Ray Sawhill recently called my attention to the 1996 how-to-write book Clear and Simple as the Truth: Writing Classic Prose by Francis-Noël Thomas and Mark Turner, which extolls the “classic” prose style perfected by 17th Century French writers such as Descartes and Pascal.
In the development of English literature, more energy tended to be directed toward poetry than prose. Thus, 17th Century English prose, such as Milton’s Areopagitica, tends to be a chore to read. My impression is that there was a big leap forward in English prose at the time of the Statute of Anne of 1709, which established a 14-year copyright and thus made magazines and novels profitable. Many famous names in journalism — The Spectator, The Tatler, The Guardian — date from this epoch, as do fiction works that still sell, such as Gulliver’s Travels and Robinson Crusoe.
But still, it seems to me, English prose continued to lag in lucidity. Is the Declaration of Independence as easy to read as it ought to be? Or consider Franklin’s 1754 essay Observations Concerning the Increase of Mankind, which ought to be the founding document of the social sciences in America but is ignored because of its anti-immigration policy advocacy and because the prose is hard to deal with.
One question concerns translation: We often update the spelling and maddening capitalization of old English prose, but otherwise leave them alone. Translations of classic French prose into English are freer. Still, the consensus seems to be that the French achieved lucidity in prose well before the English and Americans, which had an enduring impact on Frenchmen’s self-image of themselves as rational and clear-headed.
Clear and Simple as the Truth argues that to write prose as well as a great 17th Century Frenchman, you have to take on some of their personality and character traits, such as disinterestedness, self-confidence, and elitist egalitarianism. Basically, you have to pretend (and not only pretend, but you have to feel you deserve to act like) some kind of aristocrat of superb culture conversationally addressing some other gentleman of breeding about topics of interest to the handful of people able to rise above self-interest and partisanship.
Interestingly, the notion of esoteric writing is relevant here: 17th Century France was more of an authoritarian state than England/Britain over the same period (you did not want to get on King Louis XIV’s bad side), so the best French writing was limited in its original intended audience. The French classics typically started out as letters or memoirs, or were imitations of private correspondence, such as Pascal’s Provincial Letters of the 1650s.
In contrast, while the English didn’t have full freedom of the press, they had a Parliament, elections, and a lot of public oratory, which encouraged bloviation and showing off. Some English exoteric prose, like Milton’s 1644 pamphlet Areopagitica asking Parliament to grant freedom of the press, is show-offy in the extreme. Milton was trying to impress his audience with his vast learning into granting him more liberty. He’s not some peasant likely to lead a peasant’s revolt.
I was going to write at more length about what else I learned from Clear and Simple as the Truth, but now somebody who is a much better writer than me has done the job. From the Chronicle of Higher Education:
by Steven Pinker
… Instead of moralistic finger-pointing or evasive blame-shifting, perhaps we should try to understand academese by engaging in what academics do best: analysis and explanation. An insight from literary analysis and an insight from cognitive science go a long way toward explaining why people who devote their lives to the world of ideas are so inept at conveying them.
In a brilliant little book called Clear and Simple as the Truth, the literary scholars Francis-Noël Thomas and Mark Turner argue that every style of writing can be understood as a model of the communication scenario that an author simulates in lieu of the real-time give-and-take of a conversation. They distinguish, in particular, romantic, oracular, prophetic, practical, and plain styles, each defined by how the writer imagines himself to be related to the reader, and what the writer is trying to accomplish. (To avoid the awkwardness of strings of he or she, I borrow a convention from linguistics and will refer to a male generic writer and a female generic reader.) Among those styles is one they single out as an aspiration for writers of expository prose. They call it classic style, and they credit its invention to 17th-century French essayists such as Descartes and La Rochefoucauld.
The guiding metaphor of classic style is seeing the world. The writer can see something that the reader has not yet noticed, and he orients the reader so she can see for herself. The purpose of writing is presentation, and its motive is disinterested truth. It succeeds when it aligns language with truth, the proof of success being clarity and simplicity. The truth can be known and is not the same as the language that reveals it; prose is a window onto the world. The writer knows the truth before putting it into words; he is not using the occasion of writing to sort out what he thinks. The writer and the reader are equals: The reader can recognize the truth when she sees it, as long as she is given an unobstructed view. And the process of directing the reader’s gaze takes the form of a conversation.
As usual with Pinker, read the whole thing there.