Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Friday, November 1, 2013

the tyranny of House Style

In this really interesting conversation between the novelist Donna Tartt and her editor Michael Pietsch, Pietsch quotes from a memo Tartt wrote to her copy editor:

I am terribly troubled by the ever-growing tendency to standardized and prescriptive usage, and I think that the Twentieth century, American-invented conventions of House Rules and House Style, to say nothing of automatic computer functions like Spellcheck and AutoCorrect, have exacted an abrasive, narrowing, and destructive effect on the way writers use language and ultimately on the language itself. Journalism and newspaper writing are one thing; House Style indubitably very valuable there; but as a literary novelist who writes by hand, in a notebook, I want to be able to use language for texture and I've intentionally employed a looser, pre-twentieth century model rather than running my work through any one House Style mill.

When Pietsch reads this to Tartt, who had perhaps forgotten the details of her memo, she replies by expanding on the point:

Well—I'm not saying that the writer's voice is always the highest standard; only that a lot of writers who are fine stylists and whose work I love wouldn't make it past a contemporary copy editor armed with the Chicago Manual, including some of the greatest writers and stylists of the 19th and 20th century. It's not as if we're the French, with the Academy, striving to keep the language pure—fine to correct honest mistakes, but quite apart from questions of punctuation and grammar—of using punctuation and grammar for cadence—English is such a powerful and widely spoken language precisely because it's so flexible, and capacious: a catchall hybrid that absorbs and incorporates everything it comes into contact with. Lexical variety, eccentric constructions and punctuation, variant spellings, archaisms, the ability to pile clause on clause, the effortless incorporation of words from other languages: flexibility, and inclusiveness, is what makes English great; and diversity is what keeps it healthy and growing, exuberantly regenerating itself with rich new forms and usages. Shakespearean words, foreign words, slang and dialect and made-up phrases from kids on the street corner: English has room for them all. And writers—not just literary writers, but popular writers as well—breathe air into English and keep it lively by making it their own, not by adhering to some style manual that gets handed out to college Freshmen in a composition class.

This is great stuff. I'm reminded of one of Nabokov's letters in which he mentions replying to a bunch of copy-editor corrections with "thunderous stets." As someone with neither the virtuosity nor the titanic ego of Nabokov, I am largely thankful for the work of copy editors, who have saved me from many gross errors over the years — but the tyranny of House Style is a major pain in the ass for any stylistically sensitive writer, because there's no clear avenue of appeal when it's invoked: the editor isn't saying "this is better" but rather "this is just what we do." And you never know — or at any rate I have never been able to figure out — when an editor will give way to authorial passion and/or reason and when he or she will dig in the old heels.

I sometimes wonder whether these inevitable conflicts between editors and writers aren't becoming more intense as more and more writers are blogging and tweeting, that is, writing wholly without editorial supervision. The Wild West of online writing may even cause editors to want all the more to hold firmly to Standards. But when a writer has the skill and thoughtfulness, and experience, of a Donna Tartt, then she deserves to trump House Style. As I expect she does.

1 comments:

  • You might know of this already, but, on a totally different subject, Melvin Bragg of BBC4 's "In Our Time" recently had a program on the Book of Common Prayer, featuring Diarmaid MacCulloch, Alexandra Walsham, and Thomas Cranmer: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b03ct4n4

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