My Facebook (and actual) friend Gene Seymour posted this the other day:
Some 40 years ago, Wilfrid Sheed began his post-mortem for Cyril Connolly by asking who the best living writer of English prose is now. His pal John Leonard made a case for Malcolm Muggeridge while Sheed tossed out such eminences of the era as Cheever & E.B. White, concluding that what complicated the cases for both was that neither could likely do what the other could. (I vaguely remember that being the case.) Anyway, thinking about it now, I wonder who we’d suggest this minute. And wondered, also, whether the time & place for such questions has passed us all by.
A lively discussion ensued. Some commenters (I believe) misunderstood Gene’s question and bandied about the names of such favorite novelists as Roth, Pynchon, Tóibín, Marilynne Robinson, Cormac McCarthy, and Zadie Smith. But from the names he mentioned—Connolly, Muggeridge, White, and Sheed and Leonard themselves—I took “best living writer of English prose” to refer to a more generalized person of letters, someone who had at his or her command the full range of English diction and rhetorical figures. Commenters mentioned Naipaul, Theroux, and Didion: all good candidates, in my opinion, and notable for having (like Connolly et al.) not confined themselves to any one genre, but gone back and forth among fiction, reportage, memoir, essay, and criticism. Some the names that came to my own mind were Anthony Lane of The New Yorker, James Wolcott of Vanity Fair, Virginia Heffernan of the Internet, and Russell Baker of, well, of writing. But if I had to pick one person it would probably be Clive James, the great Australian-English critic, whose wonderful Unreliable Memoirs (1980) is very much in the Connolly mode.
But Gene may be right in suggesting that the time for such personages has passed. Muggeridge, Connolly, Orwell, and Waugh were all born in 1903. Graham Greene came on the scene the following year, and Henry Green and Anthony Powell the year after that. It was an amazing literary generation, memorably chronicled by Martin Green in Children of the Sun. Part of their distinctiveness came from the way straddled eras and sensibilities; Green emphasized the shadow cast over their lives and careers by the Great War, which killed or damaged so many of their older brothers and schoolmates.
Connolly spent a lot of his memoir, Enemies of Promise (1938), talking about prose style, specifically the contrast between what he called the Mandarin and vernacular styles. The vernacular offers “the cursive style, the agreeable manners, the precise and poetical impact of Forster’s diction, the lucidity of Maugham … the timing of Hemingway, the smooth cutting edge of Isherwood, the indignation of Lawrence, the honesty of Orwell, …”
The Mandarin style, on the other hand:
is beloved by literary pundits, by those who would make the written word as unlike as possible to the spoken one. It is the style of all those writers whose tendency is to make their language convey more than they mean or more than they feel, it is the style of most artists and all humbugs. …
The Mandarin style at its best yields the richest and most complete expression of the English language. It is the diction of Donne, Browne, Addison, Johnson, Gibbon, de Quincey, Landor, Carlyle and Ruskin as opposed to that of Bunyan, Dryden, Locke, Defoe, Cowper, Cobbett, Hazlitt, Southey and Newman. It is characterized by long sentences with many dependent clauses, by the use of the subjunctive and conditional, by exclamations and interjections, quotations, allusions, metaphors, long images, Latin terminology, subtlety and conceits. Its cardinal assumption is that neither the writer nor the reader is in a hurry, that both are possessed of a classical education and a private income.
I agree with Connolly’s contention that in modern times, in order for a writer to last, he or she must take from both schools. That’s pretty much what the critic F.W. Bateson (1901-78) was saying when he set down, in 1966, what I consider the best short list of the “defining characteristics of good prose: a preference for short sentences diversified by an occasionally very long one; a tone that is relaxed and almost colloquial; a large vocabulary that enjoys exploiting the different etymological and social levels of words; and an insistence on verbal and logical precision.”
The mention of John Leonard, the late critic for the Times and many other outlets, brought to mind my own first published essay in a national publication. It was a (loving) parody of the column Leonard wrote for the Times in the late 70s, “Private Lives.” (The columns were collected in a book, Private Lives in the Imperial City. I see a used copy is available for $.01. Buy it.) At the time, I wasn’t clued-in enough to follow either the vernacular or the Mandarin school. So I repaired myself to the New York Public Library Annex—which was so far west on 43rd Street that I believe it was between 15th and 16th Avenues–and read dozens of Leonard’s columns on microfilm. I made a chart quantifying his devices and mannerisms, and used that as a template for my takeoff.
That’s obviously not the most organic way to do humor, but my piece, “Personal Existence,” was nevertheless accepted over the transom by the weekly Village Voice. The editor said he didn’t know when he’d have room for it and would let me know. But he didn’t. I was too cheap/poor to buy the paper, so each week I would go to the aptly named Epiphany Branch of the NYPL, on East 23rd Street, and read the table of contents to see if it was in. The Voice came out on Wednesday, and one Tuesday I happened to be flipping through the previous week’s paper and discovered that my piece was buried so deep, between the futon and escort ads, and considered so negligible that it hadn’t made the table of contents and had escaped my notice the previous Wednesday. I ran out to try to find a copy, and finally located the last dog-eared one on offer at a newsstand on the northwest corner of 23rd and 3rd.
So do Lingua Franca readers have any nominees for the “best living writer of English prose”? I’m all ears.