Evelyn Waugh understands that if a writer is to develop, he “must concern himself more and more with Style.” By approaching words with the attention and craft of a tailor, the literary artist not only communicates but also gives pleasure to others.

“What do you think you’re doing?”

It’s a question I occasionally get from friends or often frenemies who are upset when they read some essay of mine that they don’t like. Sometimes the question means that the writer does not like what I’m saying but cannot actually muster an argument against it. Sometimes it seems to mean that the writer not only does not like it and cannot argue against it but also is very annoyed that I have written it well and entertainingly. The rule seems to be thus: If I am going to write against the narrative my inquisitor has swallowed, I should write badly and in a more-sorrowful-than-happily-confident tone.

When it seems that these are indeed the meanings behind such questions, the questions make me very happy. I am happy because I sometimes ask myself what exactly I am doing when I am writing. When I do, I tend to re-read Evelyn Waugh’s 1955 essay, “Literary Style in England and America,” which can be found in Donat Gallagher’s wonderful 1983 collection, The Essays, Articles and Reviews of Evelyn Waugh.

Waugh’s essay is filled with the kind of Waughian judgments that delight the reader at every turn whether one agrees with them or not. The reason is that a Waugh essay is always possessed of what Waugh says “distinguishes literature from trash”: style. Waugh does not use types of composition, reasons for writing, or subject matter to determine whether something is literature or not, for literature is simply “the right use of language.” “A political speech may be, and sometimes is, literature; a sonnet to the moon may be, and often is, trash.” Look at Waugh’s perfectly balanced two-part sentence separated by a semicolon. The first part with the “sometimes” applied to political speech shows just the right kind of optimism for politicians and sets up the “often” applied to poets who, Waugh tells us, have largely destroyed their claim to poetry by eliminating meter.

Therein we see style perfectly fitting and contributing to the meaning of the sentence. Thus, it demonstrates Waugh’s own understanding. “Properly understood style is not a seductive decoration added to a functional structure; it is of the essence of a work of art.”

Waugh declares that style “makes a work memorable and unmistakable,” though he notes that a work can be possessed of a remarkable degree of style in one sense and yet lack it in another. Of James Joyce he writes:

There was a writer possessed by style. His later work lost almost all faculty of communication, so intimate, allusive and idiosyncratic did it become, so obsessed by euphony and nuance. But because he was obscure and can be read only with intense intellectual effort—therefore without easy pleasure—he is admitted into the academic canon. But it is just in this task of communication that Joyce’s style fails, for the necessary elements of style are lucidity, elegance, individuality; these three qualities combine to form a preservative which ensures the nearest approximation to permanence in the fugitive art of letters.

While a writer does not have to be lucid to every reader—and Waugh cites Henry James as “the most lucid of writers, but not the simplest”—Joyce’s later work is incomprehensible.

It is perhaps no surprise that the professors admitted Joyce into the canon, for not only do they gain by becoming “experts” on what is difficult, but they are themselves notorious for using complex language to signal their own brilliance and, many surmise, shield themselves from criticism by providing readers no point clear enough to criticize. Waugh does not bother to attack academics engaged in this sort of subterfuge. Instead, he criticizes academics whose writing one can at least understand. “Curiously enough it is not in the universities that one finds fine writing; Sir Maurice Bowra is learned and lucid but dull; Lord David Cecil has grace but no grammar; Mr Isaiah Berlin is diffuse and voluble; Mr Trevor-Roper vulgar.” I think the “curiously enough” designation must be a kind of sarcasm or irony, for graceful and lucid academic writing has always been uncommon. So too is individuality, which Waugh says needs no explanation.

Waugh saw a high standard of individuality in a category that might seem strange to us today: “critics in the press.” Though when we see some of the names he gives us—Anthony Powell, Graham Greene, Ivy Compton-Burnett, Henry Green—we understand why he pronounces, “One could never mistake a page of their writing for anyone else’s.” We can also harken back to a time when the categories of popular and literary novelists were not so separated as they are today when too many “literary” authors take after Joyce in the lucidity category.

Yet if good style, like a good man, is hard to find, it is not the fault of our shared language. Waugh’s devotion to the English language is manifest. “English is incomparably the richest of languages, dead or living. One can devote one’s life to learning it and die without achieving mastery. No two words are identical in meaning, sound and connotation.” Yet too many speakers consider any word that is vaguely unfamiliar as “fancy,” and Waugh detects a flight from “magnificence” in English writing of his time, something that was already largely true of American writers.

While Hemingway was “lucid and individual and euphonious,” Waugh thought he had “imposed limits on his powers which only a master can survive.” Imitators of Hemingway, unlike the followers of Christ, had no promise that they would do greater works than the master. And Faulkner, unlike Joyce, lacked lucidity and elegance. The creator of Yoknapatawpha County “has individuality but nothing else.” Of Americans as a whole Waugh observes, “We [Englishmen] see the Americans as gushing adolescents, repetitive and slangy, rather nasty sometimes in their zest for violence and bad language.”

How then does Waugh think Americans view the English? The English seem, he says, “like prim spinsters fidgeting with the china, punctilious about good taste, and inwardly full of thwarted, tepid and perverse passions.” Yet this supposedly prim punctiliousness is really a function of the English writers of the day having learned Latin at the age of nine and “acquired a basic sense of the structure of language which never left them.” If style is not just decoration but part of the essence of art, this knowledge of the structure of literature’s matter can explain why even so many Americans, then and now, find themselves drawn to the great English writers of the twentieth century. Waugh’s prediction was that the English writer, apart from the graduates of Benedictine and Jesuit schools, would perhaps resemble more the American writer soon, for Latin was being abandoned in British schools. Alas, poor Evelyn would live to see the abandonment of Latin in the Catholic Church, a harbinger of the end of the Catholic revival in letters of which he was so important a member.

I have a little Latin (and less Greek), yet I persist in thinking that Waugh’s understanding of the writer’s art and motivation is ultimately correct. Waugh concludes that if a writer is to develop, he “must concern himself more and more with Style.” The capitalization of the term here indicates the importance. Three paths open up for any writer. One can become a publicist, writing, we would say now, for clicks. That path of instant quasi-literary gratification bears no possibility of long-term fruit. The real choice, Waugh says, is between becoming a prophet, “dictating dooms and exhortations on the topics of the day,” and becoming an artist. As Ian Ker wrote, “Waugh despised any romantic notion of the writer, who for him was merely a craftsman in words,” comparable to a bootmaker or tailor. The literary artist sees that “[t]he world is full of discoveries that demand expression.” By approaching the words that can express those discoveries with the attention and craft of a tailor, by putting them into a beautiful shape, the literary artist has not only the possibility of communication, but also “a bare chance of giving abiding pleasure to others.”

What do I think I am doing with my essays? Whatever it is, I hope I am doing it with style. And I hope that is the reason you asked.

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The featured image is a portrait of Evelyn Waugh (1940), photographed by Carl Van Vechten (1880–1964), and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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