An acquaintance is so insistent that writing cannot be judged that he uses it as an excuse not to teach: “I wouldn’t know what to say to a class,” he says, proud of his freedom from the trap of standards. Naturally he also argues there are neither good nor bad college teachers—only thinking makes it so—and to suggest otherwise is mere advertisement for self. “Maybe it’s my Ph.D. training,” he says, “but I see everything as relative.” Privately, of course, he condemns a book as mere “magazine writing,” revises his own writing, and, yes, teaches occasionally.
It’s nice to be seen as nice, and Chekhov, that saintliest of writers, works passivity into his view of polite society: “Cultured people must…respect human personality, and for this reason they are always kind, gentle, and ready to give in to others….” One imagines him nodding gently as the Moscow doctors who all want to be writers talk him into coughing fits at dinner parties. (Gorky says that “in [Chekhov’s] sad and gentle smile one felt the subtle skepticism of a man who knows the value of words and dreams….”) But in a series of letters to his brother Alex, who wasn’t writing to his potential, Anton cracks open like a honeydew:
“Not a single sensible word; nothing but sentimentality…. Respect yourself, for heaven’s sake and don’t let your hand grow slack when your brain grows lazy. […] Another great authority, Souvorin, writes to me, ‘When one writes a great deal, not everything comes out equally good.’ […] I write this to you as a reader having a definite taste. […] Better poor criticism than none at all. Is it not so?” (Garnett translation)
We can’t choose to be free of our individual standards; the question is whether or not we’ll discuss them. Unfortunately I can’t retire to my white dacha in Yalta, where I might get the distance to develop a sad and gentle smile. Because I teach I must try to explain myself daily. To do otherwise is a con that some use to buy time to write. They take the pay but don’t teach anything because it’s a hassle or because they disdain students. “I wouldn’t do it that way, honey, but you go right ahead,” Faulkner is said to have told a writing student under his tutelage. But none of that has to do with the ability to judge good or bad writing.
Discussing one’s own techniques and tastes is not dictating them. Indeed, the best teachers I’ve known could do it while explaining other traditions and encouraging students to situate themselves in the history of ideas. They were not among the massive middle-class of American letters that is essentially anti-intellectual. (There is confusion over the term “intellectual” in writing, e.g., the critic who says Hemingway is a “closet intellectual.” I mean only, “Given to study, reflection, and speculation.”)
What’s begun to interest me lately is how quickly an experienced reader can often judge writing. Of course the entire piece must be read, as occasionally even tripe can be skillfully woven or good work bound in sloppy phrases. (Ever read Dreiser’s American Tragedy?) But when my administrator friend privately admits he can read the first paragraph of an essay and usually know if the rest is worth reading, I don’t doubt him. Why, though? It’s an important question, since its answers might offer hope for improvement for us all.
“Why” wanders off in every possible direction. College writers who can’t or don’t care to choose among “to/two/too” don’t fill me with confidence, for instance. Sometimes worn-out images, language, or devices are tip-offs; other times it’s bombastic diction or confused sentences that stagger around leaking meaning. The reasons may be infinite and depend on the sort of writing attempted, but bad writing does have a look, smell, taste, feel, or sound.
I wrote the other day about a book in which Michael Henry Heim (translator of Kundera, Brecht, Grass, et al.) says:
Flaubert once said that the rhythm of a sentence often came to him before the words (and consequently before meaning itself). When I first read that, I thought Flaubert was proselytizing art for art’s sake or merely exaggerating. But the more I translate, the more I see how right he was: I often find myself fitting words to a pre-existing prosodic pattern.
Musicality in prose is a style of competency. It invites confidence but is not the result of confidence alone, as any blockhead is confident. It moves through its own landscape irregularly, surprisingly, but inexorably. (This is no plug for belle-lettrism. Sometimes jagged edges and muscularity are the most beautiful.) What Pound said of poetry applies: “I believe in an ‘absolute rhythm’…which corresponds exactly to the emotion or shade of emotion to be expressed. A man's rhythm must be interpretative, it will be, therefore, in the end, his own, uncounterfeiting, uncounterfeitable.”
It’s apparent when the music of a piece of writing has gone flat. (Think of Bugs Bunny on the xylophone, incorrectly finishing the phrase from “Endearing Young Charms”, to Daffy Duck’s utter rage.) And it’s strange how words can so nearly slip across cultural and linguistic borders in possession only of their music. Robert Pinsky and W.S. Merwin were here last week reading from the Divine Comedy; original Occitan passages were beautiful even without translation.
This musicality, or its lack, is one of the first things I notice in students’ work, and it often parallels the maturity and grasp of the prose. When I read stories by one current student—she’s the one I see, out of the corner of my eye, nodding if I mention Austen, Conrad, anybody—the music plays. Sure, sometimes her prose is marcato when everything around it suggests morendo—she is only about 19—but often there are passages of such startling rightness that they’re clear as trumpets. She aspires to get the words right, and all I need to do is encourage and help with control. Some of her peers, however, want to be granted the style of Hunter S. Thompson or David Foster Wallace without the hassle of having to understand how sound and sense are fused (or reading more than one of those author’s books), and that simplicity echoes hollowly in the intellectual-emotional content of the writing.
Students who reach me without having read or written are not too late, but they are delayed. They truly have no standards, so I try to get them thinking about writing, including the basics of hearing words. When a student writes the line of dialogue, “You’re such a dick man,” he needs help hearing the difference in its rhythm from, “You’re such a dick, man,” which means something entirely different. In an anxious age that encourages students to be technocrats for their own good, it’s important to acknowledge openly that there are better and worse bits of writing for as many reasons as we have time to explicate. This is how literacy helps us educate ourselves.