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· The Pen Commandments  and "I've Got a Crush on You" ·

I've always been a sucker for free books. Last week in San Francisco, at the mere cost of an old email address (employed so that the publisher couldn't easily find my current one), I became the proud owner of The Pen Commandments: A Guide for the Beginning Writer. As Quill and Scroll says, Steven Frank has written a "highly readable book that entertains as it instructs. . . . Even veteran writers will find a new perspective on the whole writing venture. . . . Almost anyone will find the book a delightful, useful tool for writing well."

Well, with such a pointedly elliptical recommendation, how could Styles resist: I mean, with so punny a take on a truly biblical theme, Frank's The Pen Commandments seemed even naturally to commend itself to me. And no wonder; its injunctions are wonderfully witty:

  1. Thou Shalt Honor Thy Reader
  2. Thou Shalt Not Waste Words
  3. Thou Shalt Not Kill Thy Sentences
  4. Thou Shalt Not Pick on the Puncts
  5. Thou Shalt Keep Thy Structure Holy
  6. Thou Shalt Describe Thy World, Express Thy Opinions, and Preserve Thy Past
  7. Thou Shalt Take Pleasure in Thy Pen
  8. Thou Shalt Not Take Essay Tests in Pain
  9. Thou Shalt Overcome Writer's Block
  10. Thou Shalt Not Covet Thy Neighbor's Prose
  11.  Steven Frank, The Pen Commandments: A Guide for the Beginning Writer (New York: Anchor Books, 2003).

It wasn't long, though, before I found myself succumbing to the sad temptation of envying Steven Frank his own style. "Was it a good or a bad sign," I wondered, "right or wrong?" Then suddenly I remembered what Terry Teachout had remarked in his own take on such envy through that old Gershwin standard, "I've Got A Crush on You." You can see as much in A Terry Teachout Reader (2004), where he says this of his long fling with the famed artist-critic Fairfield Porter:

A few years ago, I fell in love — with a prose style. . . . My eye fell on this passage: 'Some art has a very open meaning, and can be written about in terms of this meaning; but the chances are that if the meaning is the most interesting thing about it, it does not stand alone, it does not assert itself. It leans on what it means. An implied meaning is richer.' I immediately snapped to attention — it was as if an invisible man had clapped his hands next to my ear — and by the time I put the book down, my cheeseburger was stone cold.

You can see that I've found in Steven Frank a somewhat less-good teacher than Teachout himself. That's why I thought to end on TT's rather more gracious explanation of style envy:

I do know that for me, style is a project, something at which I am constantly working. Rereading Raymond Chandler made me feel that my prose was too dry, and so I resolved to fertilize it with metaphor; my encounter with Fairfield Porter, by contrast, has made me want to be more direct (not to mention smarter). And, of course, one can also work on matters that go deeper than style: reading M. F. K. Fisher, for instance, filled me with a parallel longing to write about the place of music in life as it is lived. . . .

That's why I'm not planning to settle down with Fairfield Porter. . . . Does that make me promiscuous? No, just a hopeless romantic. . . . That's me, in spades. My bookshelves, like my writings, are haunted by the ghosts of influences past, all remembered with great tenderness, much as one recalls an old flame from college days: Whitney Balliett, Edmund Wilson, William F. Buckley, Jr., A. J. Liebling. Somerset Maugham, Diana Trilling, Randall Jarrell. Otis Ferguson, Joseph Epstein, Neville Cardus. In time, Porter will join them; I hope his spirit is pleased by the company it keeps. Terry Teachout, 'I've Got a Crush on You,' The Terry Teachout Reader (New Haven and London, Yale University Press, 2004), 378-79; above, 376.


Nice to see you've returned home safely, Styles, luggage a bit heftier with free books. It's always good to get them from willing publishers.

Your reflection on style envy reminds me of my Victorian Prose course as an undergraduate. We were required to write imitations of several of the authors we read. I was always awed by John Henry Newman. When I wrote my imitation of Newman in April, 1959, I chose as my subject John F. Kennedy. And I concluded my short piece with this line: "John Kennedy is the right man in the right place, and that place is the White House." Style envy as prophecy?

Posted by
John on March 24, 2005 12:29 AM

Gentlemen, all. Let's not mistake envy for admiration.

Posted by loretta markle on March 28, 2005 08:56 AM

Yeah, but there are more puns to be had with pens' envy than admiration.

Posted by joanna on April 3, 2005 11:51 AM

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