Writers Talk About Writing
How A Personal Writing Style Develops
In 1911 Pelham Grenville Wodehouse was a thirty-year-old British writer living both in England and America. His upper-crust background and boarding school education had given him a knack for turning out satires of high society, and he'd scored a beginner's success writing magazine fiction about featherbrained fops and dewy debutantes and writing lyrics for such characters in musical comedies staged in London's West End and New York's Broadway. Yet Wodehouse hadn't found his voice as a writer: what he wanted to say and how he wanted to say it.
A decade later, with Pelham Grenville shortened to P. G., Wodehouse had become famous throughout the English-speaking world as the inspired creator of a comic world centered on the quintessential featherbrain Bertie Wooster, his unflappable manservant Jeeves, and a cast of characters who rotate around them through dozens of best-selling novels and stories for the next sixty years.
How can a writer develop such a consistent style, one that's not a confining straitjacket but an open-ended medium that allows the endless variation on a few familiar motifs? Answering that question about many writers must be a tentative, inconclusive affair, but Enter Jeeves, a slender volume of fifteen short stories published in 1997 by Dover, opens a crystal clear window on Wodehouse's work method which may be fairly summed up in four words: unremitting trial and error.
Reggie Pepper, not Bertie Wooster, narrates the earliest tale, "Absent Treatment," 1911, but inside he's the same character: a Mayfair butterfly with a wide circle of butterfly friends whose romantic entanglements stir up tiny tempests in their Wedgewood teapots. More noticeable than any particular style is an absence of style. Clunky sentence follows clunky sentence:
I don't see that I could have done any more. I'd put the whole thing in a nutshell for him.
After that you may get a chance. But til then there's nothing to be done. But I thought a lot about him.
Wodehouse begins the second story, "Lines and Business," 1912, by putting an apology for his awkward writing in Reggie's mouth—"I'm not a flier at literary style, and all that"—then proves he's right by riding an old-school-tie expression, "don't you know," into the ground: ten usages in twelve pages, three on one page alone. From here "don't you know," thankfully, starts a slow fade, but in these early stories it never quite disappears.
The third story, "Disentangling Poor Duggie," 1912, begins with the first of Wodehouse's countless allusions to the Bard of Avon—"I can't put my hand on the passage, but you'll find it in Shakespeare somewhere"—but it's less ironic, and less funny, than later allusions when Jeeves' omniscience trumps Bertie's ignorance:
"You remember the fellow you've mentioned to me once or twice, who let something wait upon something? You know who I mean — the cat chap."
"Macbeth, sir, a character in a play of that name by the late William Shakespeare. He was described as letting 'I dare not' wait upon 'I would,' like the poor cat i' th' adage."
—Code of the Woosters
Reggie has a valet, Voules, in the next story, "Brother Alfred," 1913, but Voules could not be less like Jeeves: he flirts, drinks, and blackmails Reggie for two hundred pounds. On the other hand, the Bertie Wooster philosophy is beginning to emerge:
At any moment you may be strolling peacefully along, and all the time Life's waiting around the corner to fetch you one. You can't tell when you may be going to get it. It's all dashed puzzling.
—and in 'Rallying Around Clarence," 1914, a Woosteresque attitude about women raises its mystified head:
Have you ever thought about...the coolness, the cheek, or, if you prefer, the gall with which Woman, as a sex, fairly bursts? I have, by Jove!
In "Concealed Art," 1915, Reggie tells us where his money comes from—an uncle who made a fortune with coal mines—a matter on which Bertie, effortlessly wealthy, never says a single word. In "The Test Case," 1915, the last of the Reggie Pepper stories, a strong-minded young woman sums up poor Reggie—"You seem to me entirely vapid and brainless," a judgment with which he, like Bertie many times after him, is, alas, forced to agree: "You've absolutely summed me up."
In "Extricating Young Gussie," 1915, Reggie becomes Bertie, Aunt Agatha, a terror with "an eye like a man-eating fish," makes her first of many formidable appearances, and so does Jeeves. Jeeves' debut in this tale is no more than a walk on, but in "Leave It to Jeeves," 1916, Bertie sketches Jeeves principal qualities: he "knows everything," his judgment about Bertie's wardrobe is "infallible," and he can shimmer in and out of a room like "those weird chappies in India who can dissolve themselves into thin air." Bertie tries to rebel against Jeeves' quiet domination:
"I am putting out the brown suit, sir."
"No, I think I'll wear the blue with the faint red stripe."
"Not the blue with the faint red stripe, sir."
"But I rather fancy myself in it."
"Not the blue with the faint red stripe, sir."
"Oh, have it your own way."
"Very good, sir. Thank you, sir."
—but the problem is, first, that "Jeeves is always right," and second, that Jeeves does have Bertie's best interests at heart. His watchword, uttered here for the first of countless times: "I shall endeavor to give satisfaction, sir."
In the following half-dozen stories, 1917 to 1921, Bertie and Jeeves both grow as characters, the adventures of each story adding more and more subtle levels to the friendship that underlies their roles as master and servant. In "The Aunt and the Sluggard," Rocky, an American pal of Bertie's doesn't believe that Bertie dresses for dinner every night, and an "absolutely shocked" Bertie calls on Jeeves to quash that heresy:
"Jeeves," I said, "How many suits of evening dress have I?"
"We have three suits full of evening dress, sir; two dinner jackets...we have also seven white waistcoats."
"Four dozen, sir."
"And white ties?"
"The first two shallow drawers shelves in the chest of drawers are completely filled with our white ties, sir."
I turned to Rocky.
Meanwhile with each story Wodehouse's prose becomes sharper, more succinct, and—there's no other word for it—more Wodehouse-ian. Every sentence gets across whatever substance is needed to advance the plot, but more important, Wodehouse packs every sentence with off-kilter wordings that perfectly capture Bertie's good-natured but wacky way of looking at the world. Modest gems like these:
About half-past ten next morning, just as I had finished lubricating the good old interior with a soothing cup of oolong, Jeeves filtered into my bedroom...
A roll and butter and a small coffee seemed the only things on the menu that hadn't been prepared by nasty-minded members of the Borgia family for people they had a grudge against...
It was all very well for Bingo to say I was slated for a magnificent lunch, but what good is the best possible lunch to a fellow if he's slung out into the street on his ear during the soup course?
—may not sparkle like the diamonds that Wodehouse cut and polished in later years:
It seemed to me that a mere tithe of what I had said, if said to a tigress about a tiger of which she was fond, would have made her--the tigress, I mean--hit the ceiling.
—Right Ho, Jeeves
—but they do show him well on his way.
So how can you and I develop our own voice, our own style? Certainly not by imitating what Wodehouse put on paper—he is clearly inimitable—but instead by imitating Wodehouse's (or any fine writer's) work method: keep some goal in mind of what you most truly want your writing to say, and then keep honing, polishing, revising, rejecting, and rewriting until you feel you're gotten within shouting distance, and then hone, polish, revise, reject and rewrite some more.