Beyond a Serviceable Grace

“Vigorous writing is concise,” wrote author E.B. White in his invaluable book, The Elements of Style. But concise writing is extremely difficult. A friend of mine who teaches writing at a university told me that she considers herself to be a competent writer–until she’s required to cut things down to 500 words or less.

Recently I stumbled across a music critic, Robert Christgau, who writes “capsule reviews” of popular music for The Village Voice and more recently, Barnes & Noble. These capsules are never more than a paragraph long, but Christgau’s prose is so spare and yet so evocative that readers get everything they need in that small space.

Here’s his review of Robin Thicke’s “Sex Therapy”:

An amusing fellow getting her into bed, kind of a bore when he’s done, and what else is new?

The Killers’ “Hot Fuss” merits:

If only A Flock of Seagulls could do their hair.

Mercifully, he doesn’t write anything about records he rates “bombs.”

Lest anyone think he saves his best writing for negative reviews, take a look at this review of Poly Styrene’s 2011 CD “Generation Indigo”:

Life after “Oh Bondage Up Yours” began with Poly’s dreamily unpunk 1980 studio-rock Translucence, a sui generis switcheroo absurdly accused of presaging Everything but the Girl. Now there’ll be claims her easy-skanking groove is a “dubstep” breakthrough, once again obscuring the main reason her music has connected since she wore braces, which is that it’s exceptionally tuneful, if not the main reason we care, which is that she’s an exceptionally good soul. She never tops the vegan opener “I Luv Ur Sneakers.” But the four humanist protest songs she rolls out just before an unnecessarily dreamy closer seem so unforced you feel for all those who have striven so hard to do nothing more. Ari, Viv, Exene–because sisterhood is powerful, this one’s for you.

In one elegantly constructed paragraph, Christgau summarizes Styrene’s career from early punk icon to her abrupt but “dreamily unpunk switcheroo” to her final album (she died of cancer a month after its release); describes the musical style of the CD; and gives a moving tribute to her “exceptionally good soul” while placing her in context (sisterhood) with the great women of punk music–and he still manages to review the CD. He makes it look so easy, so unforced, damn him.

But it’s not unforced, and it’s definitely not easy. His review of a Weezer album yields this description of the punk ethic, which applies just as well to his prose:

[The album] totally misses the point, which from the Ramones to the Libertines has been to achieve concision and economy while just barely remaining erect. Onstage, that is. How Cuomo has comported himself in other areas of endeavor I haven’t a clue.

As with punk music, it’s the concision and economy that make his prose work. He writes in one book review that good writing “achieves lucidity and a serviceable grace,” but great writing can “have the impact of revelation among the uninitiated” and give them a “sense of discovery.” Christgau almost always transcends the ordinary.

I really work hard to approach that kind of brevity and depth of meaning, but it’s very difficult to achieve, and I rarely get anywhere close. Nathaniel Hawthorne once said that “easy reading is damn hard writing”; it takes a lot of effort to make your writing seem effortless. I’ve appreciated the compliments I’ve received for my book’s writing style, but that took a lot of work: I wrote the initial “draft” of blog posts in 5 weeks, and then I spent 6 months editing and rewriting. Recently a reviewer (and friend) lamented that I didn’t spell everything out in the book and spoke disapprovingly of the spare prose style. He thought I might be offended, but I was thrilled. I understand a lot of people won’t like my approach to writing, but his review told me I’d done what I’d set out to do. But I can’t do that all the time, no matter how hard I try.

If you want to understand how hard it is to do what Christgau does, try this exercise: Pick anything you really like (an activity, film, food, music, or anything else) and try to explain why you like it in 200 words or less.

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6 Responses to Beyond a Serviceable Grace

  1. Caroline Lane says:

    I like reading your posts because I know I will ALWAYS find good stuff even if I have to wade through scads of bad stuff.

    Like when you said “love” had more to do with how you behaved at all times rather than how you happened to feel at the moment.

    Or something to that effect. I think that is what it was.

    Anyway I am pretty sure I am under 200 words.

  2. Robin Bishop says:

    Or, a dissertation where every section must adhere to word length ceilings. But much more, it must be theoretically bound with attention to reliability and validity. Tweak an early line, even at times a word, and it snowballs forward with imprecision needing attention. Within it must attend to a bounded scope, declared limitations/delimitations with everything (even the commonplace) referenced through peer-reviewed sources.

  3. Camille Biexei says:

    I am finishing a final (hopefully) edit of my memoir of a ’50’s and ’60’s Provo childhood and understand the struggle. Crisp, clean, concise–oh, yes. But, getting there requires serious discipline.
    Thank you for the reminder.of why I am subjecting myself to this suffering.

  4. vikingz2000 says:

    “In one elegantly constructed paragraph, Christgau summarizes Styrene’s career…”

    Well, in ‘one elegantly’ deconstructive moment my ‘Elements of Style’ summary is that I now realize just how old I really am by not getting the gist of what writers such as Robert Christgau are saying.

    There, I said it, and in only 36 words.

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