Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

Writing cannot be taught, as I came to realize after attempting to teach it for thirty years to university students, but it can be learned. One can only teach the mistakes bad writers make and provide examples of what makes good writers good. One cannot teach a love of language, the power of observation, a sense of drama, an aptitude for metaphor and simile, the rhythm of a well-constructed sentence or paragraph. Above all, one cannot teach desire—specifically the desire, dominating all other desires, to write something striking and stirring, original and memorable.

If writing cannot be taught, it can be learned in one way and one way only. This is by reading those writers who have achieved mastery. Every superior writer I have known, or known about, was a slow reader. The reason is that writers read differently than non-writers. People without literary ambition might ask what a book means, whether it is significant, whether it gives pleasure. Writers ask these questions along with two others, which slow them down considerably: How exactly did the author achieve his effects, and what from his work can I appropriate—a euphemism, of course, for “steal”—for my own writing?

Books on how to write abound, but none that I know is very helpful. Books that address specific problems, of grammar, of punctuation, of usage, are more useful. On usage nothing surpasses H. W. Fowler’s Modern English Usage, first published in 1926 and, mirabile dictu, a modest bestseller when it first appeared in America. Good writing is about more than mere correctness, yet without correctness no good writing is possible. Fowler everywhere offers specific instructions. He was what is known in the business as a prescriptivist, believing in standard English (rather than a descriptivist, who believes that popular use should set the standard), but he is never rule-bound, often technical, but never stuffy. On split infinitives, as on ending sentences with prepositions, his sensible line is to avoid both if possible, but always break both rules rather than write anything awkward.

Correct English is no guarantee of anything beyond correctness. One may write impeccable English and still be dull, dreary, even stupid. Yet to lapse into incorrectness, not to know the difference between “further” and “farther,” “disinterest” and “uninterest,” “currently” and “presently,” “shall” and “will,” is to court the contempt of those who do. While at it, one may as well get these and many other small things right. No point, really, in offending that small but often extremely touchy minority group, the educated.

From Aristotle through Horace, Tacitus, and Quintilian, on to Edgar Allan Poe, Walter Raleigh, and Arthur Quiller-Couch, up to Strunk and White’s Elements of Style in our own day, there has been no shortage of manuals on oratory and writing. The most useful, I have found, is F. L. Lucas’s Style, partly because it does not pretend to instruct, but in even greater part because of the wide-ranging literary intelligence of its author, whose own style, lucid, learned, authoritative, rarely fails to persuade. One has to admire the sangfroid of an author who, at the close of a splendid book on the subject of style, writes: “We may question, indeed, whether style has ever been much improved by books on style.”

Lucas (1894–1967) was a Cambridge don and all-round man of letters. He wrote novels and poetry and criticism and brilliant biographical essays. In 1923, the year after its publication, he wrote in disparagement of T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, though Eliot seems not to have held it against him and praised Lucas’s own four-volume edition of John Webster. The Decline and Fall of the Romantic Ideal (1936), a survey of the romantic ideal from antiquity to the present, was perhaps his best-known book. His two books of biographical essays of eighteenth-century figures, The Search for Good Sense (1958) and The Art of Living (1959), rise to the level of literature. Lucas began as a classicist and was at ease in Greek and Latin. He was of a generation that assumed people who had intellectual pretensions were naturally fluent in French, and a vast number of the examples of prose style and comments in Style are in French, for which, in the book’s first edition, he supplied no translations, lest he seem to insult his readers by condescension.

Seneca and Elizabethan Tragedy (1922) is the title of Lucas’s first book, a title that gives one an immediate sense of both its author’s learning and his range. The book was written when Lucas was not yet thirty, but it exhibits the brilliance and authority that would mark all his writing. Consider his comparison of Greece with Rome, a model of penetration and concision: “For Greece is sweetness, Rome strength, Greece is nerve, and Rome muscle, Greece genius and intellect, Rome talent and character, Greece the Parthenon, Rome the Colosseum, Greece youth, and Rome middle-age.”

Written when Lucas was sixty, Style is a compendium of its author’s opinions, tastes, point of view. As for that point of view, as Lucas avers toward the end of the book, it is Apollonian (as opposed to ­Dionysian). “For myself,” Lucas writes,

I have come passionately to prefer sense to sensibility, and even cynics (if one must have either) to rhapsodists and rapturists. . . . I can only ­suggest that humanity seems throughout its history to have suffered far worse from mental intoxications and fanaticisms than from any rare excess of sober reason.

Balance and restraint are the qualities Lucas finds in the writers he admires; tradition and form often loom quite as large for him as elevated emotion and high color.

If one is to write a book about style, one ought to be in possession of a splendid style oneself, as Lucas clearly was. A brilliant writer, he tends toward the aphoristic. “Memory is a dipsomaniac,” he writes in Style, “needing to be perpetually refreshed.” On the dangers of self-deception for the writer, he notes, “One can often feel more respect for the man who deceives others than for one who deceives himself.” Again: “There must always be an antipathy between the poetic and the philosophic mind.” The only philosopher who published passable poetry was George Santayana, who, if his reputation depended on his verse, would have long ago been forgotten.

In the Rhetoric, Aristotle held that the talent for metaphor and simile was a gift and could not be learned. Lucas had that gift. His similes and metaphors, studded throughout the pages of Style, often dazzle. Of those writers who, in attack mode, damage ­themselves more than ­others, he remarks that “if we have fewer vultures, I doubt if there is any decrease in the owls and peacocks.” On seeking perfection in writing, he notes: “A pearl may be perfect, yet in some lights it grows dull; where a diamond flashes its brilliant answer to the least ray, no matter whence.” Contra Yeats, who claimed all the world a stage and thereby masks required, Lucas writes: “Reticence, by all means—but not pretense. Veils—but not masks.” He admires Horace and Tacitus for their powers of concision; of the ­latter, writing that his “controlled brevity [is] deadly as the short sword of the Roman legionary.”

Style is not chiefly concerned with correctness or grammar, but with “the qualities that endow language, spoken or written, with persuasiveness or power.” The two main meanings of style as Lucas uses it are: “(1) ‘a way of writing’; (2) ‘a good way of writing.’” Of course, there is no unitary style, but many styles, including period styles (rococo, baroque, etc.), temperamental styles (flamboyant, understated, etc.), ornamented and unadorned styles. True style, whatever its period or personal psychology, always shines through.

Whereas musicians and visual artists seem to have been born with their gifts, “no one,” Lucas notes, “is born a writer. The greatest have had to learn.” In Style, his aim is to make the task less painful, which he proposes to do by offering some suggestions and providing illustrations from the lives of writers of the past. He adds: “But besides these two aims—a deeper enjoyment of the good writing of others, and a better ability to speak, write, and think clearly ­oneself—the study of style has also a third object: to preserve the purity of the English tongue.” Throughout Style he writes of the need to preserve the heritage of English and of the debt we all owe to the language: “On the quality of a nation’s language depends to some extent the quality of its life and thought; and on the quality of its life and thought the quality of its language.” Lucas concludes Style by emphasizing the need to keep English “plain yet rich, simple yet subtle, graceful yet strong.”

Lucas provides brief portraits of the writers he both admires and disdains. The latter, in this book at least, tend to predominate. Among the writers whose style he criticizes are Donne, Dryden, Swift, Coleridge, ­Shelley, De Quincey, ­Carlyle, Ruskin, Browning, Pater, ­Swinburne, Saintsbury, Shaw, Henry James (in his late phase), and Virginia Woolf. Of “the brilliant critical essays” of Woolf, he writes: “I feel that her amused passion for the fantastic became itself too fantastic; she had to heighten the oddities even of real life, as if her pen were a hypodermic syringe injecting yet more alcohol into the reeling drunkenness of reality.”

On the credit side, Lucas admires Chaucer, ­Montaigne, La Rochefoucauld, La Bruyère, Samuel Johnson, Walpole (in his letters), Gibbon, Burke, Montesquieu, Flaubert, Lytton Strachey (more for his Queen Victoria than for his Eminent Victorians), Thomas Hardy, and of course, Shakespeare. His taste, in short, runs to the straightforward over the ornamental, the precise over the precious, the manly over the mannered. He prefers French prose over French poetry, and German poetry over German prose (excepting only Schopenhauer and ­Nietzsche).

Lucas is highly critical of criticism itself. “I sometimes wonder,” he writes,

if there have not been two great disasters in the history of modern letters: the first when literature began to be a full-time profession, with writers like Dryden and Lesage, instead of remaining a by-product of more sanely active lives; the second, when the criticism of literature became likewise a profession, and a livelihood for professors.

Taste, for Lucas, is more important than distaste; and “critical theory could not procreate, it could only dissect.” Best he did not live long enough to read this sentence from the much-admired critic ­Judith Butler:

The move from a structuralist account in which capital is understood to structure social relations in relatively homologous ways to a view of hegemony in which power relations are subject to repetition, convergence, and rearticulation brought the question of temporality into the thinking of structure, and marked a shift from a form of ­Althusserian theory that takes structural totalities as theoretical objects to one in which the insights into the contingent possibility of structure inaugurate a renewed conception of hegemony as bound up with the contingent sites and strategies of the rearticulation of power.

Style provides chapters on clarity, urbanity, brevity and variety, humor and gaiety, and more. Much instruction about prose composition is to be had in these chapters, but because it does not come across as instruction, it goes down the more easily. From his chapter “The Harmony of Prose,” which takes up the matter of word order, I years ago learned the importance of beginning and ending sentences where possible with strong words, and have done my best ever since to avoid beginning sentences with the words “There” or “It” or ending them with weak prepositions. From his chapter “Good Health and Vitality,” I learned, as he there puts it, “an inveterate distrust of all abstract words that are in the least vague; for the sake not only of vividness and life, but also of accuracy and truth.” In the chapter “Courtesy to Readers: Brevity and Variety,” I learned that “variety is a law more important even than brevity.” (From Isaac Babel on the subject of brevity I also learned that no composition is finished until no sentence in it can be removed.)

All the chapters in Style refer back to and fill out the early chapter, “The Foundation of Style—Character,” which gives the book its overarching theme and makes the work unique. In this chapter, Lucas introduces the radical, but quite sensible, notion that character is at the center of good writing, no matter what the form.

Many of Lucas’s criticisms of writers are ultimately criticisms of their characters. So, in Milton he finds a want of gaiety; in Donne a strong vein of insincerity; in Shelley an element of self-deception; in Pater an affected delicacy. Swinburne, he notes, “suffered badly both from the dearth of ideas, even of sense, and from this incurable dysentery of words.” Shaw he finds a writer who “ended by selling himself to his own wit, as Faust sold his soul to the devil.” These are all flaws, please note, in character that affected their authors’ styles. On the other side of the ledger, Lucas applauds “such things as good manners and courtesy towards readers, like Goldsmith’s; good humour and gaiety, like Sterne’s; good health and vitality, like Macaulay’s; good sense and sincerity, like Johnson’s.”

“The beginning of style,” Lucas writes, “is character.” Buffon said that style and the man were the same (“Le style c’est l’homme même”); Lucas, I think, would have modified Buffon to read that style also reveals the man. “Literary style,” he held, “is simply a means by which one personality moves others. The problems of style, therefore, are really problems of personality—of practical psychology.” By “­character” Lucas does not mean simple goodness. “Goodness, indeed, is in literature no substitute for genius,” he writes, “but neither is genius for ­goodness.”

V. S. Naipaul defined style as a way of viewing the world. And so it is. But that way is clearly informed by one’s character. For Lucas, style “is personality clothed in words, character embodied in speech.” He adds: “If you wish your writing to seem good, your character must seem at least partly so. And since in the long run deception is likely to be found out, your character had better not only seem good, but be it.” He notes that before Napoleon appointed anyone to an important post he first asked whether he had written anything, and if so he wanted to read it so that he could see its style.

Lucas contends that “no fineness of character is likely to make an ungifted man write well (though I think that even this sometimes happens); but it can make a gifted one write far better.” Reverting to writers to furnish his examples, he finds himself “preferring Montaigne to Bacon, Flaubert and ­Hardy to Wilde and Shaw, as being fundamentally more honest characters; Sterne and Voltaire to Swift and Rousseau, as having more gaiety and good humour; Tennyson and Arnold to Browning and Meredith, as personalities more sensitive and more self-controlled.” He closes this passage by noting that after the criticism of the past half century, with “all its acidulated sciolists and balderdashing decadents,” he turns with relief to Desmond ­MacCarthy “because his writing was not only witty and amusing, but also wise and good.”

Judgments of character in authors are not easily made. Flaubert wrote that “the gifts of the heart cannot be separated from those of the intelligence; those who have drawn a distinction between them, possessed neither.” Yet no one ever wrote a more heartless book than Flaubert’s own Madame Bovary, in which the author’s contempt for every character shines through blindingly. Lucas recognizes that writers, objectionable in much of their conduct, often put the best of themselves into their books. “The carrion-side of Baudelaire is rotten,” he writes, “but not his tragic compassion for human waste and suffering.” He makes similar claims for those flawed characters Rousseau, Byron, and Coleridge. If it were to be revealed that Shakespeare was a murderer, would the best of his plays lose any of their power? Perhaps not. But, then, a man with Shakespeare’s imagination, the retort might be, could not possibly commit murder.

After all qualifications are allowed, Lucas holds that character can be deduced from style and style from character. In his book on Seneca, he writes: “Seneca had almost everything, talent, culture, style, a great and sonorous language, a magnificent literary ancestry, a divine tradition to follow and maintain; but a living soul he had not.” Because he wanted soul, ­Seneca was finally never quite first-rate. In Euripides and His Influence (1923), Lucas writes that in ­Euripides’s steadfast “loyalty always to light and freedom, lies his claim to honour not only among the great dramatists, but also among the great men of the world.” In our day, the courage of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn lends his books an indisputable authority and power.

Apart from such obvious flaws in style as pretentiousness and obscurantism, insincerity and self-congratulation, other flaws in writers include exhibitionism (Norman Mailer’s person became his only subject), obsessive interest in sex (Philip Roth wrote about little else), and vengefulness (Saul ­Bellow was a literary bluebeard who used his novels to slay his ex-wives). How one wishes F. L. ­Lucas were still alive to interpret the styles of James ­Baldwin, Joan Didion, Tom Wolfe, and so many others, including (with trepidation) my own! In all ­serious writing, good character, or the want of it, has a way of revealing itself. 

Joseph Epstein is author of Gallimaufry, a collection of essays and reviews. This essay is also to serve as a foreword to a new edition of Style published by Harriman House.

This is the first of your three free articles for the month.