Stylistics: A Reading List for Prose Writers and Editors

English and creative writing programs are failing to provide students with the tools necessary to develop a mature understanding of prose style. Theoretically, one would learn style by taking classes in writing, literature, and linguistics—but rarely do these classes teach prose style in a way that directly benefits students who want to be writers and editors.

Richard Lanham, Professor Emeritus at UCLA, is an expert in rhetoric, style, and revision. In many of his works, but especially his books Analyzing Prose and Style: An Anti-Text Book, Lanham criticizes this mainstream paradigm of writing instruction. He points out the contradiction between the advice provided by the Clarity-Brevity-Sincerity (CBS) theory of prose which “seems to contradict all that we say is good in literature and runs an enormous rift between ‘literature’ on one hand and ‘ordinary prose’ on the other.” By celebrating the CBS style of prose, teachers make direct instruction of style more difficult. The goal of the CBS style is transparency. By cutting language down to a bare minimum, there is little to point to regarding style—thus nothing to say. As a result, students only learn about substance—completely ignoring how poetic elements make literature. This creates a significant pedagogical gap.

Stylistics and generative grammar/rhetoric fill this pedagogical gap and should be an integral part of every writing program. Stylistics, popular in the United Kingdom, explore the intersection of language and literature. Through applying linguistics to literature, stylistics offers tremendous insight in how innovation and creativity function in creative works.

What I find beneficial about these texts is that they allow individuals to apply a rigorous approach to discussing complex issues in creative writing such as grammar, style, and point of view. It allows for a better explanation of the relationship between substance and style. Creative writing programs have placed great emphasis on the workshop method for instruction. And this depends on peer revision. If peers lack the technical know-how, conversations become shallow and repetitive. Creative writing students don’t need to have a PhD in linguistics to provide quality feedback, but the inclusion of appropriate technical language—like that included in stylistics—will benefit all involved.

Stylistics

Simpson’s Stylistics

Leech and Short’s Style in Fiction

Narratology

Bal’s Narratology

Fowler’s Linguistic Criticism

Donnelly’s Linguistics for Writers

Chatman’s Story and Discourse and Literary Style: A Symposium

Babb’s (ed.) Essays in Stylistic Analysis

Freeman’s Linguistics and Literary Style

Pinker’s The Sense of Style

Generative Grammar and Rhetoric

Francis and Bonniejean Christensen’s A New Rhetoric

Brooks Landon’s Building Great Sentences

Martha Kolln’s Rhetorical Grammar: Grammatical Choices, Rhetorical Effects 

Richard Lanham’s Analyzing Prose

Brian Shawver’s The Language of Fiction

Winston Weathers and Otis Winchester’s The New Strategy of Style

Michael Helm’s AFTER JAMES

If you like Robert Coover’s The Public Burning, William Gaddis’ JR, or Margret Atwood’s Cat’s Eyes, you might want to check out Micheal Helm’s After James–a wild novel that uses new physics to build poetic and narrative tropes.

Heavy Feather Review

After James, by Michael Helm. Portland, Oregon: Tin House Books, September 2016. 368 pages. $15.95, paper.

“The story seemed to confirm the existence of a thing not yet named, like an invisible planet postulated through math, the evidence of bending light, gravitational forces.” The pleasure of Michael Helm’s After James stems from how theory works in modern science. Currently, scientists don’t have to see to believe. Einstein couldn’t test his theories of relativity, but he was certain they were true. For scientists, faith in formulas allows them to believe with great certainty in unobservable objects—like an invisible planet. To a certain extent, this represents the modern scientific paradigm. Helm challenges his reader to join physicists in this line of thinking by rejecting classical physics, questioning metaphysical assumptions, and dumping psychological realism.

In Fiction in the Quantum Universe, literary theorist Susan Strehle coined the term “actualism” to describe…

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A Review of William T. Vollmann: A Critical Companion

Vollmann

(This originally appeared at a blog called Hysterical Realism on the platform Convozine, which recently went offline. I wanted to re-post it in part because of Okla Elliott’s recent passing. I didn’t know him personally but we connected through our interest in Vollmann in this article and stayed in touch via social media and email.)

 

There are only a handful of academic texts about second wave hysterical realists. Dalkey Archive published Intersections: Essays on Richard Powers. Sideshow Media Group released Elegant Complexity: A Study of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. Now we have William T. Vollmann: A Critical Companion (WTVCC) by the University of Delaware Press.  These books are invaluable for readers looking to better understand these writers, their texts, and their place in the world of literature.

Vollmann is both prolific and sweeping in range. He has written about Native Americans, Japanese Noh Theater, hobos, prostitutes, and the history of violence. A reader might be an expert in one of these subjects but not all. Readers need a companion to sift through his range of materials and its relationship to style. And as Larry McCaffery states, “I believe it was Vollmann’s sentences—with their unexpected analogies and their evocation of sensual specifics, their odd mixture of lyricism and abstraction, their wit and self-mockery—that left their deepest impressions on me” (xiii). Vollmann is a tremendous stylist who often breaks with conventions. While the creative writers will want to know how he makes all of these texts work, the academic will ask why. In particular, Buell Wisner studies Vollmann’s use of Elizabethan form in Argall. How does he use style and language to compliment his substance? Or one can read Daniel Lukes’ piece that explores the presentation and reception of his male protagonists with regard to masculinity, sexuality, and prostitution—a defining topic in the Vollmann catalog. One needs a companion to help make sense of these topics. These articles go beyond superficial aspects and dive into why Vollmann is one of the most exciting writers alive.  McCaffery writes, “I soon discovered that Vollmann’s books had changed and disturbed me, challenged my assumptions, made me feel empathies for people I had ignored. And somehow they also INSPIRED ME, made me feel less cynical.”

I discovered Vollmann while living in San Francisco, a stone’s throw from Vollmann’s Sacramento base of operation. My writing instructors weren’t familiar with him. They knew him by name but hadn’t read much of his stuff. I first came across him at Green Apple Books.  Before I had read anything by him, before I had even purchased them, I would open them and study how they were organized. The table of contents to Rising Up and Rising Down, The Atlas, and Europe Central were unlike anything I had seen, revealing a sense of order, exposing a mind at work in way that could teach me something about how big books were built. The scale of those books was immense. His fiction leaned towards philosophy, history, and poetry. I remember getting Rising Up and Rising Down (the abridged version), Europe Central, You Bright & Risen Angels. I would start, typically reading the first twenty pages, but could never finish as a result of school assignments. But the writing in those initial pages dislodged something in me. His voice and sense of building sentences were unlike anything I was studying in school. I knew at some point I would return to his works and read them slowly and carefully, because something there was worth savoring.

For example, I remember standing in Green Apple, on the second floor, right where the stairs end, and there was the table covered with books, I picked up Europe Central and read this:

A squat black telephone, I mean an octopus, the god of our Signal Corps, owns a recess in Berlin (more probably Moscow, which one German general has named the core of the enemy’s whole being). Somewhere between steel reefs, a wire wrapped in gutta-percha vibrates: I hereby…zzzzzzz…the critical situation…a crushing blow.

 

I didn’t know the terms encyclopedic narrative, maximalism, or defamiliarization at the time, but there was something about reading those lines that indicated to me that this book would teach me how to show the rockiness of the rock. Some would claim this type of writing a loose and baggy monster full of purple prose. Those terms carry a negative connotation. But I enjoyed it. Obviously some publisher thought it was worth producing. Someone somewhere was buying it, besides me—again at that point I didn’t know anyone reading him. I was reading in isolation, desperately wanting to connect with other people who valued this type of prose.

During those years of collecting, it seemed like a personal thing that no one else was a part of, a cultish following, which definitely defines many of Vollmann’s readers. I specifically remember asking a woman bookseller if she had anything by Vollmann. She said she did not carry any books “by that pervert.” A line couldn’t have been drawn any clearer. At that point I was well aware of Vollmann’s habit of smoking crack and hanging out with prostitutes in the Tenderloin. But as I read him, it was like Jesus washing the feet of prostitutes. He and so many of the figures in the book were lost causes, so much of the voice was sympathetic. I had never read someone who had such empathy for a group of people that are so often the detritus of capitalist America. The interaction with that bookseller made me aware of Vollmann’s cult status and might also explain why he is such an outsider in the mainstream literary world.

This critical companion is significant for a number of reasons. First, it makes the world a little less lonesome. Readers of Vollmann now have a book that can be found in the library that will offer them the silent conversation of academic discourse. Too often the academic world is purely professional, but for many it can be a place to connect with other like-minded individuals. This book is the starting point for learning and relationships, to say nothing of careers. Second, this book will help readers form a more nuanced understanding of Vollmann’s work, to look beyond superficial understandings of his public persona and to instead gaze deeply into the man and his work.

 

DANIEL LUKES:

Daniel Lukes, a co-editor, tackled one of the most salient issues in the Vollmann corpus—masculinity, sexuality, and prostitution. While often superficially addressed in book reviews, nobody to my knowledge has established groundwork for discussing these issues and how readers make sense of such topics. Lukes put together an MLA panel entitled “William T. Vollmann: Methodologies and Morals.” From there the project slowly snowballed into the book. “One of my favorite things about putting together this book has been connecting with – and being exposed to – such a range of perspectives on Vollmann,” Lukes said in an interview with Biblioklept[i]. I reached out to Lukes via email to ask a few questions about this book and his essay.

 

What is your perception of Vollmann’s place in contemporary literature?

 

I like what you say about the loneliness of the Vollmann reader: and how likely it is that even if your friends and colleagues count literature specialists among them, your direct circle might not include other Vollmann readers. He is something of an acquired taste or literary oddity, on some level, who has not quite attained either the critical or popular mainstream acceptance of many of his peers. I do sometimes wonder if Vollmann might ever pull a Cormac McCarthy and produce some late-career pop hits that make him more of a household name. In any case, literary history is full of authors who took a while to be recognized. Certainly one of the most rewarding aspects of the whole project, first the MLA conference panel and then the book, have been contacting, meeting, and working with other Vollmannists, finding such a sense of camaraderie among them, and sharing conversations and enthusiasm. I recently read Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 and “The Part About the Critics” made me think of the growing Vollmann community and the particular challenges involved in doing literary criticism on a contemporary living author; not to mention being surprised by whatever he comes up with next.

 

When did you first start reading William T. Vollmann?

 

I first started reading Vollmann as a young man in my twenties living in London, and his explorations of loneliness made a major impression on me. You read and read and sometimes you find an author who somehow speaks to you in a particularly direct way, as if making your own thoughts and feelings more intelligible to you. For me literary criticism should involve some kind of giving back – to the writers that are important to you – by sharing your passion for them. So when I went back to grad school for my PhD in Comparative Literature, I always intended to work on Vollmann, in spite of the difficulties involved in studying authors who are non-canonical, or controversial in some way. I am very happy to see that in the decade since I started my PhD, Vollmann’s profile has only grown more solid.

 

Can you provide a contextual backdrop for the MLA conference panel on Vollmann that started this book? How did you and Christopher decide to go ahead with the project of assembling this book? What was your motivation to include the shorter non-academic essays in the critical companion?

 

At the MLA panel I remember a sense of amazement that this really was the first MLA Vollmann panel: Vollmann’s worth is self-evident to his readers, but there’s a sense among them that this worth isn’t recognized enough by the literary establishment. This contributes to the outlaw, perhaps even cultish aspect of Vollmann fandom. Vollmann is a writer who plays with the rules, and so even for our edited volume we felt we had some liberty to play around with convention. I can’t remember exactly how the idea for shorter, non-academic pieces came about, but as Chris and I decided on having interchapters, we considered as models for this approach Hemingway’s In Our Time and Vollmann’s own Thirteen Stories and Thirteen Epitaphs. I am very happy with how they came together: I think the pieces by Vollmann’s collaborators offer the kind of insights into his work that no academic critical piece could do, and thus are the most valuable parts of the book.

 

The relationship between Vollmann’s protagonists, women, prostitution, and sex is a significant issue in his collection of work. And it is often misunderstood. Can you talk about why this is such a significant topic for an academic to tackle and how it might open up a more complete and nuanced readings of Vollmann’s texts? 

 

As for the topics of sex and prostitution, they are a key part of his writing: they are probably what he is most known for and the biggest obstacle to his academic and mainstream acceptance. By being an unrepentant customer of sex workers – a john – Vollmann eschews the kind of scholarly objectivity that is usually posited when studying prostitution: his position is perhaps closer to the kind of immersive ethnographic work that includes in its analytical scope the sexuality and the desire of the ethnographer. At New York University I audited a class with anthropologist Don Kulick: two of his books, the edited volume Taboo: Sex, Identity, and Erotic Subjectivity in Anthropological Fieldwork and his ethnographical monograph Travesti: Sex, Gender, and Culture Among Brazilian Transgendered Prostitutes were helpful to me in framing Vollmann’s work as being related to scholarly conversations seeking to deconstruct the would-be impartial objective observer of the global or sexual other. It has also been interesting to see how Vollmann’s prostitute writing aligns with sex worker rights activism over the years.

 

OKLA ELLIOTT

Besides emailing one of the editors, I contacted Okla Elliott to ask him a few questions, again via email, about his essay (“The New Universalism and William T. Vollmann’s Rising Up and Rising Down”) and forthcoming book The Doors You Mark Are Your Own (Dark House Press). Elliot is a creative writer and translator with a strong appetite for academic writing. This combination provides for fertile conversation and insight with regards to his essay on Rising Up and Rising Down.

 

What is your background with reading William T. Vollmann? What have you read? When did you first discover him? What influence has his writing had on your own?

 

Interestingly, when I first read Vollmann, I didn’t like his work at all. I started, somewhat unfortunately, with what I consider his two weakest books: Whores for Gloria and Thirteen Stories and Thirteen Epitaphs. After reading these in my early twenties, I more or less wrote him off as a writer I wasn’t much interested in. Then I read Rising Up and Rising Down and was hooked. And I was off to the races—The Royal Family, Butterfly Stories, You Bright and Risen Angels, Europe Central, Argall, Imperial, Kissing the Mask, Fathers and Crows, and Last Stories and Other Stories—more or less in that order, along with occasional shorter pieces in magazines. You could say I became somewhat obsessed, as is my habit when I get into an author.

As for his influence on my work, there is nothing apparent in terms of style, and any content overlap pre-existed my reading of his work. That said, he is a major influence on me in more indirect ways. His ambition (in the best sense of that word) has inspired me to work harder and bigger than I otherwise would have.

 

Can you tell me about your academic background? It seems that you are, at least on paper, far more of a creative writer than a philosopher. But your essay is quite technical. What was your motivation to address how Vollmann bridges the gap between relativism and universalism in Rising Up and Rising Down?

 

As an undergraduate, I double-majored in philosophy and German as well as double-minored in French and religious studies, so the philosophy angle has always been there. And my dissertation is half philosophy and half literary studies, with a major focus on Beauvoir, Heidegger, and Sartre, so the technical philosophy in my essay for the anthology is not out of character. You are right however that I am probably more of a creative writer than a philosopher or scholar, though I argue those categories are a lot more porous than we tend to think, especially for certain writers, Vollmann included.

As for bridging relativism and universalism, that has been one of my pet projects since my second semester as a philosophy major. Neither system alone seems to satisfy our deepest ethical concerns, so I think it’s really important to find the best of both and see what we can come up with—all the while admitting we will never develop an ironclad system of ethics. We’re going to fail, but we must fail better, to borrow a phrase from Beckett.

 

The Doors You Mark Are Your Own (Dark House Press) has been described as being a blend of Nabokov and Philip K. Dick. But when I first read the description, I thought of Europe Central because of how both are set in a non-western context or point of view. This was long before I knew you wrote a critical essay on Vollmann. Can you tell me about the stylistic research you did with Raul Clement (co-author) to write an encyclopedic novel set in the Soviet Union? What texts did you actually look at as guides for building such an expansive novel?

 

A lot of my scholarly work deals with trauma studies, largely the Holocaust, but atrocities throughout the 20th century more generally. This research came in handy, as did my time studying in Poland, a culture we made broad use of in the novel. For example, the fictional author’s last name, Tuvim, is taken from a famous Polish poet in fact (spelled “Tuwim” in Polish, but pronounced the way we spell it, which we chose to do to prevent the perhaps comical and Elmer Fudd-like “too-weem” that most English speakers would construe it as). Raul and I did tons of research on the medical science of the 1970s as well as work on early surveillance, since the novel is set in a world less developed than our contemporary world. He and I have both also been great fans of Russian literature for years, so we had a lot of material already at hand before we began the process.

William T. Vollmann: A Critical Companion is priced for libraries. So before you jump on Amazon to buy it realize that it will come with serious sticker shock. But what you should do is harass your librarian (in the best possible way, with smiles and sunshine) so that they buy it, especially if the library is attached to a college or university. This book is a significant contribution to contemporary literature, the understanding of hysterical realism, and the understanding of William T. Vollmann.

 

 

[i] http://biblioklept.org/2015/02/19/an-interview-with-christopher-k-coffman-and-daniel-lukes-editors-of-william-t-vollmann-a-critical-companion-part-i/

American Book Review and Rain Taxi

I am excited to share that American Book Review published my review of Eloy Urroz‘s The Family Interrupted (Dalkey Archive) and Rain Taxi published my interview with Sanderia Faye about her novel Mourner’s Bench (University of Arkansas Press).

An Interview with Joseph Scapellato (Necessary Fiction)

big_lonesome_crop2

I am excited to share my interview with Joseph Scapellato regarding his debut collection of short stories. This interview covers his development as a writer and a bit of conversation about style and craft. These stories are set in Texas, the West, and Chicago with stylistic touchstones that range from John Barth, Richard Brautigan, and Cormic McCarthy’s younger brother who love slapstick humor. Enjoy.

 

An Interview with Joseph Scapellato

I met Joseph Scapellato fifteen years ago in Milwaukee, Wisconsin through mutual friends in Marquette University’s theater department. We bonded over fiction and writing. Since then we have kept in touch, meeting up now-and-again to swap manuscripts over coffee or beer, sharing advice and book recommendations. Scapellato now teaches at Bucknell University and has published his work in the Kenyon Review online, Gulf Coast, and The Best Innovative Writing. Big Lonesome is his debut book. In this interview we discuss his progress as a writer, how teaching influences his own writing, and his style in this collection of short stories.

Jacob Singer: Would you talk about your evolution as a reader and writer?

Joseph Scapellato:  One afternoon when I was a kid, I drew a series of pictures, a one-panel-per-page “comic book.”  This was before I knew how to write.  I knew that a comic book needed text to be official, captions of some kind, so I drew big blank boxes at the top of every page.  Then I asked my endlessly patient mom to write what I dictated in those boxes.  She was nice enough to do so.

In this “comic book,” Spiderman fights armies of aliens.  He steals a mean-looking alien laser gun.  He blasts hundreds of aliens into bloody halves.  I remember this only because my mom still has the stapled-together pages of it.  A limited print run.

This was where I started!  And it was followed by lots of reading, lots of writing.  As a kid, my favorite thing to read was mythology—Greek, Norse, Egyptian.  I couldn’t get enough of it.  And I think that my favorite non-mythology books were the ones that were aglow with the same exciting elements that drew me to mythology in the first place: wonder, darkness, humor, surprise, transformation.  I was a big Roald Dahl fan, for instance.

Then I started writing. I wrote a play in fourth grade.  I wrote stories and novellas in junior high.  I wrote poetry and radio dramas in high school.  The writer who’s most influenced me as I’ve gotten older, I think, is Russell Hoban.  Especially his first novel, The Lion of Boaz-Jachin and Jachin-Boaz.  When I read it in 2005, I was stunned, joyously stunned: he was doing what I’d been trying and trying and trying to do.  One of the many things I love about Hoban is his magic way of honoring the mystery of being by honoring the mystery of language.  In his best work, these two mysteries become interchangeable.  It’s beautiful.

Read the rest at Necessary Fiction

Fourth Annual David Foster Wallace Conference

I’m excited to announce that I’ll be presenting at the Fourth Annual David Foster Wallace conference this summer. My presentation is titled “Building Sentences with David Foster Wallace” and will address his prose style in both fiction and nonfiction. Below is my proposal.

 

This proposal provides a three-part presentation about how stylistics can be used to explore David Foster Wallace’s prose style. This topic is important for instructors of innovative literature and creative writing because there is a pedagogical gap that fails to provide students with the technical understanding of the English sentence and how grammar can be used to achieve rhetorical ends. First, this presentation will briefly define the mainstream paradigm of writing instruction in English and writing programs. This is significant because Wallace’s opaque prose style has been judged as deviant when compared to the mainstream paradigm, which values transparency and simplicity. Second, the presentation will primarily focus on introducing and applying the theories of Francis Christensen, Brooks Landon, and Richard Lanham to a range of Wallace’s writing. In particular we will look at the notion of generative grammar, subordination, and the master sentence. Third, we examine how Wallace built sentences in his fiction and nonfiction to better understand how he used style to achieve rhetorical goals by addressing the needs of his audience—which varied greatly depending on his mode of writing.

 

 

Best Books of 2016

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I’ve never kept a reading list before, so this is a first. Below consists of all the books I’ve read this past year. That being said, I have only considered books published within the past 16 months for my favorite list.


Favorites

Martutene – Ramon Saizarbitoria (Hispabooks)

Between the World and Me – Ta-Nehisi Coates (Spiegel & Grau)

The Family Interrupted – Eloy Urroz (Dalkey Archive)

After James – Michael Helm (Tin House)

Mourner’s Bench – Sanderia Faye (University of Arkansas)


 

2016 Reading List

Nonfiction 

MFA v. NYC – ed. Chad Harbach (FSG)

What We Should’ve Known: Two Discussions – Keith Gessen (N+1)

No Regrets: Three Discussions – Sara Marcus (N+1)

Linguistics for Writers – Colleen Donnelly (SUNY Press)

The Quantum Society – Danah Zohar (William Morrow)

The Inventors: A Memoir – Peter Selgin (Hawethorne Books)

The Elements and Pleasures of Difficulty – Mariolina Salvatori and Patricia Donahue (Pearson)

Subculture: The Memory of Style – Dick Hebdidge (Routledge)

Free Culture: The Nature and Future of Creativity – Lawrence Lessig (Penguin)

Crimes of Style: Urban Graffiti and the Politics of Criminality – Jeff Ferrell (Northeastern)

How We Become Posthuman – N. Katherine Hayles (University of Chicago)

Readings from the New Book on Nature: Physics and Metaphysics in the Modern Novel – Robert L. Nadeau

Literary Theory – Jonathan Culler (Sterling)

Architectures of Possibility – Lance Olsen (Guide Dog Books)

Building Great Sentences – Brooks Landon (Penguin)

The Maximalist Novel – Stefano Ercolino (Bloomsbury)

Al Capone: His Life, Legacy, and Legend – Deirdre Bair (Doubleday)

The Craft of Research – Booth, Colomb, and Williams (University of Chicago)

Fiction

Omensetter’s Luck – William Gass (Penguin)

Under the Volcano – Malcolm Lowry (Penguin)

R.U.R. (Russum’s Universal Robots) – Karel Capek (Penguin)

You or the Invention of Memory – Jonathan Baumbach (Dzanc)

Late One Night – Lee Martin (Dzanc)

Song of Solomon – Toni Morrison (Knopf)

The Soul Standard – Richard Thomas, Nik Korpon, Caleb Ross, Axel Taiari (Dzanc)

Adrienne in the Grotesque Labyrinth – Salvador Espriu (Dalkey)

Galaxies – Barry Malzberg (Anti-Oedipus Press)

Diegeses – D. Harlan Wilson (Anti-Oedipus Press)

My Life as an Animal – Laurie Stone (Northwestern Press)

The Glacier – Jeff Wood (Two Dollar Radio)