Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Mark Garvey's "Stylized"

Mark Garvey has worked in book publishing since 1988 and is currently an executive editor for a large Boston-based publishing house. A former editor of Writer's Market, he has been writing on the side since the early 1980s. His books include Searching for Mary (Penguin) and Come Together (Thomson).

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Stylized: A Slightly Obsessive History of Strunk & White's the Elements of Style, and reported the following:
I happen to love page 99 of my book Stylized: A Slightly Obsessive History of Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style. That’s not as egotistical as it sounds—I didn’t write a word on the page. It contains a portion of a letter, dated December 12, 1958, written to E. B. White from his editor at Macmillan, Jack Case. They were in the late stages of preparing the first Strunk and White edition of The Elements of Style, and as part of the editorial review, Case had hired an English professor to vet the manuscript and to solicit opinions from his teaching colleagues. The consultant’s report had expressed concern about The Elements of Style being perhaps too dogmatic, too prescriptive, for the modern student. Case wrote to White:

Bill brought his stuff to the office yesterday and we discussed the project for a while. He is still enthusiastic about it, but he has one great and chilling fear, which we cannot help sharing. It concerns the single-purpose, one-track mind of the descriptive linguist and his less learned next of kin, the anything-goes-in-usage “liberal”. For convenience I shall treat these creatures as one. Almost every English department of any size now shelters at least one of these shrill messiahs. They dearly love, and will fight at the drop of a hat for, any non-standard locution adopted by the man in the street, or used once, absentmindedly or for a special purpose, by anyone of note, from Chaucer to Hemingway, and they will tolerate no disapproval of such peccadilloes. One of these aggressive fellows on a textbook committee can put the other members on the defensive—it’s hell to be accused of not being modern. As a result, an excellent book that is not wholly neutral and permissive with regard to usage often is dismissed from consideration after only perfunctory defense by the majority, who would be quite happy with it, but who can’t stand being considered old fogies.

I indicated in a letter of last May that, regarding problems of usage, we thought the time might be ripe for a stance that was simple, direct, unpretentious, but with some backbone in it, and we still believe this. Moreover, it is clear to us that anyone who read your preface and the last chapter could not regard this book, or even Strunk’s material, as rigidly prescriptive on all levels. The trouble is, as Bill has pointed out, the people in question don’t look at the whole book. They turn at once to the usage section to see how prescriptive you are on like...as, shall...will, the split infinitive, and a few other points, and reject the text or consider it further, on the basis of that one issue. I’m sure that’s hard to believe of people intelligent enough to teach English. It’s true.

Case advised White to soften the stance somewhat, to meet the professors halfway by relenting on a few key points and rounding off some of the book’s sharper corners. White’s reply, quoted a bit later in the chapter, is a masterpiece of authorial flag-planting, delivered in high E. B. White style, with humor and heart. My page 99, dropping us, as it does, into one of the central controversies about The Elements of Style, is a reasonably characteristic moment from Stylized, which draws on history, biography, letters, photographs, and interviews to tell the story behind this classic American writing guide.
Read an excerpt from Stylized, and learn more about the book and author at Mark Garvey's website and blog.

--Marshal Zeringue