2005 was ripe with word-nerd controversy: Playwright Harold Pinter's Nobel acceptance speech roused nations, The New York Times published an obscenely solipsistic list of 100 Notable Books of the Year, and the U.K.'s Booker Prize was awarded to John Banville's unpopular-for-a-reason novel The Sea. What's more, two books were released by notable style authorities, on opposing sides of the linguistic law.
Since its debut in 1919, Strunk and White's ubiquitous The Elements of Style has sold well over 10 million copies; a fourth edition was released late this year. The new version, envisioned as a holiday gift, has added drawings to illustrate its rules of usage, principles of composition and approaches to style.
On the other hand, David Foster Wallace—the author of the 1,079-page cult novel Infinite Jest, whose name is often mentioned in the same breath with Pynchon, Barth and Beckett—has just released his newest essay collection, Consider the Lobster. Varied beyond belief, it includes a hilarious examination of the porn industry's Academy Awards ("Big Red Son"), his account of spending time campaigning with John McCain ("Up, Simba"), and the title essay, for which he visited the Maine Lobster Festival and examined, "Is it all right to boil a sentient creature alive just for our gustatory pleasure?"
On one hand, The Elements of Style has been considered the de facto usage and style bible for more than 80 years. And yet, our preeminent American stylist naysays many of its rules. Let's compare the two to see just what the f*** is going on.
Strunk and White: Avoid fancy words.
David Foster Wallace: Churns out $20 words like "luxate," "paroxysmically," "chitinous" and "promulgating." His use of these words, however, is redeemed by the fact that it's done sparingly. These are, in fact, the exact words needed in each case, and they are often mixed with colloquialisms like "or some shit" to offer the reader breathing room.
S&W: "Do not overwrite. You must guard against wordiness."
DFW: Wordiness is DFW's well-known Achilles' heel—but it's not the result of repetition, it's just that the man has so much to say. His review of a tennis player's memoir turns into an arresting analysis of the mystique of athletes' abilities. "Up, Simba" appears in Lobster in its entirety (half was cut when it first appeared in Rolling Stone), and includes insight after insight about the workings of politics and the media.
S&W: Prefers standard to offbeat: "Err on the side of conservatism, on the side of established usage. There is simply a better chance of doing well if the writer does not thrash about."
DFW: Has made a career of thrashing about. Has succeeded in said career.
S&W: Prefaces a list of misused words with "The shape of our language is not rigid." Proceeds to list a few dictionaries and guides for further reading, sans context.
DFW: "Authority and American Usage," originally printed in the April 2001 Harper's, examines the politics and policies behind dictionaries and their effect on our usage. Nothing but context, it's one of the best essays he's ever written. It's worth noting this: The usage guide that sparked this essay has, since its publication, been completely revised and updated. S&W, meanwhile, has essentially stayed the same since 1919.
It's a bit unfair (and admittedly gimmicky) to judge Wallace, a recipient of umpteen-thousand writing awards, based on what's turning into an anachronistic primer for beginners. My suggestion? Shelve The Elements of Style next to your 1973 phone book and eight-tracks, and don't feel the need to follow its every rule. Also, pause and breathe while reading Mr. Wallace, even when his lack of commas suggests otherwise. Stick it out—he's hilarious and ingenious. Difficult and dense as sections of Lobster may be, if it weren't for barrier-breakers like Wallace, willing to redefine usage in a way that makes other writing seem flat and severely lacking in content, we'd all sound like Beowulf. Or worse—cavemen. And methinks that would totally suck.