Language Comes First—But in What Capacity?
Writing in a later edition of his The Rhetoric of Fiction, Wayne Booth comments, “My trouble in this book is not that I subordinate language to character and event; this is something I would still want to do, given the purposes of the work. My trouble is that I do not fully state the sense in which language does come first: it is what we meet first, it is what we touch most closely, it is what we go back to when checking our imaginings against ‘the facts’” (411). Language comes first—a driving assumption of my interest in style. As Booth points out, characters and events may be more important, ultimately, than language, but we cannot know about them except through the language. The quality of language determines our ability or inability to engage with the rest of a text. So, of course, we must pay careful attention to language: it tells us everything or, at the very least, controls how we are told about everything that matters. As Kenneth Burke puts it: “Even if any given terminology is a reflection of reality, by its very nature as terminology it must be a selection of reality; and to this extent it must function also as a deflection of reality” (45). Language shapes everything else.
Of course, it is one thing to understand the primary role of language in reading and writing in principle, but it is another thing entirely to understand it in practice. Yes, language comes first, providing our initial encounter with the text and its creator, but what is it really—how does it work?
At this point, I don’t have an answer, unfortunately, but this wouldn’t be worth doing if I had one, I suppose. I am drawn to Burke’s observation, however: “A distinction between mother and father ultimately involves substantial relationships; but it must begin in purely sensory perceptions, distinctions in the sensory ways by which the two relatives manifest themselves” (429). Mother and father are abstractions—theorized labels derived from substantively different sensory interactions between a child and two parents. Obviously, an infant does not come pre-loaded with the categories of mother and father; rather, the infant experiences two parents differently, applying labels after the fact. That is, the terministic distinction between mother and father results from an experiential distinction. The interactions with the figure-to-be-mother precede the label. My experiences with my mother lead me to theorize the term mother, which enables me to talk to other people about their mothers. Mother-in-practice is not mother-in-theory—but the limitations of empathy make mother-in-theory the figure we turn to in discourse.
Style must work in a similar way: we encounter writing first—and then theorize the writer. Notably, while my experience of my particular mother or father is entirely my own, distinct even from a sibling’s, we all have access to the text produced by a writer. Of course, we do not all have access to the text in the same way, by the same window, in the same mood. So even the primary experience of language in a text becomes idiosyncratic. So text or author-in-practice is inaccessible, but author-in-theory, an abstraction, is usable in discourse. Just as my experiential account of “mom” is unique to me, the abstraction, the label, serves to have meaningful interactions with my siblings—or with other people who have different moms. One’s experience of Mark Twain, in practice, may be the experience of a scintillating wit while another’s is of an insufferable know-it-all—but Mark Twain in theory is still someone we talk about.
So what? Where have I gotten myself in all this wandering? I think somewhere like this: the author exists for us only through their style. That is, the author is a figure we have abstracted from our primary experience with that author’s language. Obviously, the author has some control over their style—but how much control? Burke writes, “In sum, the poet as poet makes a poem; and his ways of making the poem are practices which implicitly involve principles or precepts. The critic, in matching the poetry with a poetics, seeks to make these implicit principles explicit” (33). The writer writes, much in the same way, I suppose, that a mother mothers. There must be some things a mother does intentionally—consciously—while there are others that are just an outgrowth of her way of being in the world. So there is much that a writer can do deliberately with style, but there must also be much that is unintentional, simply an outgrowth of that writer’s way of being in the world. We don’t know the author, though, just the text, so we can’t say which is which—only that there are words in front of us. Is intentionality even worth addressing?
And, of course it must be, if we are to train writers. For readers, the actual writer must be irrelevant: author-in-theory works just fine. But for one who would be a writer, there must be an understanding of writer-in-practice too. John T. Gage states, “[S]tylistic issues revolve around a question of whether style is itself expressive or whether it merely permits expression, so that one can speak of a writer as either having a style or of working in a style” (618). Can style be taught? Why not? The proliferation of books on writing may be comparable to the books on parenting—surely there are aspects of each that can be taught. But much of a writer’s style will also proceed from who they are—styles that are brusque, generous, forceful, etc. may proceed from conscious manipulation of syntax, but they may also (more likely) proceed from the writer’s personality. Style as personality. The reader’s author-in-theory is inflected by the reader’s affinity with that personality. I hesitate at the triteness of the thought, but the rhyme is too compelling: perhaps the art of style can be taught while the heart of style cannot. Who’s to say?
The question endures, though: is style teachable? And if so, what are we teaching, syntax or manners?
Booth, Wayne C. The Rhetoric of Fiction. 2nd ed., University of Chicago Press, 1983.
Burke, Kenneth. Language as Symbolic Action. University of California Press, 1966.
Gage, John T. “Philosophies of Style and Their Implications for Composition.” College English, vol. 41, no. 6, Feb. 1980, p. 615. DOI.org (Crossref), doi:10.2307/375906.