Doing Style: A Review of Holcomb and Killingsworth's Performing Prose

Review of Performing Prose: The Study and Practice of Style in Composition
by Chris Holcomb and M. Jimmie Killingsworth 2010; Southern Illinois University Press

Hannah J. Rule, University of Cincinnati

Enculturation :
(Published: March 6, 2013)

Chris Holcomb and M. Jimmie Killingsworth’s 2010 textbook-meets-handbook Performing Prose: The Study and Practice of Style in Composition asserts style’s centrality to composing processes through the idea of performance. With an introduction addressed to both instructors and students, Performing Prose is most appropriate for use in the classroom. While it might be most suited for upper-level courses devoted to style, the book is both accessible and deep enough that it could be incorporated in some measure into a first-year composition course, or conversely, a graduate seminar on rhetoric and style. Speaking to these potentially varied audiences, Holcomb and Killingsworth emphasize their goal upfront: to give writers the tools to analyze style in prose and “wield” these stylistic moves in their own compositions.

Figure 1

The authors first address and revise our most common associations with style, arguing that style is not in any way extraordinary flair; rather, style is writing. Aligned with the Aristotelian view that “a change in the manner of expression will have consequences for the meaning expressed” (2) and animated by the idea of physical performance, style is for Holcomb and Killingsworth an active doing, where language “is not a dead thing, inky letters on a page, but a living force” (ix). In Performing Prose, the authors most commonly characterize style as a way of interacting, a “powerful medium of social interaction” (7) and “an important resource for managing relationships among writers, readers, subject matter, and the relative positions of all these elements within a broader situation” (7).

A central and somewhat familiar move in this book is to significantly revise our conceptions of what style can be. Style is an old and sticky concept, with definitions that shift and wane depending upon cultural moment and framework; indeed Paul Butler’s recent book, Out of Style: Reanimating Style for Composition and Rhetoric (2008) seeks to understand style’s nuances and advocate for its centrality to our disciplinary pursuits. There is certainly need then in rhetoric and composition for another “reconsideration” of style, as style remains, like grammar, a somewhat questionable pursuit. Holcomb and Killingsworth narrate a quick account of the “fall” of style—from centrality in classical spoken rhetoric to slow decline in the long shift to print discourse—it becomes more recently a “casualty of the process movement” (viii) for its seeming proximity to product-oriented pedagogy. To understand style as strictly aligned with current-traditional rhetoric though is, for the authors, to misunderstand the productive force a consideration of style can be to the writing process from conception through delivery. No longer, if ever, a “mop-up operation” on par with line editing or proofreading, Holcomb and Killingsworth consider style a repertoire of language choices, and encourage writers to see style as “an opportunity…to consider what kind of social interaction they want to initiate and oversee” (ix).

Noticing that both style and performance were among the central concerns of classical rhetoric, Performing Prose can first be broadly understood as in league with the Corbett-led contemporary uptake of classical rhetoric as a tool for contemporary students. Classical rhetoric is perhaps most animating for Holcomb and Killingsworth in raising the living figure of the rhetorician standing before an audience of real people as he wields the repertoire of rhetorical moves (tropes, schemes, image, proverbs, etc.). The figure of the performing rhetorician in this way dramatizes the impact of language choices and reminds contemporary writers of the physical, real life readers their written language will reach. However, Performing Prose is not detailed in its references to rhetorical history. In Classical Rhetoric for the Modern Student, Corbett details extensive histories of rhetoric, rhetoricians, and their cultural contexts in what he deems a necessary complement to contemporary rhetorical practice, as the history inspires confidence that the writer is drawing upon a rich tradition. By contrast, Holcomb and Killingsworth only occasionally acknowledge the rhetorical tradition to provide sufficient context to understand, for instance, Cicero’s levels of style, or the Renaissance urge to exhaustively categorize all possible schemes. Ultimately Holcomb and Killingsworth focus squarely on application, borrowing what they find the most useful of the rhetorical tools the classical tradition makes available. In this way, the book focuses on modern application of classical rhetoric’s many stylistic moves, focusing on the doing of rhetoric, the doing of language that bring effects to real readers.

In this focus on writing as a living rhetorical exchange, Performing Prose also shares goals with rhetorical grammar study. Martha Kolln and other advocates of rhetorical grammar have demonstrated that grammar is not only or even primarily about correctness, but rather about choice and effect. Grammar, of course, has endured the same suspicion as style; in our post-current-traditional moment we continue to raise eyebrows at error-seeking red pens, while largely agreeing that knowledge of grammatical correctness on a worksheet doesn’t translate into effective usage. Laura Micciche, in an article that aligns rhetorical grammar with the mission of critical pedagogy, writes, “examinations of language made possible through rhetorical grammar pedagogy encourage students to view writing as a material social practice in which meaning is actively made, rather than passively relayed or effortlessly produced” (719). Rhetorical grammar then is a way of entering into relation with readers and of coming to understand language as, in Micciche’s words, “produced rather than evacuated of imperfections” (720). Just as rhetorical grammarians understand grammar as intrinsic to writing rather than a police action, Holcomb and Killingsworth too understand style to be fundamental to expression. Performing Prose echoes rhetorical grammar’s view of the smallest elements of language as having “aliveness” (Micciche 724), and argues that finessing language in even the smallest ways changes relationships with readers. While there is little difference in the goals of rhetorical grammar and Holcomb and Killingsworth’s style, the similarity is unfortunately not acknowledged by the authors. Though they encourage students to keep commonplace books, a familiar practice of rhetorical grammar pedagogues (and they even suggest Kolln as an additional resource), their passing mentions of grammar only reinforce its association with correctness or a necessary bit of rule-following before the real action of style commences. This missed overlap is significant, I’d argue, as it might signal the need to dismiss the terms altogether, so laden as they are with traditional, surface associations, so that the mission of rhetorical grammar and style as performance can converge into one dynamic pursuit.

This potential future aside, Holcomb and Killingsworth spend the first few chapters introducing writers to a new and useful way of thinking about style as a decision making process. In this discussion, they include a chapter that conceives of style as “the interplay of convention and deviation” (39). Here the authors outline familiar stylistic “rules” found in textbooks, concepts such as flow, conciseness, and active voice, and explore what might conventionally be meant by these edicts in order to “question their status as rigid rather than flexible conventions of prose performance” (41). I imagine this discussion to be quite useful for students, given how tightly college writers tend to hold on to learned writing wisdom. In every composition course I’ve taught I will inevitably have a student timidly raise his hand and ask, “So, it’s ok if we use ‘I’ in this essay?” I don’t think we can underestimate the value of a chapter like this for productively dismantling what students perceive as the absolute rules of writing and demonstrating rather that any given decision in writing may have one or more effects dependent on audience and context. The way that Holcomb and Killingsworth cast style as mindful decision-making helps writers see that absolutes in writing—i.e., writing should always be concise or should never use the first person—are instead points of social negotiation.

The idea of language work as negotiation also inflects Holcomb and Killingsworth’s discussion of the amorphous concept of voice in writing. To begin, the authors link our tacit conceptions of voice to a pervasive version of style that is “extraordinary” or unique, suggesting that voice is understood most often as “distinction” and from there outline its attendant and problematic assumptions (that voice distinguishes writers, that voice is “natural” and thus unteachable, etc.). Drawing upon the figure of physical performance, Holcomb and Killingsworth shift voice to “footing,” a term they borrow from Erving Goffman and defined as “the ‘alignment’ or attitude…a speaker takes up with respect to his or her listener and the circumstances of their interaction” (7). Leaving behind an individualistic notion of voice emanating naturally from a great writer, “footing” reminds us that style is “a matter of agreement (or disagreement) between an author and audience, two social entities that stand in some relationship to each other” (56). Footing emphasizes relationality and helps writers see how they orient readers within what Holcomb and Killingsworth identify as physical and social space, spaces conceived both on the page and in the world. Footing creates physical proximities to objects discussed, a sense of the “cinematography to language” (84), while social footing establishes the level of familiarity and formality brought to the subject. The concept of footing exemplifies how the authors explore and explode conventional associations with style and its related concepts like voice, and from there fill the concept with useful and animated examples of language in social (inter)action.

Performing Prose proceeds in its goal to help writers “recognize and articulate patterns and trends of language” (11) with later chapters devoted to familiar rhetorical figures such as tropes, schemes, and proverbs. As mentioned above, Holcomb and Killingsworth don’t spend much time on rhetorical history, preferring to make these rhetorical concepts familiar in a quick and usable way. After explaining Cicero’s levels of style in a chapter called “The Rhetorical Tradition,” for example, the authors explain tropes in terms of the performance figure they’ve referenced throughout. They say of tropes and schemes: “they are like the steps a ballet dancer might perform as part of a longer routine…These dance moves, like the figures, are units of performance: we can point to them, describe how they are formed, and judge whether they are executed effectively or not” (84). The description extends from here, noting too that moves like this “come with baggage” (85), carrying meanings and associations that go beyond the individual writer/performer. This is an example of when the authors productively sustain the performance metaphor. This particular description makes a clear connection to the idea of style as social interaction. In these chapters, writers learn to spot and execute metaphor, irony, schemes of balance (like parallelism, isocolon, antithesis), and schemes of unusual word order (like anastrophe).

While offering writers many tools for their stylistic repertoire, the authors provide many examples of illustrative prose and analysis, modeling a way of seeing style in all sorts of writing. One of the most compelling aspects of this book is the perfect range of types of prose featured: Holcomb and Killingsworth discover style performances in snips of short stories, emails, non-fiction, presidential gaffes, junk mail, novels, and King’s “I Have a Dream.” While some readers may find this selection of examples difficult, especially in its lack of differentiation between rhetoric and poetic, I find it compelling. For me, it’s a perfect embodiment of the book’s largest argument: an excerpt from Hemingway followed by a close reading of a cell phone advertisement brings home the point that style isn’t extraordinary, but operating wherever language is in use upon another. Wherever there are thoughtful choices made in language, there are effects; whether those choices are made by an extraordinary human being like Dr. King, or by the anonymous writer of a piece of junk mail, style is nonetheless being performed. In addition to providing a provoking range of types of writing, Holcomb and Killingsworth emphasize in their analysis what they often call “variants.” Helping writers imagine a passage otherwise puts into relief the idea that even the smallest shift (an “a” for a “the”) can make substantial changes in readers’ perceptions and understandings.

Action is emphasized in the “Exercises” section at the conclusion of each chapter. The authors emphasize application of the stylistic elements explained and analyzed in the chapter through imitation as well as through extended analyses of prose selections. Holcomb and Killingsworth at the outset of the book encourage students to keep a commonplace book of favorite passages and turns of phrase, and each exercise selection ends with a sample that incorporates the chapter’s stylistic features and explicates them. With its emphasis on analysis and imitation bound within the commonplace book, I found myself a bit surprised to see the exercises limited largely to the student writer’s isolated interaction with texts. If indeed style is a social interaction, students of style should not be encouraged to stow style exercises away in a private commonplace book, but to get these language experiments out there, circulating and acting upon readers. Instead of having to imagine how language acts upon others, students could be encouraged to work in groups and demonstrate stylistic alternatives, or even put different stylistic moves out on social media. These are certainly shifts one could make in teaching the book, but with such constant repetition of style as social, I’m surprised to see the application exercises fail to more actively push students into interactions with readers.

Holcomb and Killingsworth Performing Prose is an ultimately persuasive book. It illustrates that language is a dynamic force and that paying close attention to what often comes down to the nitty-gritty in sentence construction really matters. In taking up style as integral rather than additive to expression, Holcomb and Killingsworth’s (re)turn to this old and maybe misunderstood aspect of composing, giving writers a dynamic way of attending to language itself. Performing Prose not only reshapes and revamps an inherited concept, but also contributes to an emergence or resurgence of Rhetoric and Composition’s interest in performance. I leave this volume still wondering how much the authors yield from linking the concept of performance to style, which for them seems to carry an emphasis on "real-life” action, socially interactivity, and relationality. In emphasizing the force of language itself to act and do, it would seem that Performing Prose holds some debt to speech-act theory. Rhetoric and Composition continues to have interest in the idea of performance; as the recent inaugural issue of CCC Online has suggested in its title, we are perhaps amidst a “turn to performance.” While the invocation of performance in our field may continue to direct our attention in divergent ways—using theatre games in the classroom, performativity and queer theory, embodiment, etc.—Holcomb and Killingsworth offer a compelling view of writing itself as performative, a social, interactive doing.

Works Cited

Micciche, Laura R. "Making a Case for Rhetorical Grammar." College Composition and Communication 55.4 (June 2004): 716-737.