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Why Criticism: The Deception of Plain Style

George Orwell at a typewriter

Plain language has come to dominate the critical discourse of the English language. The poetics of simplicity and minimalism have edged out the florid and winded style that we now associate with the Victorian romanticism than any kind of modernism. Writers know that maintaining the illusion of simplicity can be challenging, especially in conjunction with good syntax and attractive prose. Being able to express yourself with as little flourish as possible, in a language that most readers will understand, has slowly become the standard that most film writers aspire to.

In his essay “The Politics of The Plain“, Hugh Kenner reaches to understand the value, meaning and intention of plain language. “Can plainness, for instance, even lay claims to a style?” He concludes it can, as style comes from a sort of premeditation and contrivance. Shakespeare stands as an obvious example of premeditated and contrived writing. Like Kenner’s own example of Cicero, Shakespeare’s words are contrived, calculated and premeditated. In Hamlet, Polonius says “To thine own self be true, and it must follow, as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man.” The complexity of the sentence’s construction — balancing truth and false, reversing night and day, and maintaining the iambic pentameter — is not off the cuff. We don’t speak in rhymes and rhythms, and an actor could not simply improvise such a line. This is style.

Plainness can be deceiving. The example that Kenner uses to demonstrate the contrivance of simplicity comes from a speech by Abraham Lincoln, “Four score and seven years ago, our fathers brought forth on this continent…” This phrase, which could easily apply to most beloved orators of the 20th century (Winston Churchill, John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr. and Ronald Reagan), has the cadence of commonality but the premeditation of style.  The pleasure, as well as the problem, of this style, though, has to be the assumption of truth, and there lies the crux of Kenner’s essay. Plain language deceives because readers assume in good faith that simple words and phrases lack malleability and therefore are robbed of deception.

Then again, deception itself suggests ill-intent, which rarely applies to critical discourse. Most writers aren’t seeking to deceive readerships in any way, but I’d argue that most writers of plain style make false assumptions about the truthfulness of their own words. I’d even go so far to say that the plainness of style — a reflection of the “common man” — negates experiences that don’t follow under preconceived biases of what entails “common.”

How does the unreliability of plainness apply to criticism? It’s tricky. Criticism is not quite journalism, not quite an art and not quite truth. Even though he’s largely discussing the works of George Orwell, Kenner doesn’t really address his critical works as part of his exploration of language. It should be taken as a given that criticism entails opinion, though a good critic will offer research and proof from the text. But does that mean the preference for simplicity is just another tool to affirm the authority of the writer?

I wonder if the supremacy of simplicity somehow has ties in the preference for some writers towards empty rhetorics. Bleeding over from the political realm, where the deception of plainness has evolved into untrustworthy compounds that betray gravity or truth, some writers adopt these largely meaningless words into their style. And to combat the emptiness of “overrated,” “visionary” and “problematic,” those of us with “common” sense use simple, plain style.

And then, I wonder about truth. What truth am I conveying when I write? The truth of the film I am writing about, or the truth of my experience? The authority of plainness lets me escape those questions, letting me slip away from the responsibility of my own untruths. 

Justine Smith (@redroomrantings) lives and writes in Montreal, Quebec. She has a bachelor’s degree in Film Studies and a passionate hunger for all kinds of cinema. Along with writing for Vague Visages, she has written for Vice Canada, Cleo: A Feminist Journal and Little White Lies Magazine.

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