Ben Yagoda cites Roman Jakobson's distinction of the two basic functions of language as communicative and poetic. We will look at these functions as the two polar opposites in a stylistic continuum. We will locate individual pieces according to their functions (and purpose) along this continuum.
Yagoda identifies "[strictly] communicative writing [to include] business memos, instruction manuals, news articles, college textbooks, scientific papers, and government statutes" (166). Yagoda pegs poetry at the opposite end as strictly poetic writing. Other kinds of writing fall somewhere in between the two polar opposites. As expected, style will vary according to which end a genre is classified.
As Yagoda points out: "The functions have an unmistakable correlation with style: to the extent a speaker or writer is communicative, the emphasis is on matter, so that a transparent, anonymous, middle style is expected and appropriate. To the extent he or she is poetic, the emphasis is on manner, so that a distinctive style is an essential, perhaps the most essential, part of the project of writing [emphases added]" (166).
We will look at seven genres and their corresponding styles: (1) persuasive writing; (2) narrative nonfiction; (3) fiction; (4) personal essays, travel writing, memoir, criticism; (5) humor writing; (6) poetry; and (7) online writing.
In persuasive writing, Yagoda points out "that opinions are more forcefully and persuasively communicated when the personality of the expresser is removed" (167)
Yagoda quotes Justice Stephen Breyer's tips for good persuasive writing (167-172):
In narrative nonfiction, Yagoda says that a "transparent" style is the preferred choice, especially for historical and biographical texts. However, he also cites writers who "have shown that there is plenty of room in these genres for individual style, even to the point where it may overshadow the data it is conveying" (172).
He quotes Richard Lanham: "Thucydides was the first of these and he set down the archetypal pattern of Western narrative structure, the alternation of historical event and formal speech about it, of an unself-conscious and self-consciously rhetorical style" (173).
He chooses to quote from his interview with Susan Orlean (perhaps a choice that indicates his inclination for the "unsell-conscious and self-conscious rhetorical style") (174-175):
Yagoda cites several fiction writers and their formulation for what constitutes style in this genre (made up of quite variegated output). He points to Evelyn Waugh, who "advocated sections of narrative written to conventional standards punctuated by moments when the author steps forward" (179). This stepping forward is, according to Yagoda, similar to what John Irving wrote:
AT THE START OF ANY STORY, AT THE INTRODUCTION OF ANY CHARACTER, THE NARRATIVE VOICE MUST TAKE A FIRM GRIP ON THE READER AND NOT LET THE READER'S ATTENTION WANDER; THE VOICE, IN THE BEGINNING, IS FULL OF PROMISES—FULL OF BLUFFING, FULL OF THREATENING, FULL OF HINTS.... WHAT I ALWAYS TRY TO HEAR IN THE NARRATIVE VOICE IS THE SOUND OF A POTENTIAL MYTH, A POSSIBLE LEGEND.... (179)
Yagoda also refers to John Gardner's The Art of Fiction, where the novelist makes "a useful distinction between what he called 'realities narratives,' which demand a near-transparent style, and 'tales,' for which a 'high style' is appropriate" (180).
The narrative voice, according to Yagoda, "is easiest to conceive (if not to execute) in the first person: it is, simply, the voice of the character telling the story." He compares this to "point-of-view writing, where the style of the prose reflects the personality and is expressed in something like the voice of the character in the spotlight at that moment" (181). This is akin to what Michael Chabon writes in his Wonder Boys: "'Above all, a quirky human voice to hang a story on'" (Yagoda 183). He quotes Chabon saying, in reference to the question of writing in the first-person or third: "The fundamental question for me is always, Who's talking?" (186).
Personal essays, travel writing, memoir, criticism
In the communicative to poetic poles, Yagoda says these different genres are next to fiction since, "[just] as in first-person fiction, we get the sense that a person is standing behind the words. Only in this case it's a real person, and the reader is always conscious of the tone of his or her voice" (187).
Yagoda interviewed the writer Nicholson Baker, who shares his thoughts about writing criticism and personal essays:
Getting to sound right is always the big, crucial thing. When does it sound like me, but not like an imitation of me? Unless you've gotten the voice right in the beginning, the whole enterprise is hopeless—every other paragraph is going to lurch around, bumping into things. Once I manage to get the first couple of pages to move along, all my notes start to chirp and I'm happy.
Yagoda points to two modes of written humor: "The first...is a kind of transcription of a particularly smart and literate stand-up comedian's routine. Style is critical in the construction of both the comic persona and the comedy.... The second kind of humor, which I call comic ventriloquism, requires even more attention to style; once upon a time it was widely used in the lost art of parody" (206).
For the first kind, Yagoda says that "the universally known truth [about the object of the joke] becomes funny only when it is expressed with the right examples, phrasing, exaggeration, timing, and attitude." For the second kind, Yagoda provides Ian Frazier's style: "[taking] one of the thuddingly banal voices floating around in the verbal atmosphere—psychobabble, journalese, bureaucratese, academese, -ese's that don't have a name yet—[and mimicking] it with precision, and [siccing] it on something totally unexpected" (206).
Yagoda contends that prose "becomes less prosaic—it develops style—when it has elements of poetry in it" (212). He continues: "The whole verbal apparatus of a lyric poem—rhyme, meter, expectation of metaphor, division into line and stanza, even the concentrated brevity it demands—places the emphasis on manner, not matter" (213).
While poetry lies on the opposite pole of the communicative function, online writing may be said to swing from one end to the other. Yagoda discusses online writing after poetry because, he contends, "it is so beguilingly up for grabs" (217).
He cites the case of the language of email as having "revived written communication—funny, cutting, above all personal, with rhetorical notes that can be played not only in the text but in the subject line, the salutation, or an attached link. In its receptiveness to quirky individuality and typography, and in its brevity, email sometimes resembles lyric poetry" (218).
He quotes Michael Kinsley, the founding editor of the online magazine Slate:
the other half of what we publish is the voice of email. That has turned out to be, I think, Slate's most significant, possibly only significant, contribution to the development of journalism and language. The voice of email, at its best, is the reflectiveness of writing combined with the spontaneity of talking. (221)
After looking at these seven genres and their corresponding styles, we may be ready to try our hand in writing using these genres (see exercise below):
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