Style Or Substance?

I don’t read a great deal of fiction — less and less, in fact, as I’ve gotten older. It’s not that I don’t enjoy or appreciate a good novel — I do — but time is short (and getting shorter), and I still have an awful lot to learn.

One thing that distinguishes the forms is that non-fiction’s value rests primarily upon the practical expertise of the author. If I have in hand, say, a book about the taxonomy of cichlid fishes in Lake Victoria, I am reading it because I am curious about this fascinating topic, and assume that the author knows a lot more about it than I do. He will have spent many years in the field, examining the unique geological and biological circumstances that have made this enormous lake such a productive and instructive laboratory of vertebrate evolution. I will expect that he has drawn important lessons from these years of detailed study, lessons that make possible a broader and more general understanding of life’s history and origins.

What will not be guaranteed, however, is that the author will have any conspicuous literary gifts. He will likely have learned to write coherently, and to explain complex ideas in an accessible way, but he is a scientist first and a writer second, and to expect that he will be both a dedicated and expert icthyologist and a brilliant prose stylist is asking rather a lot. There are some notable exceptions, but they are just that.

Currently I am reading a very interesting (and, I think, quite important) book about the underpinnings and architecture of human morality. The author has done exceptional work in this field, and is at the pinnacle of his profession. It is a subject that engages me at the deepest level, and about which I want to learn everything I can. Unfortunately, though, for all his professional excellence, the author simply is not a very good writer. His sentences have no lilt, no music; they are stiff and wordy, and larded with clichés. I admire his expertise and insight, and want very much to read what he has to say, but it’s a long book, and tough going.

So, these past few evenings, when I’ve found myself starting to clench my fists and grind my teeth, I’ve put the book down and gone after some sweet relief, which I always keep handy. This week it has come in the form of an old collection of the best of S.J. Perelman, the diffident virtuoso who always managed, without apparent effort, to spin mere words into purest gold.

One of the many pleasures of reading Perelman, whose career spanned the heart of the twentieth century, is his fondness for contemporaneous ephemera. Many of his delicious little soufflés begin with some outlandish item taken from the local news, or some florid ad copy that caught his all-seeing eye. And the story I picked up last night, when the aforementioned dreary tome had me gasping for air, indeed gave a glimpse of a marketing ploy that would be unthinkable today, but must have seemed the height of sophistication half a century ago.

The story was called Hell Hath No Fury… and Saks No Brake, and was published in the New Yorker in 1951. It was inspired by an actual product with a clever distribution scheme, an ad for which had attracted Perelman’s attention. The commodity in question was a pefume called Chaqueneau-K, and the angle was this: it could not be sold to a woman. That’s right: the only way a woman could wear this perfume was if it had been given to her by a man. This was more than enough for Perelman’s fecund imagination, and off he went with a breezy little tale of imposture and intrigue. I am certainly not about to transcribe the whole thing for you — but as the curtain rises, a grand dame is about to meet her match:

Mrs. Hector Seaforth Patroon, Park Avenue socialite, prominent Bermuda hostess, and spouse of the chairman of the American Roller Towel Corporation, was in high dudgeon. Stamping her aristocratic foot, shod by Palter DeLiso, she drew her ankle-length Revillon Frères sable coat closer about a statuesque figure sculpted by Lily of France, snapped shut the emerald clasp of her handbag, and glared down majestically at the clerk behind the prefume counter. “Young man,” she said with freezing scorn, “do you know, by any remote chance, who you’re talking to?”

“Perfectly, Mrs. Patroon,” he replied, bowing courteously. “Whether captivating every eye in her ringside box at the Horse Show or bandying persiflage with other celebs at Gotham’s gilded ’21’ Club, the uncrowned queen of the champagne set is class personified, part and parcel of the metropolitan élite. Indeed. ’tis rumored by wiseacres that without her portrait to grace their pages, Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar would long ago be floundering on their derrières.”

“Very well, then,” retorted the lady, her arctic reserve thawing under his flattery. “Give us a large flacon of Chaqueneau-K and let me have no more ridiculous chin music about you do not cater same to the frail sex.”

“I’m sorry, Madam, apologized the clerk. “Those, regrettably, are my orders, that their infraction is punishable by immediate dismissal.”

This being Perelman, baroque complications ensue, the elaboration of which in this space would require a great deal more typing than I have in me this evening, I’m afraid. But you get the idea. I didn’t learn much about fishes or morality, but what a splendid analgesic.

Anyway, time to sign off. I have reading to do.

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  1. I know what you mean about the style of some of these experts. The trouble is that the style is often of an academic or “scientific” formula to which has been added a colloquial chattiness — a recipe for literary ugliness. (The style of the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century scientists and philosophers is much more elegant.) Another annoyance of the academic formula is how the author frequently tells me that he is going to tell me something in Chapter 7 or Chapter 9 as a consequence of what he has told me in Chapters 2 and 3. I feel like saying: just lead me there smoothly and naturally, old chap, without drawing attention to the joins.

    Posted October 7, 2008 at 8:29 am | Permalink
  2. JK says

    And if, perchance some wandering scientist who might be considering a tome or two happens by? Well actually since I thought this might be a good way to help someone else.

    Posted October 8, 2008 at 10:47 pm | Permalink