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

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.