By MICHIAL FARMER.
WHEN I TAUGHT college English, I developed an enormous and comprehensive rubric—sixteen criteria, each with five possible scores—so as to avoid having to assign a “holistic” score to any student’s paper. The idea was to keep a paper’s grade from being unduly influenced by subjective factors like my feelings about its author or its position in the assembly belt of tedium that is paper grading. Even the most comprehensive rubric can’t entirely escape subjectivity, of course. If nothing else, a subjective consciousness decided what factors were most important in designing it. But having to fit one’s subjective impressions into more or less objective categories protects teacher and student alike from the tyranny of emotion. Most of my criteria were relatively self-explanatory—unity, grammar, evidence, and so forth—and all of them featured detailed explanations. But there was one criterion, worth five percent of the paper’s grade, that was vaguer than the rest. Here are the grading explanations for the fifteenth criterion, “Elegance”:
- Student’s prose approaches the beautiful in places. (5 points)
- Student is workable and occasionally beautiful. (4.3 points)
- Student’s prose is workmanlike. (3.8 points)
- Student’s prose is generally unattractive. (3.3 points)
- Student’s prose is distractingly ugly. (0 points)
Originally, this criterion was called “Sentence Variety” and had to do, much more straightforwardly, with the student’s ability to mix complex sentences with simple ones. That technique was easy to grade. But I grew tired of it rather quickly, and, seeking a way to introduce a bit more subjective wiggle room into my grading, replaced it with “Elegance,” which is so reliant on the notion of beauty that it could serve as an easy way to add points to papers I enjoyed reading—and to remove them from ones I didn’t.
Reflecting on it now, however, it seems to me that elegance is a hallmark of A-level writing—A-level because it is not essential for a writer’s getting her point across (as unity, argument, and evidence are) but because it pushes a person’s prose to a higher level, one that it’s not fair to expect all writers, especially student writers, to attain. If a student paper in a stack of student papers is pleasurable to read, even odds are that elegance has something to do with it. But it’s not a necessary standard, either: prose can be transcendent for any number of reasons, some of which are actively at odds with elegance. I have in mind, for example, the writing of Joyce or Faulkner, which sweeps the reader away forcefully without displaying much elegance. So elegance is a hallmark of writing at the highest level, but not the only one, and it can’t substitute for vision or originality or insight. It’s a good thing, even a great thing, but it’s not absolute, and a writer who depends on it too strongly risks being seen the way Harold Bloom (wrongly, in my opinion) saw John Updike: “a minor novelist with a major style.”
But what is it? The criteria I gave on my rubric don’t shed any real light on it; all they really say is that, like pornography, I know it when I see it. And the books about writing on my shelf don’t mention elegance at all. The word doesn’t appear in the index of Strunk and White’s Elements of Style—appropriately enough, given that journalists mostly value clarity over elegance in their prose. Likewise, Jacques Barzun doesn’t mention it in Simple and Direct, and probably considered it a form of unnecessary flourish. William Zinsser’s On Writing Well, a modern classic, doesn’t mention it either, although he spends a few pages on the related concept of eloquence, which he claims “runs on a deeper current” than mere simplicity. “It moves us with what it leaves unsaid,” he writes, “touching off echoes in what we already know from our reading, our religion and our heritage. Eloquence invites us to bring some part of ourselves to the transaction.” That’s a helpful category, but it’s not exactly what I mean by elegance, which I take to be less participatory and perhaps a bit more objective.
Meanwhile, the book I used to teach first-year writing classes, Scott Crider’s The Office of Assertion, uses the word only on its back cover, where Louise Cowan calls it a “brief, elegant text.” But Crider gets closer to my thoughts in his discussion of what he calls “Middle Style.” Pitched between the complicated curlicues of Samuel Johnson and the colloquial speech of Huck Finn, Middle Style is the appropriate register for academic prose. It “requires appropriate, clear, and vivid diction without either grandiloquence or vulgarity, and it also requires appropriate, clear, and varied periods without excessive subordination or reductive simplicity.” It is, in other words, as simple as it needs to be, without taking simplicity as the master virtue; it’s clear without taking clarity as the only virtue. I’ll concede that it typically belongs to Middle Style, albeit to its higher levels, but it’s worth pointing out that Middle Style is always a relative category. Samuel Johnson’s prose, impenetrable to Crider’s students and to mine, surely seemed elegant and approachable in the eighteenth century. What this means is that, while style, as Crider points out, “discloses ethos, the appeal to the rhetor’s character as it reveals itself in the text itself,” it also involves pathos, since it requires a keen attention to the needs and preferences of the writer’s audience. Elegance meets readers where they are, but it calls them to a higher place.
Part of the problem with defining elegance in prose is that, unlike other criteria, it is not exclusively or even primarily rhetorical. Eloquence, for example, can be applied to other disciplines only analogically. Not so elegance, where the analogy rests with rhetoric itself. Perhaps when we say that writing is elegant, we mean that it resembles a ballerina in some way. In fact, elegance seems to me to be primarily a musical term, and a particular kind of music: the music of the late eighteenth century, the string quartets of Haydn or Mozart, in which each instrument is perfectly balanced and contributes to a whole that is, improbably, greater than the sum of its parts. Or think of Duke Ellington’s music, born out of the sufferings of generations of black Americans and turning that unutterable pain into something that transcends it but does not forget it. No one could call Haydn or Mozart or Ellington simple; their music is full of flourishes and detours, however expertly controlled. But it has what we might call a simplicity of affect, which I think accounts for the tremendous, almost supernatural, feeling of goodwill that it imparts to the listener. The heirs of these musicians—be they the Beethoven of the Appassionata sonata or the Coltrane of Giant Steps—have their own tables of virtues but largely lack the elegance I’m talking about. (That’s not an insult. Remember, elegance is a value in art, but it’s not a necessary value, and transcendence comes in all sorts of flavors.) Elegant music is not naïve any more than it is simple: these composers knew suffering and despair as much as or more than any of us, but their compositions rise above it, and invite us to follow them.
I keep returning to spatial metaphors, and it’s not coincidental. Elegance is typified by its graceful updrafts, by aid of which artist and audience alike ascend like hawks into the air without even, as it were, flapping their wings. I think this is what Italo Calvino was getting at when, in his unfinished Six Memos for the New Millennium, he identified lightness as a major quality of the art of the future:
Were I to choose an auspicious image for the new millennium, I would choose that one: the sudden agile leap of the poet-philosopher who raises himself above the weight of the world, showing that with all his gravity he has the secret of lightness, and that what many consider to be the vitality of the times—noisy, aggressive, revving and roaring—belongs to the realm of death, like a cemetery for rusty old cars.
Calvino gives us more opposites for elegance to reconcile. Lightness does not exclude heaviness but incorporates, then transcends it. The tightrope walker does not so much avoid the empty space to her left and right as she incorporates them both into her body, then walks straight between them. The hot-air balloon ascends not by jettisoning its cargo but by bringing it alongside itself.
This reconciliation of opposites seems to me an essential quality of elegance. Inelegant speech is full of opposites, too, but it lacks the savoir-faire to balance them. I think of the 1974 Rankin-Bass cartoon ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas, which features a pompous small-town mayor who is enamored of fifty-cent words but who can’t put together a whole sentence with them. “You may build your clock, Mr. Trundle,” he bloviates at one point. “And may the enchanting tones of its melody soar to the pinnacle of celestial heights where—oh, heck, get started.” The humor of the scene comes from the bathos of the man aiming for elegance and shooting himself in the foot instead. The ballerina slips on a banana peel and careens into the other dancers. The tightrope walker loses her balance, falls of the rope, and lands on a clown delicately eating crème brulée.
Because literary elegance is so connected with the experience of the reader, it is also finely tuned to the demands of the moment, and in this sense it is closely associated with manners, which, as Emily Post puts it, “are a sensitive awareness of the feelings of others.” Elegance assumes the intelligence and good will of the reader and strives to meet them with the same qualities. This means that elegant prose doesn’t talk down to the reader, as advice about simplicity sometimes does. But neither does it try to show off. Elegance is about creating something beautiful, with an appropriate level of complexity and filigree, to delight and perhaps, if necessary, to lightly challenge the reader. As with many other aesthetic phenomena, there can be no hard and fast rules for elegance; it always exists as instantiated in particular pieces of writing, just as manners always exist as instantiated in particular situations—even if it means transgressing established norms.
There’s a story you may have heard that demonstrates this point nicely. A man has been invited to a fancy dinner party. He’s never been to one before, and he doesn’t know what the array of accoutrements laid out on the table in front of him are for. His hostess is horrified on his behalf when he picks up the small bowl meant for washing one’s fingers before the dessert course and delicately drinks the water out of it. But informing him of the purpose of the finger bowl, either out loud or privately, would surely embarrass him. So she picks up her own bowl and drains it. What was a faux pas becomes a means of making her guest feel at home. She breaks a rule of etiquette, but in doing so she preserves the higher etiquette of the situation. In the same way, elegance is not necessarily about maintaining a high tone throughout. The moment might call for a break.
LET’S LOOK A little closer at a few examples of elegant writing, so we can try to pick out the qualities that might make them elegant. I want to start with the famous opening passage of A Tale of Two Cities:
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way—in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.
What’s immediately obvious is that this sentence literally reconciles opposites by a series of antitheses, growing progressively more intense—the repetition of season turns into the specific pair of spring and winter—until Dickens cuts it off just as it begins to grow tedious. We expect him to use these antitheses to create another antithesis, between the French Revolution and the early decades of Queen Victoria’s reign, but he does the opposite, stating the virtual identity of the two eras. The true antithesis is between the author (and the readers pulled alongside him by the force of his rhetoric) and the commentators who would deny the similarities. The sentence is a model of control and construction. In the hands of a lesser writer, it would be too long, too cute in its repetitions, but Dickens maintains his control of language throughout, and the result is a passage that is not merely perceptive about its author’s social and political situation, but immensely pleasurable as a reading experience.
Note that the passage’s parataxis borders on grammatical incorrectness: the first two-thirds of the sentence are a series of comma splices. But it would lose some elegance were the commas substituted for the more technically correct semicolons. The semicolon is a heavier punctuation mark than the comma, and the effect of the passage depends on its lightness. Man was not made for grammar, but grammar for man, and even the most important rules might and should be broken in service of rhetorical effect. The trick is to know when such a break is necessary, which takes practice, experience, and perhaps an ear for language that can’t be taught.
The one section of the passage that hasn’t aged well is Dickens’s little dance around the word hell, which is apt to sound overly cute to twenty-first-century ears. But it was surely elegant in 1859, an attempt to avoid saying a word that would offend many of his middle-class readers, and its sourness more than a century and a half later demonstrates the degree to which elegance requires attention to one’s audience.
Here’s another passage that makes elegant use of antithesis, from Frederick Douglass’s Narrative:
What he most dreaded, that I most desired. What he most loved, that I most hated. That which to him was a great evil, to be carefully shunned, was to me a great good, to be diligently sought; and the argument which he so warmly urged, against my learning to read, only served to inspire me with a desire and a determination to learn.”
Like Dickens’s, Douglass’s prose becomes more complex as the passage goes on. It puts the lie to Twain’s famous advice: “When you catch an adjective, kill it.” Would anyone sincerely prefer “an evil to be shunned” to “a great evil, to be carefully shunned”? To be fair to Twain, he did follow his advice with, “I don’t mean utterly, but kill most of them—then the rest will be valuable.” But the elevation of simplicity and directness to the greatest hallmark of style is as limited as all other writing guidelines. Douglass’s autobiographies are a sort of incarnated argument for the value of reading and the evil of disallowing it to slaves. Thus his argument is served by a certain ornateness in his prose, which is among the most elegant of the nineteenth century. But this ornateness is never mere ornament, but always in service of that intrinsic argument. And Douglass’s writing is still perfectly clear; its elegance, as elegance always does, reconciles opposites.
Sometimes this reconciliation is structural, too, as in this passage from Barbara Pym’s Quartet in Autumn:
Marcia’s day seemed to have gone in a flash, though speed was not a concept in her life. She had no sense of time passing and was surprised when darkness came. Her most conscious thought was irritation at the idea that the do-gooding social worker might call, so she did not put the light on but sat in darkness, listening to the mindless chatter and atavistic noise of Radio 1 turned down low. She had no memory of having experienced the first day of her retirement.
This depressing description enacts the strange motions of time that it describes. It begins with two short, slow sentences that demonstrate the degree to which Marcia’s life lacks speed. Then, all of the sudden, it speeds up, with the long sentence in which Marcia sits in the dark listening to the radio, until we are at the end of the paragraph, the end of the chapter and Marcia can’t remember anything that she’s done.
I love this description of middle-class conformity from Willa Cather’s “Paul’s Case”:
It was a highly respectable street, where all the houses were exactly alike, and where business men of moderate means begot and reared large families of children, all of whom went to Sabbath-school and learned the shorter catechism, and were interested in arithmetic; all of whom were as exactly alike as their homes, and of a piece with the monotony in which they lived.”
Here too, Cather’s elegance makes an implicit argument. Paul must be set apart from his upbringing in bourgeois Pittsburgh, and it is specifically his taste for the finer things in life that sets him apart. Cather’s prose communicates Paul’s “loathing” for his hometown indirectly as well as directly, its structural repetitions reproducing the monotony of life there without ever themselves becoming monotonous.
Elegance, indeed, frequently bestows a kind of grace upon a milieu that largely lacks it. No one does this better than John Updike. In this passage from Rabbit, Run, Harry Angstrom tries to explain his personal mysticism to Jack Eccles, an Episcopalian minister:
This excitement of friendship, a competitive excitement that makes him lift his hands and jiggle them as if thoughts were basketballs, presses him to say, ‘Well I don’t know all this about theology, but I’ll tell you, I do feel, I guess, that somewhere behind all this’—he gestures outward at the scenery; they are passing the housing development this side of the golf course, half-wood half-brick one-and-a-half stories in little flat bulldozed yards containing tricycles and spindly three-year-old trees, the un-grandest landscape in the world—’there’s something that wants me to find it.’”
There’s absolutely no sense in which this is simple writing. It is, in fact, three sentences expertly pressed together: (1) the description of Harry’s internal state; (2) the description of the world he’s standing in; and (3) his own description of the nature of the universe. This third sentence interrupts the second one, and undermines it to some degree; the idea that some divine force lurks in the depressing suburban landscape would be funny if there were any trace of mockery in Updike’s irony. The first sentence, meanwhile, ties the other two together, showing us the internal motion that allows him to recognize (or project; Updike doesn’t make it clear) that divine extraordinary in the hyper-ordinary. And Updike accomplishes this effect, or so it seems, effortlessly.
THAT SEEMING EFFORTLESSNESS is, I suspect, a necessary part of elegance. Think back to our ballerina. If we see her visibly struggling to contort her body in time to the music, we will be less impressed with her feat, even as we recognize that it’s still beyond our own abilities. And yet it is only a seeming effortlessness. The ballerina spent hundreds of hours in the studio learning to make her grace look like it comes naturally to her. So elegance involves a sort of studied effortlessness, what the Italian Renaissance courtier and writer Baldesar Castiglione calls sprezzatura, “a certain nonchalance which conceals all artistry and makes whatever one says or does seem uncontrived and effortless.” It thus requires a tremendous labor—the ballerina’s punishing rehearsals, Flaubert’s hours spent on a single sentence, Douglass’s literal life-or-death struggle to learn to read and write—which is immediately hidden from one’s audience. Elegance is showy and impressive, but it appears to be merely tossed-off. We must simultaneously be struck by its complexity and convinced that we could also do it without much effort, were we so inclined. This may be why we so many of us believe we can be poets: the best poetry is so expertly elevated that it doesn’t seem to have been written at all, as if it emerged, unbidden and fully formed, from the clear, crisp waters of the collective unconscious. The poet hides her learning and her labor alike under the elegance of rhythm and rhyme—or, failing those tools, under line and verse themselves. The seams don’t show. Elegance is like origami; when we first see it, we are struck by the beauty of its many delicate folds. But when we try to replicate them, our own paper crane looks more like a ridiculous shoebill stork.
Ultimately, I was right to put elegance at the upper limits of the A-level of my rubric. Good writing, even great writing, does not require it, and to expect college students, who have not yet had the requisite hundreds of hours of practice, to exhibit it would be patently unfair. (A “generally ugly” paper, after all, could receive a 97, and I probably gave three 100s my entire decade of teaching.) And then there is some truth to the idea that elegance can be taught only to a certain extent, that the truly elegant writers have a natural gift just as surely as the truly great athletes do, and that it’s unreasonable to expect just anybody to perform at that level. (But it still demands practice and training!) My point is that writing guides, in their praise of simplicity, are missing out on something transcendent in writing. But then, their job isn’t to teach people to write transcendently, only to write better. Simplicity is a kind of stay against false elegance, against the humiliation of the ballerina’s breaking her leg as she falls off the stage. But it’s no substitute for the real thing, which produces a feeling that can’t be produced any other way.
Bloom, Harold. “Introduction.” John Updike: Modern Critical Views, edited by Harold Bloom, Chelsea House, 1988, pp. 1-7.
Calvino, Italo. Six Memos for the New Millennium, translated by Patrick Kreagh, Vintage, 1993.
Castiglione, Baldesar. The Book of the Courtier, translated by George Bull, Penguin, 1976.
Cather, Willa. “Paul’s Case.” Early Novels and Stories, edited by Sharon O’Brien, Library of America, 1987, pp. 111-131.
Crider, Scott F. The Office of Assertion: An Art of Rhetoric for the Academic Essay. ISI Books, 2005.
“Definition of Etiquette.” EmilyPost.com
Dickens, Charles. A Tale of Two Cities. Penguin, 2003.
Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. Lector, 2019.
Pym, Barbara. Quartet in Autumn. Plume, 1992.
“Topics of the Times.” The New York Times, 25 December 1939, p. 22.
Updike, John. Rabbit, Run. Fawcett, 1996.
Zinsser, William. On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction. Harper Perennial, 2016.
Michial Farmer is the author of Imagination and Idealism in John Updike’s Fiction (Camden House, 2017) and the translator of Gabriel Marcel’s Thirst (Cluny, forthcoming). His essays have appeared in Front Porch Republic, PopMatters, and America Magazine. He lives in Atlanta.