Shallows Net

When I told my Chinese friend I read The New Yorker, she said she knew it was a very good magazine. A famous writer she knew of had written for it for 50 years. He was dead now. She didn’t remember his name. One of his books was Shallows Net.

She meant Charlotte’s Web by E. B. White.

A well-read and influential writer, she said.

Well-read, yes, influential, no, I said.

The Elements of Style might have been influential had its advice been good. Alas, it wasn’t. “Omit needless words.” “Be clear.” How to form the possessive. Please. I once took a short-story-writing class. When typing your story, the teacher said, put two spaces after a period.

Criticism of The Elements of Style here, here, and here.

10 Replies to “Shallows Net”

  1. These days I keep reading people who think that Hemmingway is the benchmark – not just economical, but self-consciously minimalist. Still like Cormac McCarthy though.

  2. Not influential? A book that has been required reading for just about every single college student for 50 years, and a lot of high-school students too. A book that is top of the sales charts on ‘Writers’ Toolkit’ must-have shelves. A book that darn near every writer in English in North America has read.

    I guess what you’re saying is, ‘nobody ever followed its advice.’

    I wonder though if even that supposition, assuming it could possibly be true, might not be evidence of ‘influence’ since saying that every working writer has read the book and done the opposite, has actively rejected its ‘bad’ counsel, would be influential in a negative sense.

    Even the controversy over the book indicates how influential it has been. You don’t go out of your way to take time and effort to write a ‘this book is garbage’ tract unless you have read the book in question, felt oppressed by it somehow, feel that it somehow represents the Official Voice of the Establishment that crushes your creative free spirits, and felt the utter need to speak out against it.

    Saying ‘it can’t be influential because its advice is bad’ is like saying ‘Hitler was insignificant in German history because his policies were wacky.’

    Stick to eating butter and telling us all how, contrary to scientific studies, you KNOW that it makes people smarter…

  3. pond, a book that tells people to put two spaces after a period is not influential, no matter how many people read it. That was my point. A book that tells people how to form the possessive of a noun (and similar anodyne stuff) is not and can never be influential, no matter how many people read it.

    That such a book is “required reading for almost every college student” tells you something about the professors who assign it. I really did have a writing teacher who told us to put two spaces after a period, which shows how divorced from reality some writing teachers are.

    you say my claim about butter is “contrary to scientific studies” — such as?

  4. I just had an interesting conversation with someone at my school, too.

    Me: Are you teaching “Hormones and Behavior” next semester? I was going to take that class, but I can’t because it conflicts with my work schedule.

    Psychology professor: I’m sorry, what did you say?…Oh, I thought you said “abnormal behavior.” I was going to say that I teach that everyday!

  5. I guess it might not techinally be “influential”, but the book is definitely a success.

    I think the key to the book’s success lies in how short it is. Other style and grammar books are often hundreds of pages long.

  6. A better assessment of EoS would be “unfortunately influential”. But E. B. White wrote way more than EoS, and while his other writings (aside from CW) are not individually as well known, in aggregate they were read by millions of people over many decades. Most people could only wish to be so influential.

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