(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

“Style matters,” observes author and writing teacher Ben Yagoda in his introduction to The Sound on the Page. When talking about writing, however, a solid definition of style is difficult to pin down. What does one mean by “style”? Is it merely an elegant turn of phrase? Does it follow a “convention with respect to spelling, punctuation, capitalization, and typographic arrangement” as the Merriam-Webster's Dictionary states? Is style the same as voice? How is style a reflection of a writer's personality and individuality? In what ways is style related to content, and how does it affect the way one reads? Yagoda addresses these questions in his erudite, informative look at the ways authors express their ideas—and ultimately their true selves—through their own unique and recognizable writing styles.

Interwoven with Yagoda's insights are excerpts from interviews he conducted with more than forty well-known authors, including Nicholson Baker, Dave Barry, Joan Didion, Harold Bloom, David Thompson, Cynthia Ozick, John Updike, Clive James, Elizabeth McCracken, Elmore Leonard, and Tobias Wolff. The result is a lively, engaging discussion about a subject that has perplexed readers and writers alike for centuries.

Tracing the historical development of the concept of style in literature, Yagoda begins with the ancient Greeks, who sparked the debate about style more than two thousand years ago. On one side of the issue, the sophist Gorgias argued that the “eloquence and persuasiveness” of words should be valued as ends in themselves. His opponent, the philosopher Plato, contended that words were merely a “necessary evil” and often obscured the truth. The conflict continues today. Taking Gorgias's side are writers such as Natalie Goldberg, who believes that style “means becoming more and more present, settling deeper inside the layers of ourselves and then speaking, knowing what we write echoes all of us.” Other authorities, such as William Strunk and E. B. White, agree with Plato that style should be a “vehicle for content” instead of primarily a means of personal expression. Yagoda leans toward Goldberg and Gorgias, taking issue with Strunk and White's ideas on style, which reflect Plato's influence.

Something of an icon in the writing world, Strunk and White's The Elements of Style (first published in 1918) is widely viewed by publishing houses, newspapers, magazines, academics, and students as the ultimate word on style. Yagoda, however, criticizes Strunk and White (as the book is popularly called) for its advice to writers to “avoid fancy words” and strive for “transparent” prose by placing themselves in the background. Although he agrees with White that the issue of style is a “high mystery,” Yagoda nonetheless views White's twenty-one suggestions for stylistic excellence as limiting and impeding creativity and self-expression.

The Sound on the Page is Yagoda's cogent response to Strunk and White's advocacy for a minimalist approach to writing style. In contrast to White's idea that writers should endeavor to keep their personalities in the background, Yagoda asserts that allowing one's individual style to shine is one of the hallmarks of great literature, as well as a window into the writer's “essence.” “The style is the man himself,” Yagoda quotes French naturalist George de Buffon as saying in 1753. Yagoda agrees, arguing that personal style goes beyond a writer's technique to reveal something fundamental about the mind that gives birth to the unique arrangement of the words on the page.

Is style really a reflection of the essence of the writer? In a chapter subtitled “Style and Personality,” Yagoda acknowledges that often there is a difference between the public personality of writers and their writing personas. This discrepancy often comes as a surprise to readers who frequently believe they can deduce their favorite writers’ personal characteristics from their style. According to Yagoda—and to several of his interviewees—such is not always the case.

For example, Yagoda notes that when he spoke with Thompson, he found him to be a quiet and subdued man, in contrast to his writing style, which is boldly assertive. Barry commented to Yagoda in an interview that “you...

(The entire section is 1756 words.)