Seamus Perry fondly recalls a late friend and a stickler on prose

I learnt a lot from my late friend Stephen Wall, for many years a Fellow of Keble College, and the long-serving and much-respected editor of the journal, Essays in Criticism, to which he generously appointed me the young apprentice.

Stephen was one of nature’s Quakers, a kindly, amusing, and benign person, indulgent of the wide spectacle of human folly; but he was a fierce stickler for prose style. He policed all contributions to the journal with an unsparing black biro, deleting and amending and rewording, quite regardless of the alleged celebrity of the author concerned.

It was Stephen’s firm view that nothing would not be improved by losing 500 words, and his views about what should be removed have become my own. Stephen disliked especially moments when a critic tells you what he is going to do, is doing, or has done: a sentence like, “In this essay, I will argue that Tennyson was a profound influence on the writings of James Joyce”, would have a fine but firm line drawn through it.

Don’t tell me you’re going to do it: do it. Protracted passages of such self-commentary naturally occur at the beginning of essays as the author gathers his or her wits together: Stephen called that “pawing the ground”. He thought an essay should start only once the bull had been released.

Ostentatious claims of academic audacity or courage were clearly a failure of taste and similarly had to go: phrases such as “I shall explore this curiously overlooked topic” or “thus overturning many decades of inexplicable scholarly neglect” would all be snipped.

He had a particular dislike of that brand of donnish self-regard which expresses itself in phrases like, “It is important to realise that…”.

If it were indeed important then that should have been obvious without saying so; and if it were not important then claiming otherwise would be pointless anyway.

He disliked jargon, and privately counted some words as jargon that many contributing authors might not have suspected.

The noun ‘project’, for instance, rarely survived the editorial process. “Austen’s project in Mansfield Park” would be swiftly recast into something less pretentious: whatever she was doing in her novels she was not projecting anything.

I think perhaps the blackest bête noire, however, was that curiosity of modern don-speak, the phrase ‘book-length project’ – as in “I am currently working on a book-length project about cats”.

Stephen himself wrote only one big book, a loving study of the novels of Trollope: it took him a long time as he felt he had to re-read them all before sitting down again at the typewriter, which used up much of his successive summers.

I always think of him at this time of year, the annual window between the schools going back and the start of the university’s full term, when there seems nothing to get between you and your current book-length project. Except, that is, the obstructive necessity of remembering what on earth it was that you were going to say.