Almost every writing tutor — including Sophie and Joanna of this parish — will tell aspiring writers that it’s a really good idea to read aloud during the editing process, in order to judge whether the manuscript needs more work. Basically, if you fall over your prose while trying to read it aloud, you haven’t got it right. Yet.
Apparently, we and all the other tutors are guilty of logocentrism. (Is that another of those incomprehensible words that Dame Isadora was ranting about, a few weeks ago? Maybe, but I haven’t been able to ask her, because she’s off in one of the wilder parts of the world, advising some government panjandrums about communication skills. I imagine her audience is still reeling…)
Logocentrism — wot?
Logocentrism is “the belief that speech is more authentic than writing,” according to Steven Poole, a journalist who writes about the abuse of language. Since Logocentrism is an abstruse 20th century philosophical term that I’m not qualified to define, I propose to go with Poole’s interpretation for the moment.
Poole offers it in a recent review of Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style, a 2019 bestseller in the US, now also published in the UK. (Is Dreyer’s title an American’s idea of irony? Or something less flattering? You decide.)
The guide’s author, Benjamin Dreyer — executive managing editor and copy chief at Random House — obviously has pedigree in the style business. His advice can be pretty raw, though. Did you know that you’re a “godless savage” if you don’t use the Oxford or serial comma? That’s British English put in its place.
However, Dreyer does say something that many writing tutors would endorse:
“One of the best ways to determine whether your prose is well constructed is to read it aloud.”
Prose that can easily be read aloud on the first try is the kind of frictionless, conversational writing that makes no demands on the reader, which is fine for certain applications and depressingly unambitious for others.
Dreyer’s read-aloud approach, Poole says loftily, characterises:
the kind of writing that Dreyer is offering to help the reader produce…
if that works, first time, your work is depressingly unambitious?
Frictionless? No demands on the reader? Depressingly unambitious?
I find myself spluttering in response, rather like Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells. ?
A pause here while I seek alcoholic refreshment and try to control my soaring blood pressure.
Now that I’ve calmed down somewhat, I find myself turning Poole’s words on their head.
Is he implying that prose which is NOT easily read aloud is good writing? Ambitious, even? Does he favour the kind of chewy prose that requires so much applied brain power to unpack its dense and worthy inner secrets that a wet towel is mandatory?
Not accessible to normal readers, of course.
So how many times do we normal readers have to reach a dead end with complex writing — read aloud or even silently — before it stops being full of friction and starts being simply pretentious? The kind of stuff that Orwell might have termed “outright barbarous.”
Rather than continue in this vein and spike my blood pressure again, I offer you Alistair Campbell’s verdict on Unspeak, one of Steven Poole’s books: “I am not quite sure what Poole is trying to say.”
😉 End of rant. I really shouldn’t trespass on Dame Isadora’s territory like this.
For the record, I shall continue to advise Libertà workshop participants to read their work aloud. And most of the time, I avoid the Oxford comma, too. Cleary I’m a godless savage…