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.


Simpson’s Stylistics

Leech and Short’s Style in Fiction


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…

View original post 1,249 more words

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).

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


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.


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


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)


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)






Martutene by Ramon Saizarbitoria

(I am excited to share a short preview of my essay about Martutene. Please read the rest of it at The Quarterly Conversation along with some amazing essays about books from around the world. Cheers!)


The 2013 publication of Martutene earned Ramón Saizarbitoria his second Euskadi Literature Prize and helped to cement his status as one of the patriarchs of Basque literature. A grand and audacious novel, Martutene is just over 800 pages and presents a nuanced perspective of the contemporary Basque experience. History, politics, language, and culture ripple through the characters’ daily interactions. Saizarbitoria dramatizes the best and worst of the contemporary Basque experience—national pride and cultural intolerance, as well as gastronomy and terrorism.

It is important to recognize the cultural significance surrounding the English publication of this novel. Saizarbitoria has published twelve books, yet he is most likely unfamiliar to most American readers of translated literature because only one of his books has appeared in English: Rossetti’s Obsession, published through the Center for Basque Studies at the University of Nevada, Reno. Yet he is worthy of much greater renown. One of the impetuses for the publication of Martutene in English was the book’s energetic reception in Spain; among other commendations, the jury of the Euskadi Literature Prize (2014) declared it “the most important novel of Basque-language literature and the top one in terms of quality too, destined to be the core of the Basque canon.”

Read the more at The Quarterly Conversation.

Jacob C. Singer


Welcome to my website. Feel free to take a look at my writing and photography (links at the top of the page). Most of my writing focuses on fiction, but I have some interviews with visual artists and musicians. My goal is to expand the content on this site over the coming month. So more to come!

Follow me on Twitter @jacobcsinger


IMG_4052 (1)

(A print of Dean Meeker’s Don Quixote – a family heirloom)