EB White on writing

EB White
EB White

Today is the birthday of EB White (July 11, 1899 – October 1, 1985), reminds the Writer’s Almanac. Earlier this month, I posted an entry quoting the writer William Zinsser’s homage to White in his book, On Writing Well. The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr and EB White remains a classic English language style guide. I was looking at my paperback copy – the third edition of the book – which has only 92 pages. A little book but so big in authority and influence.

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Rewriting: A 20th century phenomenon

The essence of writing is rewriting, says William Zinsser in his book, On Writing Well.

With the arrival of the word processor, he says: “Two opposite things happened: good writers got better and bad writers got worse. Good writers welcomed the gift of being able to fuss endlessly with their sentences – pruning and revising and reshaping – without the drudgery of retyping. Bad writers became even more verbose because writing was suddenly so easy and their sentences looked so pretty on the screen.”

He is right. Revising one’s writing is a 20th century phenomenon, says Craig Ferhman in a Boston Globe article.

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Nature’s chief masterpiece

Of all those arts in which the wise excel,
Nature’s chief masterpiece is writing well.

The quote used to appear in a Time magazine ad long ago. Hardly anyone remembers the author, John Sheffield, the Duke of Buckingham (1648-1721), for his poetry, but maybe that is why I love the quote all the more. I am no word maven but am seduced by words.

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The seven ages of language

Stephen King
Stephen King

Don’t make any conscious effort to improve your vocabulary, says Stephen King in his book, Stephen King: On Writing. Your vocabulary will grow as you read, he adds. And then he says:

One of the really bad things you can do to your writing is to dress up the vocabulary, looking for long words because maybe you’re a little ashamed of your short ones. This is like dressing up a household pet in evening clothes. The pet is embarrassed and the person who committed this act of premeditated cuteness should be even more embarrassed. Make yourself a solemn promise right now that you’ll never use “emolument” when you mean “tip”…

Remember that the basic rule of vocabulary is use the first word that comes to your mind, if it is appropriate and colourful. If you hesitate and cogitate, you will come up with another word – of course you will, there’s always another word – but it probably won’t be as good as your first one, or as close to what you really mean.

Write simply, let the words flow, don’t be stiff and laboured. That’s what King is saying. And he is right. You don’t want to pause and look up a word or read a sentence twice to get its meaning.

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Updike on writing

John Updike, Wilfred Owen and George Plimpton were all born on March 18, reminds the Writer’s Almanac. My favourite writer, the most celebrated First World War poet, and Plimpton, the founding editor of the Paris Review, which he helmed from 1953 till his death in 2003. I remember reading excerpts from Paper Lion, his book about his pre-season training with the Detroit Lions, an American football team, in the 60s.

But most of all I miss Updike.

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Updike, the most sensuous writer in English

The most sensuous writer in the English language is dead. No one wrote more sensuous prose than John Updike. He carried his lyricism into his 70s. He was 76 when he died yesterday. The cause was lung cancer, according to his publisher, Alfred A Knopf.

He was – for his style and views perhaps – overlooked for the Nobel Prize. But he did bestow it upon one of his fictional characters, Henry Bech, the womanizing, egotistical Jewish novelist who collected the literature prize in 1999, recalls the Associated Press. It adds:

His literary home was the American suburb. Born in 1932, Updike spoke for millions of Depression-era readers raised by “penny-pinching parents,” united by “the patriotic cohesion of World War II” and blessed by a “disproportionate share of the world’s resources,” the postwar, suburban boom of “idealistic careers and early marriages.”

He captured, and sometimes embodied, a generation’s confusion over the civil rights and women’s movements, and opposition to the Vietnam War. Updike was called a misogynist, a racist and an apologist for the establishment. On purely literary grounds, he was attacked by Norman Mailer as the kind of author appreciated by readers who knew nothing about writing.

But more often he was praised for his flowing, poetic writing style.

Updike is as famous for his graphic approach to sex as his elegantly crafted dissections of the human condition, says The Telegraph.

The Wall Street Journal writes:

Mr. Updike, who lived in Beverly Farms, Massachusetts., chronicled all of America’s many anxieties about sex, work, and death. Perhaps his best-known works are the four “Rabbit” novels that feature Harry “Rabbit Angstrom,” a middle-class American who struggled to find his place in society.

The author was awarded the 1982 Pulitzer Prize for the third novel in the series, “Rabbit is Rich,” and the 1991 Pulitzer Prize for the fourth, “Rabbit at Rest.”

Less flashy than Tom Wolfe, Mr. Updike’s nuanced, supple prose caused many to regard him as the most talented wordsmith of his generation.

Obama supporter

Whatever his earlier views, he died an admirer of President Barack Obama. 

His most celebrated character, Rabbit Angstrom, was a Humphrey Democrat who became a Reagan Democrat. What would Rabbit make of the present election, he was asked in a New York Times video interview in October 2008. Updike replied:

“I am so much for Obama it would be hard for me to cook up a character who was for McCain. Rabbit would see, I think, the good of McCain… But luckily I am not writing about Rabbit any more.”

His last novel was The Widows of Eastwick, published late last year as a sequel to the successful The Witches of Eastwick.

He was quite perplexed to learn that both Obama and McCain included his books among their favourites, says the Guardian.

The New Yorker website features his last story to appear in the magazine, The Full Glass, published in May 2008.

The Atlantic magazine also showcases his stories, poems and essays which appeared in it.

Master of sentence, professor of desire

Troy Patterson writes in Slate:

Updike’s most enduring legacy exists at the level of the sentence. Updike is, line for line, without peer, the finest American prose stylist of the postwar era. The precision is painterly in the way of photorealism, except when it’s cinematic. Martin Amis, Updike’s only rival as a post-Nabokov virtuoso, wrote that “having read him once, you admit to yourself, almost with a sigh, that you will have to read everything he writes.”

It also must be said that, on the subject of sex, Updike could be the worst writer his publisher Knopf has ever known. Last month, Updike justly earned a lifetime-achievement prize in the Literary Review’s Bad Sex in Fiction Awards. He clinched it with a passage in the new Widows of Eastwick that includes — avert your eyes, children — the following sentence: “Her face gleamed with his jism in the spotty light of the motel room, there on the far end of East Beach, within sound of the sea.”

This is a very rare kind of dreck, the sort that can be secreted only by a brilliant professor of desire.

Updike’s burden

The Guardian writes:

Undeniably white, heterosexual and a Protestant, during his lifetime Updike carried the burden of being a writer who was not black, not female, not gay, not Jewish – decidedly not multicultural. He had a gift for being on the “wrong” side of issues about which there was a liberal consensus. Updike supported the American intervention in Vietnam, and doubted the wisdom of government support for the arts. He wrote with passionate grace about the love of women, but found even elegant depictions of homosexuality not to his taste. Gay writers queued up to express their annoyance. With so much about him of the upper class Wasp, the reality of Updike’s modest origins was forgotten.

He was born in Shillington, a small town in eastern Pennsylvania near the larger city of Reading. Updike’s father Wesley, after periods of unemployment in the 1930s, found work as a poorly paid maths teacher in the local junior high school. Updike’s mother, Linda Hoyer, worked as a saleswoman in a local store. Linda had a masters’ degree in English from Cornell, and wanted to be a writer. (She later published two collections of stories, Enchantment, 1971, and The Predator, 1990.) When asked in later years about her son’s great fame, she coolly remarked: “I’d rather it had been me.”

I’m a vanished man’

Updike achieved fame and celebrity when writers were idolized but now they play a less conspicuous role in our culture, writes Joel Achenbach  in the Washington Post:

Updike knew better than anyone that things had changed. Or at least, it had changed for him, as he told The Post’s David Streitfeld back in 1998:

“I go to a college to speak and am treated like a little king, get applauded at the end — you’d be applauded no matter what you did up there. You get a lot o
f love that way, people line up with the used paperbacks to be signed. But you go into an airport bookstore on the way back and there’s no Updike there. There’s no Updike at all. I’m a vanished man, a nonentity as far as mass readership goes. I didn’t used to always be.”

Swinging Couples, Rabbit and Bech

The Telegraph says:

Updike became famous – and infamous – with his fourth novel, Couples, a sexually-explicit tale of New England suburbia in which jaded thirtysomethings stave off marital boredom by drinking, “frugging”, coupling and uncoupling in an account which captured the mood of souring Sixties optimism. Published in 1968, it was to the ageing trendies of the era what Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye was to its teenagers.

In his two series of novels – the “Bech” and the “Rabbit” books – he created two engagingly flawed heroes, versions of himself which somehow seemed to symbolise the American everyman: Bech, a hairy, self-scrutinising American-Jewish writer, and Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom, a former basketball champion turned second-hand car dealer trapped in a tedious marriage from which he seeks refuge in extra-marital affairs.

Updike gave his own opinion of Rabbit in an interview with the Telegraph last year:

In Rabbit, Run Harry is not somebody to emulate, although in later novels I think he becomes more middle-class and loveable. My idea in Rabbit, Run is that if everybody follows their dream there’d be a lot of damage – damaged children and spouses, wrecked cars, who knows what else.

‘But you have these inner imperatives and the sense of yourself as the centre of the universe; after all, you are you, and you don’t want to botch the assignment. So there is inevitably a conflict between selfishness and niceness. Philip Roth was always writing about people who want to be nice, but then they can’t quite be nice because they have these terrible sexual urges.’

“Wasted” beauty?

The New York Times considers his place in the literary pantheon:

The kaleidoscopically gifted writer whose quartet of Rabbit Angstrom novels highlighted so vast and protean a body of fiction, verse, essays and criticism as to earn him comparisons with Henry James and Edmund Wilson among American men of letters.

Where James and Wilson focused largely on elite Americans in a European context, Mr. Updike wrote of ordinary citizens in small-town and urban settings.

“My subject is the American Protestant small town middle class,” Mr. Updike told Jane Howard in a 1966 interview for Life magazine. “I like middles,” he continued. “It is in middles that extremes clash, where ambiguity restlessly rules.”

Mr. Updike sought the clash of extremes in everyday dramas of marriage, sex and divorce. The only wealth he bestowed on his subjects lay in the richness of his descriptive language, the detailed fineness of which won him comparisons with painters like Vermeer and Andrew Wyeth.

This detail was often so rich that it inspired two schools of thought on Mr. Updike’s fiction — those who responded to his descriptive prose as to a kind of poetry, a sensuous engagement with the world, and those who argued that he wasted beautiful language on nothing.

The Times possibly sums him up best:

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