Joseph Epstein on writing

Joseph Epstein fell fast and far on my ladder of esteem when he published a scathing remembrance of Mortimer Adler in the Weekly Standard just days after Adler died. (No longer available online, it seems.)

But boy, can Epstein write! And when a writer this good writes something about how to write, it needs to be read widely. The piece is mostly a scathing—that word again!—review of Stanley Fish’s recent book about good writing, but in the setup Epstein says some very important things, ending with one of the finest descriptions I’ve read of the possibility and ultimate futility of one person teaching another to write:

First day of class I used to tell students that I could not teach them to be observant, to love language, to acquire a sense of drama, to be critical of their own work, or almost anything else of significance that comprises the dear little demanding art of putting proper words in their proper places. I didn’t bring it up, lest I discourage them completely, but I certainly could not help them to gain either character or an interesting point of view. All I could do, really, was point out their mistakes, and, as someone who had read much more than they, show them several possibilities about deploying words into sentences, and sentences into paragraphs, of which they might have been not have been aware. Hence the Zenish koan with which I began: writing cannot be taught, but it can be learned. [Emphasis added]

I’m impressed that a writer so good can be humble enough to recognize that the help he can give as a teacher is so limited. Perhaps it’s because writing, being so fundamental and having been studied for so long, is a subject where delusions about its teachability are easily debunked. Would that teachers of other subjects might be equally humble and honest in their promises.


2 thoughts on “Joseph Epstein on writing

  1. Can’t wait to read the article because I have in my drafts folder a blog post that could be described as a scathing review of Fish. I have never had the nerve to publish it because I keep thinking, “what do I know?”

  2. Cindy,

    Come for the scorn, but stay for the insight! I’ll bet you’ll like this other excerpt from Epstein’s setup, which I would have quoted if my post had gone in another direction:

    In a chapter boldly titled “The Foundation of Style—Character,” Lucas writes that “the beginning of style is character.” I write “boldly,” for what, one might at first think, has character to do with composition. “The fundamental thing,” Lucas explains, “is not technique, useful though that may be; if a writer’s personality repels, it will not avail to eschew split infinitives, to master the difference between ‘that’ and ‘which,’ to have Fowler’s Modern English Usage by heart. Soul is more than syntax.”

    Lucas didn’t hold that good character will make an ungifted person write better, rather that without good character superior writing is impossible. And, in fact, most of the best prose writers in English have been men and women of exceedingly good character: Samuel Johnson, Edward Gibbon, Jane Austen, William Hazlitt, Charles Lamb, George Eliot, Matthew Arnold, Anthony Trollope, Henry James, Max Beerbohm, George Orwell, T. S. Eliot, Willa Cather. Even those excellent writers with less than good character—compose your own list here—seem to have been able to have faked good character, at least while at their desks.

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