Writing Classic Prose

Philosophy and Literature 21 (1997): 504-507.

Denis Dutton

Every once in a while a book comes along with the power to alter permanently the view of a subject you thought you knew well. For me this year, that book is Clear and Simple as the Truth: Writing Classic Prose, Francis-Noël Thomas and Mark Turner (Princeton University Press, $14.95). When I picked it up, I thought it a general writing guide with examples, like Robert Graves’s and Alan Hodge’s The Reader Over Your Shoulder. But it is actually a treatise on one particular style, which the authors call classic prose. This is a specifiable kind of writing that can be found in every literate culture, they insist, even if their examples are all European. At the center of the classic style is the nonfiction essay, although it is a style used for fiction as well. They begin with a sentence from La Rochefoucauld:

Madame de Chevreuse had sparkling intelligence, ambition, and beauty in plenty; she was flirtatious, lively, bold, enterprising; she used all her charms to push her projects to success and she almost always brought disaster to those she encountered on her way.

This sentence is contrasted by Thomas and Turner with another, from Samuel Johnson’s “Preface to Shakespeare”:

That praises are without reason lavished on the dead, and that honours due only to excellence are paid to antiquity, is a complaint likely to be always continued by those, who, being able to add nothing to truth, hope for eminence from the heresies of paradox; or those, who, being forced by disappointment upon consolatory expedients, are willing to hope from posterity what the present age refuses, and flatter themselves that the regard which is yet denied them by envy, will be at last bestowed by time.

The Johnson sentence, however masterful, is not classic prose. We follow it through complicated paths; it does not telegraph its structure from the beginning, and quite possibly must be read twice for certain meaning. The end of the sentence is not a conclusion drawn from the beginning, nor it is a light which shines back onto the rest of the sentence altering or vivifying its sense.

This, however, is exactly the case with La Rochefoucauld’s sentence. It may look easy to write, but that is part of the trick of classic prose. It is efficient and precise, and seems utterly spontaneous. However, that natural sound is not the sound of speech, Thomas and Turner say, it is the sound of writing. Writing such as La Rochefoucauld’s embodies or expresses a certain attitude toward the truth. For Johnson’s sentence, writing “hard and noble,” as they call it, and truth is something that cannot be captured in mere speech, but is rather “the reward of effort.” For the classic style, “Truth is a grace that flees from earnest effort. The language of truth is ideally graceful speech.”

When I pick up a style guide, I expect something on mechanics and rules of writing, split infinitives or preposition placement. But Thomas and Turner are digging much deeper than mere correctness. They are trying to identify the qualities that support claims that someone writes “with style”; they are interested in what might be called the character of writing. As they explain it, the classic style involves an attitude on the part of the writer toward three key elements: reader, presentation, and truth. First the reader: in the classic style the reader is an equal in a conversation. As a competent, intelligent person, it’s assumed that the reader could take up the other side of the exchange at any moment. While the writer may have access to information the reader does not possess — indeed, that probably occasions the writing--there is no special authority the classic writer has over the reader. The reader and the classic writer are intellectually symmetrical, with equal competence to assess the relevant understandings of the world presupposed or discussed in classic prose.

The classic prose stylist therefore need never descend to grinding persuasion; an unobstructed view of things is always enough. Every decision of the writer is presumably the same decision that the reader would have made. It is a tone and stance they trace in the modern epoch to Descartes’s Discourse on Method, although it is found in writing of all ages. Thomas and Turner contrast this particular relation to the reader with what they detect in a passage from Foucault’s “What is an Author?” Foucault assumes a position of privileged insight that goes well beyond the reader’s. He adduces an argument in which his superiority virtually defines what would count as evidence for his thesis. He does not show the reader why his hypotheses would be recognized as proven by any competent reader; the reader therefore can only be told what to believe and accept it on Foucault’s authority.

The classic style calls for presentation to be unproblematic. It eschews self-conscious special-pleading. This does not mean that there are no doubts surrounding the classic prose stylist’s situation. It is simply that, since the reader and writer know them so well, it would be tedious to enumerate them. Many contemporary academics imagine they can add depth or importance to their writing by injecting problems at every juncture: “And how should I, a white, middle-aged male, approach reviewing a book on writing style? And what gives Thomas and Turner the authority to instruct us on the style choices of individuals? Is not my activity of reviewing itself hegemonic?” Such confessional questioning, by which writers try drearily to convince us what swell, self-aware people they are, is the antithesis of the voice classic style attempts to achieve. This goes along, Thomas and Turner say, with an absence of hedges in classic prose, the device so common in legal, business, and especially philosophical writing, where the author is in terror of being caught out in some generalization. In classic prose, the rule is: clarity everywhere, but not always letter-accuracy. The classic writer does not rehearse every possible exception to each generalization: the reader knows the spirit in which the generalizations are made and understand their likely limits. If there are exceptions worth noting, the classic stylist can be counted on to note them.

The classic stylist’s confidence derives in part from the manner in which the writing is addressed intimately to a single reader, rather than a large and possibly disparate group. Groups have to be persuaded, but friends don’t have to explain everything in conversations. I’m reminded of the proper style for radio presentation: the skillful announcer knows instinctively to speak to a single listener, even if there are a million of them; the radio neophyte can sometimes be heard addressing “you people out there.” That, in fact, is the style of oratory, and the classic style — cool, intimate, personal — is anything but oratorical.

The most essential aspect of the classic style is its stance toward truth. Since classic style treats all matters discussed as though they would be open to verification by the reader, it presupposes possession of truth as a possible attainment. If the classic stylist is skeptical, it is because it is true that certain contingent facts will never be ascertained; it is not because contingent facts are always beyond our grasp. We may not know the actual number of planets, but classic prose assumes that the number is what it is independent of anyone’s wishes or ideologies. The classic stylist freely acknowledges our inadequacies: “we are victims of our ambitions; fully accurate self-knowledge is unavailable; self-interest leads to self-deception; we are inconsistent, unreliable, impure.” Yet for the classic writer this is not a cause for despair; the task then becomes to penetrate this “unfortunate layer of corruption over fundamental soundness.”

Finally, the achievement of classic prose is a perfect performance in which every word counts. Classic prose is energetic without being anxious or rushed. It reveals the individual personality of the writer, but only as a by-product of an effort to present truth. At its best, Thomas and Turner say, it is animated by a “jolt of passion,” the excitement of personal conviction. This imprint of personality distinguishes it from banal political speech (the politician has no intention of acting on those vague promises), all kinds of bureaucratic writing, and the smell of moralizing and potential hypocrisy that emanates from writing motivated by faddish ideologies. The classic stylist never speaks for a committee or is controlled by an organization’s policy: “The classic writer is an individual; his model audience is an individual.”

On a personal level, Clear and Simple as the Truth explains why I found it so painful last year to write a lengthy, official statement on behalf of a government body in New Zealand, advising a ministerial review committee of the Australian federal parliament. It seemed unnatural, almost inhuman, to adopt the voice — or is it a chorus? — of one committee addressing another, and I’m thankful not to have to do it often. (I imagine the ethos of the United Nations, or the Georgetown area of Washington, both populated by functionaries whose foreign-service careers have been bent toward learning to write and think in tones of gray: the dinner parties must be torture.) Thomas and Turner have also deepened for me the meaning of our twentieth-anniversary editorial last year, in which Pat Henry and I summed up the authors of this journal: “In terms of style, subject, or doctrine, there is not much their work carries in common, except a sense for three imperatives: present an argument, provide evidence to support it, and write as though the truth matters.” Shades of M. Jourdain: we’ve been searching for classic prose, whether we knew it or not.


Copyright 1997 Johns Hopkins University Press. All rights reserved.