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Non-fiction reviews


Thomas Kane - The New Oxford Guide to Writing

19 November 1988

The New Oxford Guide to Writing
by Thomas S Kane
Oxford University Press (New York)

Published in The Age

During 1973, the Jerusalem Burial Society tells us, that city's death rate dropped an astounding 50 percent. The cause? Israel was then in the grip of the only doctors' strike in its history.

There are undoubtedly parallels between the absence of doctors and good health, and the absence of experts on writing and literary quality. The appearance of The New Oxford Guide to Writing brings these parallels to mind.

This possibly exhaustive, and certainly exhausting, book on the science, but not the art, of writing, will be of some considerable help to would-be writers low on ability, instinct and common sense. Nothing is overlooked: Exploring for Topics, Making a Plan, Paragraph Development (parts 1, 2, 3 and 4), Concision, Rhythm, Diction, Vocabulary, Punctuation, and much more.

It is never clear whether Thomas S Kane (former Professor of English at the University of Connecticut) is addressing himself just to letter-writers, academics, etc - or creative writers as well. It is therefore difficult to draw critical lines. If the book is intended for, say, semi-literate but otherwise intelligent businesspeople or journalists, it clearly contains information of value. If, on the other hand, it is directed at the tyro novelist and her ilk, it is worse than useless. The reason for this is that Kane has overlooked an unfashionable truth: writing is a part of that much larger process one could call, a touch grandiosely, the growth and expression of consciousness. Consciousness, or life (or pick your favourite synonym) is where any artform commences, and a discussion of it in some form or other is prerequisite to the attempt to teach the art.

A less ponderous way of phrasing this is that writing needs to be taught in the context of its society and its time (to which consciousness is of course inextricably linked).

Unlike some writers on writing, Professor Kane does not root his ideas in literature's true context: the body, the world, and above all what St Augustine called "the abysmal depths of human personality". Thus they seem lifeless - appearing as petty abstractions - and fail to properly convince us. The proof of this rather severe criticism is that - although he all-but-perfectly explains ellipses, diacritics, elision, and all the rest - he has, after presumably following his own rules, written not a single line memorable for its humanity, its originality, or even its humour. His prose, for all its concision, is eye-glazingly difficult to stay with.

This is an American book, in letter and in spirit: don't be fooled by the word "Oxford". Puns are drained and explained. Sentences are taken apart, and their components labelled, with all the coroner's grim facility. Parataxes and referential modes are relentlessly defined. And the best minds of our generation are captured (in quotation) and sent limping invisible down to the dry dock of Thomas S Kane's formidable literary shipyard.

The quotations - from Didion, Twain, Mencken et al: the cream of America's literary talent - are generally superb. (Bernard Shaw is the most-quoted non-American.) But this only makes one more uneasy - for it suggests the book is, after all, aimed at creative writers. If so, they are being "taught" by one whose own creativity is sadly unapparent.

The author flips from the obvious to the recondite with bewildering speed. He explains that "Understatement stresses importance by seeming to deny it. Like overstatement it can be comic or serious. Twain is being funny in..." Within a page of such near-banality, though, we can be hopelessly lost in a thicket of zeugmas, compound-complex sentences and "directive modes of meaning".

The lessons jump from fourth grade level to post-graduate, and back again, probably because Kane is, at bottom, engaging in something closer to entomology than etymology. Every creature, from the humblest single-celled apostrophe, to the lethal rhetorical paradox, has been hunted down, preserved and arranged for our scrutiny. The collection is thus comprehensive, but conspicuously (to continue the metaphor) stuffed.

My main objection to this crypto-encyclopaedia, in fact, is that it describes itself as a "Guide to Writing". It is a reference book, like a dictionary, and should be used as such (and never read cover to cover). It is no more a guide to writing than Melway's Street Directory is a guide to the culture, politics, climate and ethos of Melbourne. To memorise its interminable rules, and complete its many exercises, would take a year - and in the end would not be so effective, or so graceful, as coming to know the art of writing through trial, error and intuition.

The best way to learn to write is to write. One should also, of course, read. (The two have roughly the same relationship as exhaling and inhaling.) Creative writers should, additionally, submit their work for appraisal by others, including publishers. (Nine out of ten of whom wouldn't know originality if it ran over them - so one shouldn't despair easily. Unless, that is, one desires to make good money, in which case I urge one to despair immediately.)

The only things I enjoyed in this long, concise and soulless book were the cliches: Kane has answered Sam Goldwyn's zen-like plea by listing some new ones. ("An agonising reappraisal", "the bottom line", "at this point in time", "the moment of truth".) Writers of TV news bulletins will save themselves a lot of trauma by simply flipping open Thomas S Kane, and plundering at will, as those anxious deadlines draw near.

But for those who wish to better explore and explain this strange world of ours, even though such attempts will ever be those of an ant crawling across the wall of infinity, I recommend Christopher Derrick's Reader's Report, an out-of-print Gollancz hardcover, which some libraries retain - and the perennial Elements of Style, a Macmillan paperback, by Strunk and White.

Finally, to mark the publication of The Oxford Guide to Writing, and demonstrate at least one way in which it can be creatively employed, I have composed the following - which contains an oxymoron, a tautology, colloquial diction, hyperbole, a neologism, a spelling mistake, several lies - and a reference to someone who would have abandoned a lifetime of pacifism instantly, had he lived to read this book:

      Of all the great persons of genius,
      But one stated, "Words are meaningless."
      That George Bernard Shaw
      Should choose to ignore
      Both grammar and spelling is heinious.

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