“A kind of death of the sentence by collective neglect,” is how Adam Haslett puts it in his piece, “The Art of Good Writing,” in the Weekend FT. Haslett, one of his generation’s finest writers, divines sentences at no risk of neglect, or illness. But his piece is provocative. He does not say that Facebook is a villain, or that the Facebook-era is the end of writing, but he does subtly link our current emoticon-ed culture with William Strunk’s near-biblical The Elements of Style (more commonly known in its later edition, edited by E.B. White as Strunk and White’s Elements of Style). Yet: is evidence of shorter sentences—or no sentences at all—evidence of shallower emotions?
Strunk’s text was, as Haslett points out, emblematic of another era, and another time in the history of literature and writing. It was emblematic of a moment in America when writing mattered more. Strunk and White was first published in 1959, just two years before JFK gave his “Ask Not” inauguration speech, one which has been much praised this month, its fiftieth anniversary. Strunk and White preached a religion of concision, but they were not out to counsel novelists and philosophers; they were educating schoolboys and girls, as every schoolboy and girl should know how to write a proper sentence. This rule remains embedded in academia up to the highest levels; just check out the homepage for “Expos,” at Harvard. All Harvard alums know “Strunk and White.” Anyone educated in the U.S. this last century will likely know it, too.
But things change. Will we still have Henry Jamesian prose in an age where popular writing has condensed from concision to near-hieroglyphics? And, is it really social media/technology that’s wrecked how we communicate or has it perhaps rather broadened the audience for text-based communication in a time when no one makes time for long thoughts? Culture: Facebook; Chicken; Egg.
Data will come. For now, we can know that schoolchildren will still read Strunk and White while texting under the table. They will still read Proust while going home to play Call of Duty: Black Ops. The snows of yesteryear are, axiomatically, historic, but we will see the creation of new works of literature. The next generation of great writers will learn how to write in the same way they always have: by reading books that move them.
I’m old enough to have written letters to friends when I was younger, which took time and a bit of thought. Like most people, I don’t do that any more, and e-mail hasn’t replaced the habit. The writing of complete sentences for aural pleasure as well as news is going the way of the playing of musical instruments – it’s becoming a specialty rather than a means most people have to a little amateur, unselfconscious enjoyment. This isn’t the end of the world for literature. In a sense, it only intensifies its role as the repository of our linguistic imagination. But it’s a pity nonetheless; there’s a difference between pure spectatorship and semi-participatory appreciation. The latter is much warmer. It creates more room for fellow feeling and a bit less for the glare of celebrity and the correlative abjection of envy and fandom.
Not everyone can sing like Mick Jagger, but one can sing along. The equivalent of singing along to great writing is reading it, and re-reading it, and passing it to friends. Via Facebook, for example.