Lying With Style

Clear and Simple as the Truth, the best book I've read in years, explains the virtues and lies of a very popular writing style.  Excerpts:

A [writing] style is defined by its conceptual stand on truth, presentation, writer, reader, thought, language, and their relationships. … Classic style is in its own view clear and simple as the truth. It adopts the stance that its purpose is presentation; its motive is disinterested truth. Successful presentation consists of aligning language with truth, and the test of this alignment is clarity and simplicity. The idea that presentation is successful when language is aligned with truth implies that truth can be known; truth needs no argument but only accurate presentation; the reader is competent to recognize truth; the symmetry between writer and reader allows the presentation to follow the model of conversation; a natural language is sufficient to express truth; and the writer knows the truth before he puts it into language. …

Classic style is focused and assured. Its virtues are clarity and simplicity; in a sense, so are its vices. It declines to acknowledge ambiguities, unessential qualifications, doubts, or other styles. It declines to acknowledge that it is a style. It makes its hard choices silently and out of the reader's sight. Once made, those hard choices are not acknowledged to be choices at all; they are presented as if they are inevitable, because classic style is, above all, a style of presentation with claims to transparency. …

Classic style is neither shy nor ambiguous about fundamentals. The style rests on the assumptions that it is possible to think disinterestedly, to know the results of disinterested thought, and to present them without fundamental distortion. In this view, thought precedes writing. All of these assumptions may be wrong, but they help to define a style whose usefulness is manifest. …

Writing in this style requires no commitment to a set of beliefs, only a willingness to adopt a role for a limited time and a specific purpose. The role is severely limited because classic prose is pure, fearless, cool, and relentless. It asks no quarter and gives no quarter to anyone, including the writer. … The human condition does not, in general, allow the degree of autonomy and certainty that the classic writer pretends to have. …

A [birding] field guide, in its stand on truth, presentation, scene, cast, thought, and language, fits the classic stand on the elements of style perfectly. Its implied model is one person presenting observations to another, who is in a position to verify them by direct observation. … It strives to be brief and efficient. It seeks to present the birds it describes specifically and precisely enough for the reader to recognize them in the field.

The writing in a good field guide is certainly the product of deliberation and revision but sounds like ideal spontaneous speech, as if an accomplished companion in the field wanted to tell you something. There is a symmetry between writer and reader: although the writer knows more about the subject than the reader, the reader would know exactly what the writer knows had he seen what the writer has seen in the past. And the guide's purpose is to put the reader in a position to achieve that parity.

The writer needs nothing from the reader. The writer's purpose is purely the presentation of the truth. Neither writer nor reader has a job to do. The writer writes and the reader reads not for the sake of some external task–solving a problem, making money, winning a case, getting a rebate, selling insurance, fixing a machine–but rather for the sake of the subject–in this case, the birds–and for the sake of being united in recognizing the truth of this subject. The writer takes the pose of full knowledge, since nothing could be more irksome to someone in the field than a passage clotted with hedges about the writer's impotence.

The authors explain why students should learn this style:

Classic style is also an incomparably effective style for American students to learn, because classic style is associated in America with intelligence and distinction, even though classic writing does not draw attention to itself or appear to be trying to promote the writer. Having learned to inhabit the classic stand and to write or speak from it gives the student an invaluable instrument for dealing with any moment that calls for self-presentation or persuasion, because classic style in America is taken as a mark of the superiority of the writer. The ethos carried by classic style gives an implicit but powerful picture of the writer which often accomplishes all by itself the task the student faces. The writer confronted with the law school application, the blank "Statement of Purpose," the application to graduate school, the job interview, the brief interval in which she may be allowed to pitch whatever it is she has to pitch, has a great advantage over competitors if she can assume the classic stand and speak from it.

Classic style is elastic over personalities, allowing the student to develop an individual style that is none the less classic for being individual. La Rochefoucauld, Thomas Jefferson, A. J. Liebling, and the authors of the Audubon Guide to North American Birds are all distinct and well-formed individuals, but they are all prototypical classic stylists.

Classic style offers the student exceptional pleasure since it is flattering to the writer, flattering to the reader, and intellectually collusive. It takes the stand that there is no external pressure on the writer and certainly nothing that the writer is trying to beat out of the reader – a grade, a letter of recommendation, a contract. The writer is unquestionably competent, absolutely interesting, entirely disinterested, at leisure, and articulate. The writer's security as a thinker and a writer is not at issue.

I admit it: by writing in this style I implicitly tell flattering lies about myself and my readers.  But this classic style seems so very convenient for so many purposes; how can I lie less while retaining its virtues?  A very vigorous hat tip to Alexis Gallagher.

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