Friday, November 11, 2011

Johnson on Compositional Aesthetics

In Microstyle, a primer on how to pen terse messages effectively, author Christopher Johnson explains why it's important for authors to have an artistic touch:
While meaning is the essence of a message, sound, whether real or imagined, is how a message presents itself. And like it or not, people are superficial: beautiful words often seem truer than ugly ones. Your message will be judged as an aesthetic object. That doesn't just mean you should have a well-tuned instrument; it also means you should play a good tune. If you strive for poetry in your messages, here are some questions to ask about its sound: Does it have rhythm? Do the sounds make a pleasing pattern? Do they fit the meaning?
Johnson's insistence that peoples' "superficial" natures necessitate beautiful prose seems a little off to me. After all, none of us choose foods solely for their nutritional value or mates strictly for their competencies. Enjoyment is an integral part of life, and a finely tuned phrase can certainly delight. Johnson ends up on more solid footing when arguing that our works "will be judged" on their beauty. Genre writers ought to particularly take note, because our chosen field rarely earns kudos for presentation. Inventiveness? Of course. Intellectualism? Why, yes. Escapism? Most certainly. But few praise SF, Fantasy and their friends for stylistic excellence. That's something we ought to change.

(Picture: CC 2010 by montuno)

4 comments:

Unknown said...

The problem is that when you get TOO much into stylistic elegance, you end up with unreadable crap. :-P

I had to give up on a book just yesterday because it was by an author who does crossover lit/genre fic and dear Lord the egregiousness of that prose...

Loren Eaton said...

Funny you should mention that ...

Chestertonian Rambler said...

I think people also forget the mneumonic advantage of good writing. Quite simply, "To be or not to be" fits more naturally into our mind (and sticks there for further contemplation) than "say, you know, I was thinking that life might be, like, less worth living than death, you know?" Similarly, "ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country" uses the Greek technique of chiasmus, and is more memorable than "a citizen ought to prefer considerations of duty over considerations of rights." Effective writing is just plain practical--which is why, in an age long before the printing press, even geometry textbooks were written in beautiful (well, passable) poetry.

Loren Eaton said...

Generally agreed, CR. Using patterns and techniques in composition can prove effective, even when it isn't entirely "propositionally correct." In "Some Thoughts About Writing," Thomas Sowell notes how today's copyeditors would change Lincoln's "fourscore and seven years ago" to "It has been 87 years since." Poof! There goes its effectiveness.

That being said, we can all think of literary examples that pile on so much technique that it becomes ugly rather than effective.