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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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).

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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!

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