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A matter of style: Wodehouse and the modern rules of writing.

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honoria plum

honoria plum

My personal quest is the search for a life inspired by the literature of P.G Wodehouse. Plumtopia celebrates this quest with other Wodehouse fans.

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“I am no stranger to butterfly belly. A man who has had to pass himself off as Gussie Fink-Nottle to four aunts in a chilly Hampshire dining room with only orange juice in the carburettor knows the meaning of fear.”

Jeeves and the Wedding Bells

Sebastian Faulks presumably knows the feeling pretty well too. As the author of Jeeves and the Wedding Bells, Faulks has risked the ire of Wodehouse fans (already disgrunted after the BBC Blandings fiasco) and potentially his own reputation as a writer. For one of the problems with imitating Wodehouse in the 21st Century is that his style runs somewhat contrary to prevailing ideas about ‘good writing’. For an idea of the depths to which modern writing has sunk, consider these Ten rules for writing fiction:

1933 Heavy Weather cropped1 “Never open a book with weather.”

If Wodehouse were starting out today, he could expect to have a fair portion of his work flung back at him on these grounds alone. The busy modern publisher would read no further than: “The sunshine of a fair Spring morning fell graciously upon London town” (Something Fresh). Or “Sunshine pierced the haze that enveloped London” (Heavy Weather). I can hear the clicking tongues already. Today, entire novels are rejected due to opening lines like these. We have to be instantly gripped.

2 “Avoid prologue.”

Specifically, writers are advised to avoid beginning with too much backstory. This must be lobbed in later, and in small doses. The rationale for this is unclear, but it is widely accepted to be good writing. We writers must strive to keep our readers in the dark, only revealing snippets of information as required. Apparently this keeps them interested. We must show, not tell. And we would never dream of writing, as Wodehouse does on page one of The Mating Season:

“But half a jiffy. I’m forgetting that you haven’t the foggiest what all this is about. It so often pans out that way when you begin a story. you whizz off the mark all pep and ginger, like a mettlesome charger going into its routine, and the next thing you know, the customers are up on their hind legs, yelling for footnotes.

Let me get into reverse and put you abreast.”

According to the rules of modern writing, telling a backstory ‘takes the story backwards’. It is apparently a ‘blunder’ typical of new writers and one that must be corrected. A 21st Century Wodehouse would almost certainly have his manuscript returned for rework. He would be advised to get rid of the backstory and start with some action as a ‘hook’ to get the reader interested. Any explanation of what’s actually going on is, at this point,  considered undesirable. I don’t know what Wodehouse would make of this advice, but I am reminded of Psmith’s comments in Psmith Journalist:

“Your narratives, Comrade Maloney, always seem to me to suffer from a certain lack of construction. You start at the end, and then you go back to any portion of the story which happens to appeal to you at the moment, eventually winding up at the beginning.”

3 “Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.”

Wodehouse fares very well on this score. Indeed, his dialogue is so snappy that he writes long passages without so much as a ‘said’ in sight, perhaps a legacy of his time in the theatre.

” ‘I say, Bertie,’ he said, after a pause of about an hour and a quarter.

‘Hallo!’

‘Do you like the name Mabel?’

‘No.’

‘No?’

‘No.’

‘You don’t think there’s a kind of music in the word, like the wind rustling gently through the tree-tops?’

‘No.’

He seemed disappointed for a moment; then cheered up.

‘Of course, you wouldn’t. You always were a fat-headed worm without any soul, weren’t you?’ ”

The Inimitable Jeeves

Wodehouse does break the rule of never using alternatives to said: “‘Croquet!’ He gulped” in The Clicking of Cuthbert; “ ‘Am I a serf?’ demanded Evangeline” in Mulliner Nights; ” ‘Go away, boy!’ he boomed” (the Duke of Dunstable) in Service with a Smile. But such transgressions are rare.

4 “Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said”.”

According to the rules for writing fiction: ‘”To use an adverb this way (or almost any way) is a mortal sin.” Again, Wodehouse breaks the rule of never using an adverb in his dialogue, but examples are hard to come by:”‘I suppose you know who did it, hey?’ he said satirically” (Service with a Smile). This is the Duke of Dunstable again. What was it about Dunstable, arguably Wodehouse’s foulest creation, that caused such reckless use of verbs and adverbs?

5Keep your exclamation points ­under control.”

The incorrect use of exclamation marks is a modern misdemeanour that we would not expect Wodehouse to commit. Nor does he. Mostly we find them in his dialogue: an occasional ‘Darling!’ here, a justified ‘What ho!’ there. Every so often, he throws caution to the wind and has a character exclaim: ‘Am I mortified! I’m as mad as a wet hen.’ Or: ‘Lord-love-a-duck!’ (both from Money in the Bank).

Regarding the use of exclamation marks, the rule is: “You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose.” Wodehouse certainly exceeds this quota. It’s only natural that, when his plots reach their feverish high points, his characters feel the urge to exclaim things. But Wodehouse never misuses or overuses exclamations, and they fit seamlessly into the text. How sad that this perfectly useful punctuation mark has come to be considered a hallmark of poor writing.

6 “Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose”.”

Of course Wodehouse breaks this rule. As a writer of over ninety published works, I would be exceedingly surprised if he had never employed this useful word on occasion. Consider this example, from one of the finest short stories ever written in the English language:

“As Cuthbert, for it was he who had so nearly reduced the muster-roll of rising novelists by one, hopped down from the table after his stroke, he was suddenly aware that a beautiful girl was looking at him intently. As a matter of fact, everyone in the room was looking at him intently, none more so than Raymond Parsloe Devine, but none of the others were beautiful girls. Long as the members of Wood Hills Literary Society were on brain, they were short on looks, and, to Cuthbert’s excited eye, Adeline Smethurst stood out like a jewel in a pile of coke.”

The Clicking of Cuthbert

Does the word suddenly leap out at you in that passage? Does it make the editor in you itch for your red pen? Is it poor writing? I’ve no doubt the many commas and sub-clauses will make our more sluggish-minded readers’ eyes water. It’s just lack of practice. Too much Hemingway in your diet. Not enough Wodehouse.

7 “Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.”

Wodehouse breaks this rule often, from the slang of the Drones Club to his gangs of New York. Some of these attempts are more successful than others.

“Why, den dis kid’s in bad for fair, ‘cos der ain’t nobody to pungle de bones.”

“Pungle de what, Comrade Maloney?”

“De bones. De stuff. Dat’s right. De dollars. He’s all alone, dis kid, so when de rent-guy blows in, who’s to slip him over de simoleons?”

Psmith Journalist

Wodehouse’s technique develops from this early effort, in 1909, and by the time he writes Piccadilly Jim (1917), the patois is a little more refined:

“Chicago Ed’s my monaker.”

“I don’t remember any Chicago Ed.”

“Well, you will after dis!” said Mr. Crocker, happily inspired.

Ogden was eyeing him with sudden suspicion.

“Take that mask off and let’s have a look at you.”

“Nothing doin’.”

Wodehouse continues to use this particular dialect throughout his writing career, and many of the examples defy ‘the rules’.

8 “Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.”

This is a rule inspired by Hemingway, who apparently felt it only necessary to mention whether or not his character wore a hat. Why Hemingway’s preference should be considered a rule for all writers is unclear. Wodehouse frequently devotes a sentence or two in drawing up the external specifications of his characters, especially when there is comedic value in it. In The Mating Season, for example, he describes the Rev. Sidney Pirbright as:

“A tall, drooping man, looking as if he had been stuffed in a hurry by an incompetent taxidermist…”

His central characters usually get a few more inches of description. In The Mating Season, he devotes a paragraph to the beautiful ‘Corky’ Pirbright: “The general effect is of an angel who eats lots of yeast.” Her love interest, Esmond Haddock, gets a full two paragraphs:

“He was a fine, upstanding – sitting at the moment, of course, but you know what I mean – broad-shouldered bozo of about thirty, with one of those faces which I believe , though I should have to check up with Jeeves, are known as Byronic. He looked like a combination of a poet and an all-in wrestler.”

None of these are detailed descriptions – Wodehouse drew his characters lightly – but it’s fair to say that he goes beyond the cursory mention of head-wear, so admired by the Hemingway school.

9 “Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.”

Avoid description. Avoid adverbs. Is this advice for novel-writers or twitter users? According to ‘the rules’: “You don’t want descriptions that bring the action, the flow of the story, to a standstill.” It’s all about action. I pity the reader who turns to modern literature as an escape from the stress and anxiety of modern life, when we writers seem intent on keeping them in this state of tension.

Wodehouse doesn’t avoid description. Nor does he encumber us with dull pages of the stuff. His descriptive passages are, as we’d expect from a humourous writer, entertaining. The opening paragraph from Piccadilly Jim is a good example:

“The residence of Mr. Peter Pett, the well-known financier, on Riverside Drive is one the leading eyesores of that breezy and expensive boulevard. As you pass by in your limousine, or while enjoying ten cents worth of fresh air on top of a green omnibus, it jumps out and bites at you. Architects, confronted by it, reel and throw up their hands defensively, and even the lay observer has a sense of shock. The place resembles in almost equal proportions a cathedral, a suburban villa, a hotel and a Chinese pagoda. Many of its windows are of stained glass, and above the porch stand two terra-cotta lions, considerably more repulsive even than the complacent animals which guard New York’s Public Library. It is a house which is impossible to overlook: and it was probably for this  reason that Mrs. Pett insisted on her husband buying it, for she was a woman who liked to be noticed.”

A fine beginning, an enjoyable description – no mention of the weather. It isn’t clear from ‘the rules’ how much description is too much, but Wodehouse judges this for himself and gets it just right for his audience and purpose.

10 Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.

Which reader would that be? ‘The rules’ say: “Think of what you skip reading a novel: thick paragraphs of prose you can see have too many words in them.”

In my case, I would begin by skipping the complete works of Hemingway.

But where does this leave our assessment of Wodehouse, according to the modern rules? The answer is, of course, that it hardly matters. Wodehouse is an acknowledged master of his craft and has nothing to prove, in spite of changing fashions about what constitutes ‘good writing’.

On reflection, my argument has is less to do with Wodehouse than ‘the rules’ themselves. If Wodehouse, one of our great writers who remains well-loved more than a century after he began writing, doesn’t fit the modern rule book, are editors, publishers and critics closing their minds to other potentially great writers who don’t fit them either?

I’m not talking about myself, but… as it happens I am working on a novel at present and it does happen to begin with the weather, followed by quite a lot of backstory. So I guess it’s back to the drawing board for me. At the very least I shall have to scrap that first sentence:

“My parents died in a thunderstorm!” she cried suddenly.

 

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24 Comments

  1. honoria plum says:

    Reblogged this on Honoria's Notebook and commented:

    This piece on the topic of ‘good writing’ was written for my P.G. Wodehouse blog.

  2. KokkieH says:

    I think it’s not so much about good writing as about what sells, and for the latter Mr Leonard’s rules tend to be spot on at present. I don’t think any of messrs Dickens, Verne, Wells, Doyle or Mrs Christie would have had great success if they tried to publish for the first time today, nor even Hemingway or Steinbeck.

    Tastes constantly change and these “rules” will probably be invalid before too long. Of course no one can predict if changes will be for better or for worse next time; we might find ourselves longing for writing that adheres even to these rules.

    • honoria plum says:

      Yes – all good points. It is a case of what’s in fashion, and fashion can always change for the worse. It was the ten rules piece that prompted my thinking. I’ve spent some time agonising over drafts trying to correct my work to improve it, and I do seriously consider this kind of advice for writers. It’s the idea that there is one formula for good writing that I find hard to swallow. Or even the idea that readers are a unified body who want the same things. As you say, tastes vary.

      • KokkieH says:

        My favourite rule, though I can’t remember who’d said it: Learn the rules, so that you can know when to break them. I’ve read debut novels that became overnight bestsellers that break every single rule there is. But you need to know what you’re doing to pull that off.

        I found Stephen King’s On Writing very helpful in terms of writing advice. The gist of it is do what works for the story and for you. (At the same time this kind of advice is also incredibly unhelpful…)

  3. I always write better when I’ve been reading Wodehouse. It flows well, and we always know what he means don’t we. Love your blog, keep up the good work….

  4. […] A matter of style: Wodehouse and the modern rules of writing. (honoriaplum.wordpress.com) […]

  5. Ninepennyworth of Sherry says:

    Lovely, laugh out loud piece and I am so sorry about your parents too!

  6. Dear Honoria,

    I discovered your blog after Ashokabatia left a comment on my own blog: http://www.moulderslane.wordpress.com. (I had no idea Plum was so popular in India.)

    How very nice to read something so well written itself!

    Keep up the good work – it’s very much appreciated.

    • honoria plum says:

      What Ho Victoria. Thanks for your lovely comment. It’s wonderful to be part of the wide Wodehouse world. Ashok is in India, I’m Australian, and there seem to be Wodehouse fans just about everywhere. I have great fun writing the blog, and I’m looking forward to having a peek at yours too.

  7. ashokbhatia says:

    One way to identify an epic from the rest is perhaps the extent to which the author goes to describe the weather, the setting and the ambience, often linking all these to the mood of the main protagonist.

    Wodehouse also does this, to great effect. Sunshine, flowers, bees, ants….all get to play a role in his inimitable style. The hint you get is pretty clear – this is not a two-minute noodle; what is getting dished up is a delectable fare, to be relished and savoured at leisure.Something to curl up with in bed, with a tissue restorative on your side and possibly a soothing symphony playing in the background!

  8. ashokbhatia says:

    Reblogged this on ashokbhatia and commented:
    Leaders break the rules with aplomb. Famous authors also do it all the time. They have the courage of conviction to think out-of-box in matters of themes they choose, the structure of the narrative they come up with, or the language as well as expressions they use. P G Wodehouse is no exception. Literary agents of today, upon receiving one of his manuscripts, might end up twiddling their delicate thumbs and deciding to junk it without any remorse, thereby depriving us of some delightful stuff.
    Here is a highly illuminating post on this subject from the inimitable Honoria Plum.
    Enjoy!

  9. zanyzigzag says:

    This is just wonderful Honoria – and your ending was superb!

  10. anujmathur says:

    Extremely(filler adverb) well written analysis. I am often amazed by the various ‘rules’ that have been created for writers over the years. It is best to treat them only as guidelines and one shouldn’t be afraid to break them if their style demands it. And now thanks to you everyone has a defence: ‘…but Wodehouse does it!’ 🙂

  11. Can anybody help me to write it into Standard English? Psmith, The Journalist. Thank you in advance.
    ‘I wasn’t hoiting her.
    G’wan!

    • honoria plum says:

      I think it is meant to read: ‘I wasn’t hurting her’ and ‘Go on!’

    • I’m glad Plum grew out of “dialect” writing, something which was quite fashionable before WWI, especially in America. It’s quite tiresome in the hands of someone who isn’t Mark Twain or O. Henry or Damon Runyan. Wodehouse’s best “dialect” writing is his toned-down Bertie and the Drones dialogue. Jeeves, of course, has a dialect all of his own. Having said all that, I have to confess that I love CJ Dennis (for non-Australians, his Songs of a Sentimental Bloke are well worth looking up). By the way, your ending to this great piece is perfect and worthy of the Great Man himself, he said enviously in a cloud of despond . . . oh hell, I can’t do better. Toodle-pip!

      • honoria plum says:

        I agree with all of that Noel. I think Wodehouse must have too, because he used it sparingly in the years to follow. C.J. Dennis is a fabulous recommendation also.

  12. Jo says:

    What a splendid article. I can hardly wait to read your novel – weather reports included!

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