot of just lately, I read an extract from Francine Prose, Reading Like a Writer where she talks about the beauty of sentences in terms of three examples taken from Samuel Johnson’s brief biography The Life of Savage, Philip Roth’s American Pastoral and the opening of Virginia Woolf’s essay “On Being Ill”.

Then I answered these questions to my own satisfaction (’cause no-one’s reading my blog but me these days (probably because this is really boring for anyone but someone learning how to write creatively (like what I am))):

  • What kind of justifications does she find for the different stylistic qualities and choices of the writers she discusses?
    She finds SJ’s sentence to be great because of its clarity, which is ironic because I’ve read it several times and I still can’t make head nor tail of it outside of what FP (kindly) explains. She also delights that it is economical in that it only uses 134 words to express the simple expression ‘money doesn’t buy you happiness’ (Monty Python – Four Yorkshiremen). Yeah, sarcasm.
    I’m not at all sure why she likes PR’s sentences. Something to do with the rhythm of the percussive sentences, the call/response of the questions/answers and the parallels with exchanges between Job and God.
    As for the 181-word sentence from VW, I totally agree that it is “perfectly comprehensible, graceful, witty, intelligent, and pleasurable”. It’s as lucid and clear and SJ is not.
    Then come FP’s four rules to follow when editing a piece of writing: “Is this the best word I can find? Is my meaning clear? Can a word or phrase be cut from this without sacrificing anything essential? and (perhaps the most important question): Is this grammatical?”
  • How does this relate to precision?
    Taking precision as being the way that style is inextricably and symbiotically bound up with content, in a way that both exist to help and not harm the other, the statements FP make are supportive of this hypothesis/metaphor. Clarity, lucidity, comprehensibility and grammaticality are clearly closely bound up with precision. Heck, they might even be synonyms. I rest my case. Plus, I’ve a movie to go and watch now. And there are snacks!

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