Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Literary Style Over Substance

As a reader, I'm put off when I suspect that a writer is too aware of his own style, or is more concerned with style than communication. It's a lot like a politician who takes on a speaker's voice when talking publicly. I consider this, in writers and politicians, pretentious and phony. I prefer to read authors who don't recognize their own literary voices, or if they do, are clever enough to make their writing style appear naturally interesting and unique.

     There is a dreadful style of writing, prose intended to sound lofty and important, found in the promotional literature put out by colleges and universities. The thoughts and messages conveyed in this form are usually quite simple. An example of this style can be found in many college mission statements. In straightforward prose, a university public relations person might write: "The goal of our institution involves providing our students with a quality education at a reasonable price." Because this is so obvious, to say it directly and plainly makes it sound kind of stupid. But when a mission statement is puffed up with carefully selected words and high-minded phrases, the simplicity of the message is replaced by syntax intended to make it sound profound. This style is pompous and false, and represents writing at its worst. Here is an example of highly pretentious writing taken from a pamphlet published by a relatively prestigious liberal arts college:

     "The mission of ________College is to help young men and women develop competencies, commitments and characteristics that have distinguished human beings at their best. All of us who are affiliated with the College are working toward that end each day in as many different ways as their are students on this campus. (Wow, 1,400 different ways.) Our students have unique talents and new insights that are being developed during each interaction with faculty, staff, alumni and other students. (I taught at the college level for 32 years. Where I worked, very few students had unique talent and new insights. In fact, some of them were uniquely untalented and completely without insight. So in my opinion, the talent/insight stuff is a load of stylistic crap.) For each student, those interactions become building blocks in their foundation for living." (Yeah, sure.)

     Ignore, if you can, the lack of substance, unadulterated puffing, and pandering in this mission statement and look at the style. Note the lofty and, to my mind, cheesy alliteration that starts off with the words--competencies, commitments and characteristics--and the use of the buzz words distinguished, affiliated, insights, interaction, and foundation, typical university-speak wordage comparable to university-speak favorites such as outcomes, challenges, and impact (instead of affect) not used in this passage.

     If I were a creative writing teacher, I would use passages like the above to show writing students how not to write. It's a bit ironic that so much heavy-handed, dead prose is produced by colleges and universities. Professors, notorious for being writers of unreadable fiction and highly pompous and dense nonfiction, also contribute to the style over substance problem. If you don't believe me, look through any university press book catalogue. The book titles themselves are beyond comprehension, and the catalogue descriptions of these works are so badly written it's no wonder no one buys this stuff.

Jim Fisher
      

No comments:

Post a Comment