Monday, August 22, 2011

Book Review: A Dash of Style

Lukeman, Noah. A Dash of Style: The Art and Mastery of Punctuation. New York: Norton, 2006. Paperback. +201 pages. $13.95.

I should, up front, note that this book did not cost me $13.95. Rather, I got a free copy of it from the local Norton rep. I'd looked at the back and thought that perhaps this book might give me some good ideas for teaching grammar in my composition classes. The book is mostly designed for creative writing classes, but I thought that I could perhaps adapt some of the exercises for my comp classes.

I doubt that I will do this however. There are some brilliant pieces to this book and some not-so-brilliant pieces. Here's the rundown.

The Good:

As a creative writer, the sections on quotation marks and paragraph and section breaks were great. It helped underscore some concerns I've had about my own writing recently--one, that I was incorporating too much dialogue and not enough introspection and other actions. Lukeman identifies an over-reliance on dialogue as a problem with pacing, and while I'm happy with the first chapter, as far as dialogue goes, I'm much less happy with the second chapter.

The section on paragraph breaks may end up getting copied and taken to my students, because many of the lessons there can be applied to academic writing. This is really the only section of the book that I think can be adequately applied to a composition classroom, rather than a creative writing classroom. It also helped with some thoughts I'd had about changing viewpoints between scenes. While I'll still use section breaks to delineate a break in time and place--in the morning at the gym to the afternoon at the library--I'll stick with one point of view per chapter if possible.

This flipping points of view has always been a problem for me, and it was something I didn't notice until several years ago when my friend Carmen was kindly betaing a short story for me and pointed out that I was switching points of view between paragraphs. It was something I'd never really picked up before, and I am so grateful that she pointed it out to me. It's a lesson that I've kept in mind ever since (so thank you, once again, Carmen!). Lukeman suggested that I not flip point of view even between scenes and save that for chapters instead. I think he's probably right.

The Bad:

The first sections on the most often used punctuation marks: period, comma, and semi-colon, felt a little unnecessary. Here's the thing--if you're going to be a creative writer, there's one thing you should be doing.


I'm not saying that Lukeman is downplaying this point--he's definitely not. What bothers me about this book is that it seems to have two audiences in the newbie creative writer and the experienced creative writer. The first half of the book, focusing on these base punctuation marks, is for newbies, and I can't help but feel that newbies would be better served by reading examples of what they want to write in order to pick up punctuation rules than they would this book. The second half, which goes into colons, dashes (which I overuse, I know), parentheses (lookit here), and the aforementioned quotation marks and paragraph and section breaks (and I do think referring to paragraph and section breaks as part of punctuation was freaking brilliant). There's also a brief chapter on less used punctuation marks--exclamation points, question marks, ellipses, brackets, etc.

This was what I found useful. The stuff about periods, commas, and semi-colons I found heavy-handed and too much for an experienced writer, but I felt that latter half of the book would overwhelm a newbie. But if you're using it as a reference book? That's different, but it's not set up as a reference book, which makes it odd.

The Ugly:

If you go to the book's website, you'll find that there's a list of the universities that use A Dash of Style in their creative writing programs. My objection here is really to the way that creative writing is taught (though Lukeman is complicit in this).

Creative writing is taught in American universities as "literary" creative writing. Genre writing is looked down upon by the academic establishment, unless you are so lucky as to be in a program like mine which focuses heavily on pop culture, and even then, I can't speak to the way creative writing is taught. What I do know is that at some universities (I have heard of several through some of my friends), creative writing is expected, oddly enough, to conform to some academic notion of non-conformity.

Horse hockey. Genre writing can be just as influential, if not more so, than anything that will end up in the canon in fifty years. Harry Potter is never going to end up in the "literary" canon (nor would I argue, should it. For example, it ignores many of Lukeman's punctuation rules!), but to ignore the impact that it has had on the last two generations of readers would be idiotic. The same could be said of Twilight as a cult phenomenon, despite all of the objections that I have to it.

Lukeman is complicit in that all of his examples are drawn from literary fiction, and the general tenor of the book suggests that he's expecting his readers to write literary fiction. Well, some of us don't. Some of us write genre fiction very happily, and one thing that Lukeman fails to acknowledge is that some of these genres have conventions of their own. He's so busy focusing on how some writers have distorted the use of certain punctuation marks (Hemingway used emphatic periods! Joyce exiled the poor defenseless quotation mark!) that sometimes I felt that standard conventions were getting overlooked. This is probably not fair, because he does make note of the standard ways some punctuation should be used.

Anyway, back to my point. We need a more expansive definition of creative writing (perhaps one that recognizes that all writing, academic, fiction and non-fiction is creative?) both in and out of academia, and books like this aren't helping.

Everything else:

All this said, it's a good book to read. I wouldn't use it in a beginning creative writing class, I don't imagine. (Of course, I would rather not teach a creative writing class at all.) But it's interesting, and it has some good reminders for more experienced writers. And I would very much like to pick up one of Lukeman's previous books, The First Five Pages: A Writer's Guide to Staying out of the Rejection Pile. But I'd like to know what Lukeman, as a literary agent, tends to buy himself first. If he's not buying genre fiction, then I don't know that all of his advice would work.

A Dash of Style: B-

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