A literary fan letter, of sorts


In part 2 "Principles of Composition" of the well-known style guide by Strunk and White (the same White of Charlotte's Web fame) called The Elements of Style, rule #17 states, quite aptly, "Omit needless words."  As if this wasn't explanation enough, Strunk and White elaborate with the following: "Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts.  This requires not that the writer make all sentences short, or avoid all detail and treat subjects only in outline, but that every word tell."

It's that last bit, "that every word tell," that gets me.  And no, this post won't be about my love for The Elements of Style; while I do find the text admirable, I'm far too guilty of breaking many of its rules to confess strong adherence to its principles.  With writing, whether it's my own or whether I'm reading someone else's, it's quite hard to make every word tell and it's also hard to avoid those words which are unnecessary because, at least at those initial moments of creation, they all seem necessary.

I confess that out of the few writers I've read, the one that I keep coming back to is Jeanette Winterson.  Winterson is the writer I read when I've too much to read, or too many thoughts percolating in my head already, or when it's dreary out, or when it's a fantastically sunny, beautiful day, or when I've had a really good day or a very horrible one.  I have yet to find a writer who has a way with words like she does.  She, I think, makes every word tell in such an incredible way: they seem at once the essence of simplicity, yet strung together in her way are remarkably profound.  Of her books, I've read Written on the Body, Art Objects, Oranges are not the Only Fruit, and most recently, Lighthousekeeping. I have Gut Symmetries waiting for me, if the book club for which it was reading material ever begins anew.  I also freely confess being addicted to the Columns section on her website, where I, and anyone, can get a monthly dose of such amazing sentences as, "I realised something that week which is probably completely obvious to everyone except me: I only ever feel disappointment, or am disappointed, if there is already a scenario in my head that has failed to happen."  Or the entire entry from March.

Writers who make you think, who make you feel, by making every word tell are as invaluable, I think, as old, dusty, somewhat worn and certainly well-loved copies of books you find at used booksellers or on collector's shelves.  And, truly, some of my most prized possessions include an early copy of Mary Elizabeth Braddon's Lady Audley's Secret from the mid-nineteenth century or the autographed copy of Nick Hornby's Slam.

As you TBAers are getting ready for summer, I hope you're able to add a couple books to your list of things to do this summer. And since I'm always looking for something else to read, why not pass along some suggestions about what books or authors (or poets, or non-fiction writers) make words tell for you.  I promise I'll get back to you sometime shortly after the 25th!


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