16 August 2008

Wisest Thing I've Read Today

Every so often I discover why I'm keeping around old copies of the New Yorker when in my heart I know I'll never finish reading a fraction of them. This reason comes from Adam Gopnik's essay on G. K. Chesterton, “The Back of the World,” published in the 7-14 July 2008 issue:

There are two great tectonic shifts in English writing. One occurs in the early eighteenth century, when Addison and Steele begin The Spectator and the stop-and-start Elizabethan-Stuart prose becomes the smooth, Latinate, elegantly wrought ironic style that dominated English writing for two centuries.

Gibbon made it sly and ornate; Johnson gave it sinew and muscle; Dickens mocked it at elaborate comic length. But the style--formal address, long windups, balance sought for and achieved--was still a sort of default, the voice in which leader pages more or less wrote themselves.

The second big shift occurred just after the First World War, when, under American and Irish pressure, and thanks to the French (Flaubert doing his work through early Joyce and Hemingway), a new form of aerodynamic prose came into being. The new style could be as limpid as Waugh or as blunt as Orwell or as funny as White and Benchley, but it dethroned the old orotundity as surely as Addison had killed off the old asymmetry.

Chesterton mannerisms--beginning sentences with “I wish to conclude” or “I should say, therefore” or “Moreover,” using the first person plural unself-consciously (”What we have to ask ourselves...”), making sure that every sentence was crafted like a sword and loaded like a cannon--appeared to have come from another universe.

Writers like Shaw and Chesterton depended on a kind of comic hyperbole: every statement is an overstatement, and understood as such by readers. The new style prized understatement, to be filled in by the reader. What had seemed charming and obviously theatrical twenty years before now could sound like puff and noise. Human nature didn’t change in 1910, but English writing did. (For Virginia Woolf, they were the same thing.)
And what will come next?

No comments: