Book Review: “Spunk and Bite”

By Mark Nichol

The Elements of Style, by William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White, has been widely celebrated as one of the masterworks of English usage. Time magazine listed it as one of the one hundred most influential books written in English since 1923. More than ten million copies of the slim little volume that elucidates good usage, proper composition, and correct form have been sold over the course of the last half-century.

Shred it.

Shred it, that is, after you’ve read it once so that you know what not to do in your writing. Then, buy a copy of Arthur Plotnik’s Spunk and Bite: A Writer’s Guide to Bold, Contemporary Style.

Arthur who? Why should you attend to the advice of someone you’ve never heard of? Well, who had heard of Strunk, a Cornell University English professor, a hundred years ago? And though E. B. White was a famed New Yorker staff writer, as well as author of beloved children’s novels like Charlotte’s Web, he wasn’t considered an authority on language when he was commissioned to update his former teacher’s slight handbook in 1959. If there is any justice in the world, Plotnik will be as much of a household name in fifty years as Strunk & White are now — and with more justification.

Why the adulation? Plotnik, author of several acclaimed books on writing, offers Spunk and Bite as a refreshing alternative to the dry, rigid edicts of the book known informally as Strunk & White. The latter work, he argues authoritatively, stifles creativity and results in sterile prose. In seven example-laden sections, he offers liberating advice in chapters with such titles as “Joltingly Fresh Adverbs,” “The Punchy Trope,” “How to Loot a Thesaurus,” “Intensifiers for the Feeble,” “A License. To Fragment. Sentences,” “Magic in the Names of Things,” and “Edge: Writing at the Nervy Limits.”

Over and over again, Plotnik begs to differ with The Elements of Style, urging writers to know the Strunk & White rules only so they can break them. No anarchist he, however — the advice is generally grounded in a more liberal reading of the principles of English grammar and usage and in the understanding that some of the great literature of our language, from Shakespeare to Joyce to — well, he lauds the style of Martin Amis, Bill Bryson, Jonathan Franzen, Mark Leyner, E. Annie Proulx, Salman Rushdie, and others — have done very well without adhering to Strunk & White’s prissy precepts.

I can’t wholeheartedly embrace Plotnik’s prescriptions; his chapter on alternatives to using quotation marks to signal dialogue, for example, makes me cringe, and he suggests (mysteriously citing support of other recent writing guides) that a comma can precede the last item in a sentence in which semicolons separate other items in the series. (His example: “She tried switching computers; she wrote by hand; she dictated to a recorder, her old one from work, and she prayed to her muse.”) That aberrant final comma, however, renders an otherwise acceptable sentence grotesque.

There’s also an occasional misstep in his advice: He suggests diminishing what he considers an awkward subject-verb delay in “Ibrahim could not, in spite of all his training, knowing that the platoon depended on him, even with the armed and hated enemy in his crosshairs, fire” by revising the sentence to “Ibrahim could not fire, in spite of all his training, knowing that the platoon depended on him, even with the armed and hated enemy in his crosshairs.”

But this fix squanders the sentence’s tension, and it is the bisection of the verb phrase “could not fire,” not the delay between “Ibrahim could not” and “fire,” that mars the sentence. A better revision, one that aptly spotlights the stair-step intensification of the increasingly longer modifying phrases, is “Ibrahim, in spite of all his training, knowing that the platoon depended on him, even with the armed and hated enemy in his crosshairs, could not fire.”

Visitors to this site have similarly improved on my suggested revisions of not-quite-right writing, however, and this quibble and the preceding ones serve only to point out that Plotnik isn’t perfect. But The Elements of Style is out of style, and Spunk and Bite is an engaging antidote to Strunk and White’s black-and-white bludgeoning — a rainbow of writing recipes.

You can find the book on Amazon.com

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14 Responses to “Book Review: “Spunk and Bite””

  • Louise Broadbent

    I agree with the message of this new book: that the old rules can and should be broken, provided you understand them and what you’re doing. But surely its existence as a new rulebook contradicts its central argument that we should break the rules. I expect it doesn’t read like a rulebook and it probably mentions that its own rule can be broken but in this case, why do we need it? A writer breaks the rules because he/she needs to for the benefit of his/her work. Any outside influence on that process is superfluous, at best.

  • Stan Carey

    Plotnik’s Elements of Editing is also very good. Why assume readers have never heard of him?

  • Chuck Hustmyre

    If some of his sentences are “grotesque,” why would you follow Plotnik’s advice? I’ve done quite well with Messers. Strunk and White. I’ll stick to them.

  • Vicky

    I think you’re being a little harsh on Strunk and White: I’m pretty sure its aim is to help people write clearly, whereas this book sounds as if it helps you write with flair. For another which is like this, I’d recommend Francis Flaherty’s ‘Elements of Story’, which is based on his time as a sub-editor at the New York Times. http://www.amazon.com/The-Elements-Story-Nonfiction-Writing/dp/0061689149 It’s more for overall structure, but is another good complement to S&W.

  • Victoria Scott

    Great recommendation. I’ve seen this one before and never picked it up. Going to buy it on BN.com right now! 🙂

  • Stefano

    Thanks for the tip, Mark. I’ve just pulled the trigger on the Kindle edition and I’m ready to dive into it.

  • Roger Whitehead

    This work might sell well in Britain but for the wrong reasons. Among its other meanings, “spunk” is long-standing British slang for semen. (First recorded by the OED in 1888.)

    Some potential readers would possibly expect a book called “Spunk and Bite” to have illustrations by Robert Mapplethorpe.

    Roger

  • Pam Young

    I smiled at the parts re’ “stifles creativity . . .rigid prose,” because that’s what I felt when I reviewed the professional editing of my novel, Night Sounds. Bleah! I think I even emailed the editor with a comment, “I would never, ever, in a million years say THAT . . . ” Perhaps the contribution of this particular alternative to the venerable Stunk & White is a compromise . . . coming from somewhere else.

  • William Shipley

    I remember grabbing this book at the library year or so back, supposing it to possess the same virtues. I was unsatisfied. For now, it’s a plausible and timely placeholder in an eminently fill-able niche, but I wouldn’t go printing any issues in stone.

  • Ron

    Was it necessary to be so disrespectful and call for your readers to shred the Elements of Style. William Strunk, Jr. and E. B. White are academic legend. They have helped countless people to learn to write better. I can’t imagine that you learned to write as well as you do without a bit of their their help.

    It’s ironic that you called for shredding this venerable text since the Elements of Style was packaged by the Book of The Month with Plotnik’s best seller, The Elements of Editing. It sold 200,000 copies, according to Plotnik’s biography on his Web site. At least he appreciated it.

  • Brent

    C’mon guys – it’s a tongue in cheek review. The reviewer is just having some fun with a fun book. Don’t take it so seriously.

  • Chazzi

    Interesting post! Plotnik rang a bell and it should. Currently reading, in dribs and drabs, “The Elements of Expression” by him. Saw it on the shelf, read the flap and thought it would be a good addition to my library.
    I have Strunk & White and consider it a good reference for the basics of writing. Plotnik is good for a different view and suggestions. Helps give your mind some mental gymnastics to play with. I may not agree with all he writes/suggests, but since writing is a form of expressive creativity, I do like exploring new ideas.
    As the flap blurb states: “There are many grammar and usage books that give advice on correct English. This isn’t one of them. It is instead a compact, popular guide to expressiveness as a goal apart from “getting it right”.” And that is how I take this book.
    Thanks for the review and suggestion of another book for my library!

  • samuel g wangoto

    Hi.great work.requesting if you i can download the above book ” spunk and bite”

  • Jack Cooper

    Good call on the crossfire! Pleasant skate over troubled water from the smooth incision required at the “awkward” source and disjoined modal grafted deftly downstream to its infinitive finale–the only way to go (and doubly meritorious for preserving the author’s intention). Let Strunk and White (how many writers know or care who either of them are–or either one is??) retain their cobwebs. Sooner or later every editor must learn it is the elephant (speaking royally) we serve and not the cirque. Proscription too shall pass–as eggs, as offal. Valor, only–right words in the right order: the rest is vanity.

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