Some writers engage a reader with floral, Waughian descriptions that were becoming unacceptable in literary criticism just as the style was perfected in Brideshead Revisited. Others, Hemingway among them, preferred brief and terse verbiage that allows the reader to imagine setting while the pace of dialogue sets the mood. More recently, Donna Tartt writes down to the precise detail of characters' shoes, the floor arrangement of exhibitions, unsavory activities, and internal thoughts without ever employing an excessive word; Mr. Grump likened her style to a rich chocolate cake: delicious, but only tolerable in measured doses. Floridity and detail need not be sacrificed at the altar of post-modernity, but style has its limits before it irritates the reader.
I recently had the displeasure of reading Bradley Birzer's biography of Russell Kirk, called simply Russell Kirk: American Conservative. The book, a gift I would not have purchased on my own, recalls a quote from a forgotten author, "I have not yet run so dry of ideas to resort to writing biography." Kirk himself wrote biographies of John Randolph and Edmund Burke; his magnum opus, The Conservative Mind, was a series of intellectual biographies and vignettes intent on establishing an Anglo-American conservative political tradition outside of reactionary outcry. On rare occasion biography can be done well, if only economically. If less is more, Birzer does not know when to stop.
Mr. Birzer's 400 page hagiography, flattery, and canonization of the modest Russell Kirk is a textbook on how a person with respectable grammar can improve his style, if only in that it lays out context tendencies to avoid. The book is turgid beyond belief. Every noun is preceded by generally unnecessary and aggrandizing adjectives: "the great Eliot", "the magnificent Stoic", "the Roman Catholic Nicholas Joost". If someone considering a foray into the creation process ever wondered about writing aimless lists, Birzer offers something worth reading; he loves lists, even if they amount to less than Calvin's Institutes. He lists the names of writers who influenced Kirk in long successions for no apparent reason; one can guess Birzer is either attempting to establish a tradition of thought where there is not one or trying to convince the reader that he knows the works of those men in depth. In the span of three pages he lists: "natural law from Plato and Aristotle to the Stoics to Cicero to Richard Hooker to Grotius and Pufendorf to Montesquieu to Burke, Blackstone, and the American Founders"; "Burke, the American Founders, Joseph Story, Orestes Brownson, Irving Babbitt, and C.S. Lewis"; "German Catholic philosopher Josef Pieper as well as that of philosophers Alasdair McIntyre and Russell Hittinger"; and "Socrates to Cicero to Christopher Dawson and C.S. Lewis". Perhaps if Birzer spent more time reading these men than dropping their names he would have learned some stylistic lessons?
Blog posts here are rarely planned well enough in advance to warrant anything other than grammatical revision—and even that will slip the Rad Trad's mind in turn—but I would like to think my style is legible. Lord, save us from the turgid words of those who have much to say and little to mean!