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Spunk & Bite Get Bitten

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Never having worked with book publishers, my love of books and literature led me to fancy that book editors were of a higher caliber than those encountered by lowlife scribblers like me. Then I happened on a copy of Arthur Plotnik's Spunk and Bite: A writer's guide to punchier, more engaging language & style (New York: Random House, 2005; $16.95).

Plotnik's Spunk & Bite attacks Strunk & White's renowned Elements of Style, which for many years has been the bible of college composition classes. This review takes issue with Plotnik.

In Spunk & Bite, the first paragraph of Chapter Two reads:

"Readers love surprise. They love it when a sentence heads one way and jerks another. They love the boing of a jack-in-the-box word. They adore images that trot by like a unicorn in pajamas."

I'm here to argue with Plotnik.

Fact is, readers do love surprise -- but if the writer surprises 'em too often, readers often get confused.


A sentence that heads in one direction and then jerks in another can be highly effective when it's used to strike an irony or in some other way emphasize a particular point. But there again, the sentence that heads one way and jerks another can just as easily confuse as amuse the reader. Moreover, such a sentence is like any other rhetorical trick: It is boring if it's used too often.

Finally, I tell you I've asked everybody in my hometown and nobody has ever seen a jack-in-the-box word or seen a word jump up and yell "boing!" Nobody here can tell me how a unicorn trots when it steps out in pajamas. Wanting to be as thorough as possible, I woke up the town drunk and asked him -- but even he has never seen unicorns trot around in pajamas.

I don't know if Mr. Plotnik wrote that paragraph of his own volition or if his editor made him write it. The question is irrelevant because, either way, it had to pass an editor's scrutiny. Thus my faith in book editors is shattered. My faith in Strunk & White is restored. So far from being persuaded by Plotnik, I am swayed in the opposite direction.

Plotnik's argument in Spunk & Bite is a straw-man, anyway: he claims that Strunk & White is some sort of cast-iron straitjacket that stifles creativity. In fact, it just isn't so. Strunk & White both sparks and aids creativity by urging that writers should neither waste words nor mince them.

Every art form requires tools. At minimum, the sculptor has a hammer, a chisel and a file, which he or she uses creatively to make statues. The writer's toolkit includes brevity, frankness, and accuracy, which he or she uses creatively to craft words into text. Brevity, frankness and accuracy literally form a tripod upon which all good writing will stand.

Straw-man argument is a logical fallacy. Argument from a fallacy requires either dishonesty or delusion on the part of the rhetorician. Sure enough: Plotnik's delusions trot across the pages of Spunk & Bite in several different places. Take, for example, Plotnik's contention that because Strunk & White is old it somehow loses its relevance.

Brevity, frankness and accuracy have been watchwords in rhetoric at least since the time of Plato and Socrates. Peter Abelard knew their worth. They were watchwords when Strunk & White was first written. They remain watchwords to the present day. When we say of a person, seriously, that "He is a man of few words," the statement implies respect and admiration because listeners understand that such a man speaks with power.

Cartoonist Matt Goening (The Simpsons, Life in Hell, Futurama) once quipped that those who can't sing rock 'n' roll, sing it anyway. The oldest and perhaps most perceptive joke in the academy is that those who can't do, teach. And so it is, I think, with writers: often it is true that those who run out of ideas to write about write books that tell others how to write or how to do business as a writer.

A joke like that would not stick to E.B. White, who, after he revised Prof. Strunk's little style guide, went on for many years composing some of the best essays and children's stories anybody ever wrote. Such a joke MIGHT stick to Mr. Plotnik, who inflicted his awful style guide upon us and of whom we've heard nary a word since.

About Spunk & Bite, then, Deke Solomon sez: Go to the bookstore. Pick up a copy and see how it smells to you. I say it's a stinker but you're entitled to your own opinion if you've got $16.95 you have no better use for.

 

Deacon "Deke" Solomon did 4 years in the Marines and had a checkered, 10-year career through the blue-collar world before going to college at the age of 35. He came out of school seven years later with a Master's degree and a seemingly unquenchable (more...)
 

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