Good Prose, by Tracy Kidder and Richard Todd

I really like this book! I have a weakness for jumping on recommendations from readers I trust, and so when I saw that Cindy Rollins had mentioned it favorably at Goodreads, and that one of the writers was Tracy Kidder, whose books I’ve read and enjoyed (and admired) in the past, I found a used copy on AbeBooks and ordered it.

Above I deliberately wrote “like” rather than “liked” because I’m nowhere near done with it yet, even though I finished it this morning. The book is delightfully short, only 180 pages of generously sized and spaced print, and the graceful writing carries the reader along at a steady clip. But it is also a marvelous thing, a concrete example of what it describes—sustained non-fiction writing that is carefully written and judiciously edited. And as such you can learn the lessons it teaches not just by hearing things the writers (one a journalist, the other his long-time editor) have to say, but also by studying the way they choose to present those things. I’ve said before that Neil Postman’s writing frequently astonishes me when it is especially lucid, conveying a profund thought directly and without writerly interference. The content of this book is not of that order, but the writing sure is.

One of my own rules for writing is: if you can’t provide at least one concrete example, your claim is suspect. So here is an excerpt worth looking at closely from the chapter on Style. A section called “The New Vernacular” begins this way:

Writing in the vernacular has produced some of the glories of American prose. “All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn,” said Hemingway, celebrating that distinctive strain in our writing that makes the diction and rhythm of common speech into art. From Huck to Holden Caufield and beyond, the vernacular has been the expression of youthfulness, both literally and in the broader sense of freshness and impatience with convention.

Of course the unconventional can become conventional, and quickly too, and that seems to have happened in the new vernacular. An aggressive informality infects contemporary prose. The internet has helped to spread it; informality is the natural voice of the blogger.

They next quote a breezy bit of writing from a well-known blog (you can easily conjure up your own, so I won’t reproduce it here), and go on to say:

This is fun and highly readable. Like its antecedents, the new vernacular represents a democratic impulse, an antidote to vanity and literary airs. It’s friendly, it’s familiar. But familiar in both senses. The new vernacular imitates spontaneity but sounds rehearsed. It has a franchised feel, like the chain restaurant that tells its patrons “You’re family.”

The thought that ends that passage justifies the book for me, a clear statement of a problem I was aware of but only intuitively, clear enough not only to enable identification in the wild but also to avoid the problem in one’s own writing. And that’s not all! The writers reach that height in only one page. How did they do it? It’s instructive to look at the passage in extreme detail to find out how—sentence length, word choice, thoughts per paragraph, thought sequence, and so on.

What I’ve quoted is enough to make my point, but I can’t resist quoting the final paragraph of this two page (!) section.

Breeziness has become for many the literary mode of first resort, a ready-to-wear means to seeming fresh and authentic. The style is catchy, and catching, like any other fashion. Writers should be cautious with this or any orther stylized jauntiness—especially young writers, to whom the tone tends to come easily. The colloquial writer seeks intimacy, but the discerning reader, resisting that friendly hand on the shoulder, that winning grin, is apt to back away.

This is a good example of the depths Good Prose manages to plumb, and how. They appreciate and demonstrate the power and attraction of this technique, but they also know full well that it has gone very wrong in contemporary writing, and how, and what the hidden motivations behind it are, and that discerning readers will easily detect the wrongness of it and be put off by it. And the lesson is embedded in prose that is just the opposite—clear, genuine, packed with content, carefully constructed for the reader’s benefit.

Good Prose is not really a manual. The subtitle is “Stories and advice from a lifetime of writing and editing”, and that approach is what makes the book especially valuable. Rather than trying to be comprehensive, the writers focus on important aspects of writing nonfiction where they actually have something to say, and then say those things at whatever length is appropriate, sometimes as observations, sometimes as analysis of excerpts from other writes, sometimes as illustrative anecdotes taken from their own experiences with writing and editing, sometimes as pronouncements, sometimes as hard-won advice. It’s all good.

One disappointment was the chapter on essay writing, the space most of my writing occupies—not because it isn’t good, but because it is so short! However, the reason is contained in the chapter itself, where they indicate that essays are weird because they are built on a nonfiction frame with some of the normal constraints relaxed, leading to uncategorizable results. I won’t elaborate on this because I’m still trying to put their own observations with my own experience. But the good news is that the rules of other sorts of non-fiction writing are still to be honored—if only in the breech.

One other mild disappointment is the short chapter called “Art and Commerce”, where they say a few things about the realities of writing for money. Kidder and Todd have been at this since the early 70s, so they are long steeped in a New York-centered publisher/agent/writer model of book production, a model that may not be obsolete but seems to have disappeared for technological and economic reasons (some of the stories they tell about their collaboration sound like legends from a distant past). The stretch from 2010-2014 saw the old model upset by a new one in which self-publishing and ebooks play a central role, and they have nothing to say about this (the book was published in 2013). Still, the chapter is harmless if you ignore the hints that you, young writer, need to get an agent and an editor at an established publishing house.

I’ll end with the final words of Cindy’s review, which I agree with:

My own writing seems to be more of the off the cuff blog type but I would love to see what would happen if I began to tediously rewrite.

This book also made me want to read more works that have been tediously rewritten.

Good Prose is one of those tediously rewritten books, and I’ll be re-reading it closely.

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