Digital Fénéon: Experiments with Style
Contributor: Moe Folk
Afilliation: Kutztown University of Pennsylvania
Email: folk at kutztown.edu
Date Published: 10 September 2015
As character limits continue to shrink and more templates constrain, we might think we have less to work with in terms of digital writing in general and style in particular. The nature of digital writing may be ever-changing and thus imply a constant forward focus, but in order to adapt to the future, sometimes it pays to look to the past for fresh inspiration. This webtext details an assignment where students appropriate the writing style of an early 20th century French anarchist and art critic, then apply it to the comments section of websites such as YouTube in order to understand the powerful effects of style, especially stylistic variance, in certain digital contexts. Félix Fénéon, the French art critic and anarchist in question, also crafted short news pieces known as "Novels in Three Lines." His style exhibited excessive apposition combined with a ruthless economy and dry humor that still resonates. This piece details an assignment where students deploy his style in the forums of online sites, then analyze how breaking the default subject-verb-object style affected the larger discussions and responses. Anyone who has ever braved the comments section of a site for more than a few minutes can note how each comment section takes on a rather similar style, which, underneath the heaps of invective that attract so much outward attention, usually consists of sparse prose in straightforward sentences that follow what Richard Lanham (2006, p.4) identified as the hallmark chracteristics of American style: clarity, brevity, and sincerity. Lanham also pointed out the limitations of such a stylistic approach in different genres, and for students who will spend decades writing in a variety of as-yet-unimaginable forms, consciously or unconsciously promulgating one style in the classroom is detrimental. Introducing a Fénéon-style sentence into the comments section is similar to someone deciding to paint just one building of an old Soviet-bloc apartment building red. Doing so attracts attention, not all of it good, but it serves to show that concrete changes in language have rhetorical effects in digital spaces, and blind adherence to existing styles has its own drawbacks as well.
Depending on who's looking at it and with what lens, style is a nebula that shrinks to almost nothing or expands to devour the entire universe. To some, style is just surface, skin, sentence; to others, it is tethered to a larger, more powerful system of cultural values (c.f. Brummett, 2008). I attempt to include both poles in this assignment by having students focus on sentence-level style in order to see what connection that has to larger stylistic cultural values. Regardless of which of the hundreds of contested definitions one adheres to, style has been an important rhetorical concept since the days of Aristotle and lexis, and, as scholars such as Richard Lanham (2006) have argued, it may be even more important in today's era of digital composition. With so much competing for our attention, those who understand style better on multiple levels and can employ it in multiple forms are better suited to the ever-changing demands on our attention. Scholars such as Paul Butler (2008) have pointed out the importance of reviving stylistic study in contemporary times, and the last decade has indeed seen a variety of notable works that further various approaches for the ways we use, analyze, and teach style (see Brummett, 2008; Holcomb & Killingsworth, 2010; Johnson & Pace, 2005; Medzerian & Duncan, 2013). However, in ratcheting up the attention that should be paid to style in a digital age, I believe we need to be careful not to jettison the past (i.e., a multitude of print-based authors and styles) too quickly. I would argue that those who focus solely on digitally conceived and executed styles limit students’ conceptions of style, thus effacing a host of stylistic virtues and possibilities that could effectively be mined from decades past and beneficially shape students' development of digital writing skills. Analyzing and employing the style of Fénéon, for example, allows students to grasp a host of concrete stylistic concepts and yet also better understand more ethereal conceptions such as context and audience. To be effective composers in an ever-evolving digital world, students need to be able to identify specific stylistic constructs that attract attention and to choose from a palette of options they understand in depth in order to produce the effects they desire. This assignment develops stylistic agility, which is a necessity in digital landscapes because of the flexibility they require of all readers and composers.
The Infamous Fénéon, His Style, and My Assignment
The assignment being discussed stems from “The Rhetoric of Style,” a course I developed in two guises: one for advanced English and professional writing undergraduates and one for English masters students. I conducted initial versions of this style experiment in honors composition classes before honing it for a dedicated style course. The student examples included later span both undergraduate and graduate classes from my most recent course offerings.
Before getting into the specifics of the assignment, it is first necessary to situate Fénéon and his style. In some ways, given the many artistic and literary endeavors he undertook, it is an oddity that Fénéon is best known for works he published anonymously in a newspaper. However, this fact speaks to the power of style in the dominant medium of his time—print—and further reinforces the importance and possibilities of employing effective style in the dominant medium of the time. Félix Fénéon (b. 1861–d. 1944) discovered Georges Seurat, coined the term neo-impressionism, and was the first French publisher of James Joyce. He edited works by Rimbaud and Latréamont (among others), frequented Mallarmé’s salons, and was arrested for an anarchist bombing (see Fénéon, 1970; Halperin, 1988). Fénéon was acquitted; his mug shot is included in both this webtext and my assignment sheet.
Despite his connections to key painting and literary movements, Fénéon is most widely known today for a series of anonymously written newspaper reports published in the French newspaper Le Matin in 1906. These reports came to be known as novels in three lines and were notable for touching on serious issues with a ruthless economy that often proved somewhat humorous: As Luc Sante (2007) wrote about novels in three lines in the introduction to a reissue of Fénéon’s work with that same title,
- They demonstrate in miniature his epigrammatic flair, his exquisite timing, his pinpoint precision of language, his exceedingly dry humor, his calculated effrontery, his tenderness and cruelty, his contained outrage. His politics, his aesthetics, his curiosity and sympathy are all on view, albeit applied with tweezers and delineated with a single-hair brush. (p. viii)
Here are a few samples:
Novels in Three Lines
- A dishwasher from Nancy, Vital Frérotte, who had just come back from Lourdes cured forever of tuberculosis, died Sunday by mistake.
- His head injury was not serious, believed Kremer, of Pont-à-Mousson, who continued working for a few hours, then dropped dead.
- On the bowling lawn a stroke leveled M. André, 75, of Levallois. While his ball was still rolling he was no more.
- Seventy-year-old beggar Verniot, of Clichy, died of hunger. His pallet disgorged 2,000 francs. But no one should make generalizations.
Other examples can be found online at http://twitter.com/novelsin3lines. You can also search for Novels in Three Lines on Google Books and preview many of his other examples. His curt style appeals in a digital age where brevity is often called for, but the twist it provides yields surprise and power. In some ways, his work reads like proto-tweets, and, in another example of teaching context, the style was born because only so much space was allotted for the novels. In short, he was working within constraints not unlike a 140-character limit. While other newspapers had similar sections written by other authors (as in the way most newspapers have an editorial section today), it is safe to say Fénéon’s stand out in comparison. Despite quite painful subject matter, he is fun and easy to imitate, as this Twitter feed (now defunct) that featured a modern-day Fénéon tweeting New York news illustrates: https://twitter.com/feneonreads. Disclaimer: I too have adopted the guise of a modern-day Fénéon with a similar premise—my piece "Félix Fénéon Reports from the Upper Peninsula" was published in Pank (2010).
In just about every course I teach, one of the things I try to do is make things strange for my students—I want them to question their current digital writing and designing actions. In “The Rhetoric of Style” course, I want students to develop stylistic concepts in order to more successfully connect with diverse audiences; I also want them to become more adept style analysts as well. Instead of just simply noticing difference or repetition, I want them to be able to name those strategies and point out what works for diverse audiences and why. As many others have pointed out, style is one of those concepts all seem to have a grip on, but when asked to lay out definitions and point to particular rhetorical concepts at work, many are unable to go beyond nebulous description or overview. For example, in Kairos 16.2, Derek Mueller (2012) cited Virgina Tufte’s ideas? as an impetus for his assignment focusing on style in different media because Tufte pointed out that most of what professionals and students say about style is very impressionistic. To deploy style meaningfully means being able to identify structures, context, and possible audience reactions concretely. Given the thread that runs throughout my classes of multimodal composition and publishing digitally to meet extra-university audiences, I wanted my students to experiment with this different style online to increase audience awareness, style understanding, and digital literacy in general.
In addition, I notice many students tend to stick to very straightforward subject-verb-object (S-V-O) sentences when writing, rarely trying different techniques such as subordination or apposition. In addition, they often rarely go beyond what Lanham (2003) has called the default American style of writing, the CBS model of clarity, brevity, and sincerity. As a result, I found it useful to engage my students with something completely new to them (Fénéon’s style and particular stylistic constructions), deployed in something very familiar to them (sites such as YouTube), and then let everything mix together for a real audience (commenters on sites such as YouTube). In addition to getting them to question their own tried-and-true S-V-O pattern of writing (which is often the same pattern followed in short comments on forums), this style experiment allows them to see how people react to stylistic changes and novelty in a real setting. I want students to better understand the boundaries of particular online genres and what is gained and lost when attracting attention to style.
In perhaps an odd—but nonetheless important—byproduct of the assignment, the students also gain a fuller sense of the complexity of everyday life from ages past. They often mention how the assignment disabused them of the notion that the non-wartime past consisted of much simpler, safer times compared to our own, especially in a place such as France, whose romantic nature is so commonly represented in their media consumption. Fénéon’s pieces, more than 100 years old now, are hounded by death and bathed in blood. Students gain a more nuanced notion of the past that helps them better understand the tractable concept of context.
In the assignment, I ask students to develop 10 novels in three lines, which can be adapted from a Fénéon original or created from scratch by the student. They also share their posts via screen capture and write reflections about imitating Fénéon’s style and the effects their posts had on the sites they posted to. I encourage students to make the novels respond in some meaningful way to the content wherever they post, but I do allow them to use a mixture of non-fiction and fiction if they choose. I ask them to keep to some of Fénéon’s original restraints—their comment should not be longer than three lines (or roughly 50 words)—and I require them to follow the hallmarks of Fénéon’s style, which we analyze in class by pulling up the novels in three lines Twitter feed.
The assignment itself occurs in the first third of the course and is part of what I call style experiments, a semester-long series of low-stakes assignments that intend to help students understand the hallmarks of their own style and others while providing concrete means of discerning, deploying, and discussing style. The style experiments make up 20% of the overall course grade, and this experiment makes up 7% of the overall style experiment grade. I encourage students to apply concepts from the style experiments to each of the larger class projects, and students hand in a rhetorical reflection with each project that details how and why they did what they did; lessons learned from the Fénéon experiment often crop up in these reflections. We look at concrete effects such as apposition, often a term students don’t know but can point out, and we examine how it slows down the reading of a sentence and delays the main verb, both of which have an effect on readers. We also look at other particular stylistic aspects of Fénéon’s style such as anastrophe, and more overarching approaches such as litotes. In addition, I use his work to point out the importance of word choice and reinforce basic lessons such as the use of strong verbs, as in the use of “scraped” here that embodies the near-death state of the man in question, intimates the long length of time he lay sprawled on the sidewalk, and implies his inability to move a muscle:
"His ears cut off and his forehead laid open, Guichard was scraped off a sidewalk in LeMans after a brawl with non-coms of the 26th Artillery."
To get at the tropes and flowers in Fénéon’s style, I have students read the tropes and flowers section of Edward Corbett (1971) and explore Gideon Burton’s (n.d.) online resource “Silva Rhetoricae: The Forest of Rhetoric.” I am sure to read examples of Fénéon’s style out loud in class. Students are able to pick up on the rhythm of his prose more and not get bogged down in the heavy content as much. Although I have incorporated it to some degree, I have not gone full-on classical rhetoric and used imitation in the sense that Corbett (1971) advocated in Classical Rhetoric for the Modern Student:
"The first exercise in imitation that we will recommend to the student consists of copying passages, word for word, from admired authors. This may strike the student as being a rather brainless exercise, but it can teach the student a great deal about the niceties of style (p. 510)."
As Corbett noted, imitation has long been a hallmark of rhetorical instruction, going back to Roman children translating Greek passages into Latin and composing a sentence in many different ways, modeled after the 150 different Latin phrases of a sentence used by Erasmus in one of his popular works (p. 496). While I acknowledge that other past movements from composition studies find such imitation distasteful because it may seem to provide a means of blocking the development of the student's own unique voice or obscure the discussion of larger cultural contexts that affect the production and reception of each text, I use such imitation in conjunction with many other pedagogical methods over the length of the course, and students often gravitate to this assignment because it is so different from the norm in our class. Imitation, in spots, still holds value: Just as we might take an Aristotelian view of rhetoric as discovering the available means of persuasion, imitation allows us to discover alternate means of style, and recent scholarship has explored fruitful means of using stylistic imitation in the writing classroom (e.g., Farrin, 2005; Rhodes, 2005; Stodola, 2013). In the end, style is a concept best learned not solely in lectures but by doing and crafting. My students might understand the gist of Fénéon’s style when first going over it in class, but they truly get it when they take the time to mold and struggle over each word to make it their own. I am always surprised at how hard and time-consuming students say this assignment is, with many saying one week is not enough to get it done well.
Student Examples and Audience Feedback
In one example (above), the student posted in the comments section of a Yahoo News article about a fashion show where Kanye West unveiled his new shoe collection. She described how the article caught her attention because it seemed so serious, despite what she perceived as a gulf in ethos between the subjects of the story and the tone of the article and pictures. The forum garnered more than 2,100 comments, and the student said she felt her comment didn’t receive many responses because the overall tenor of the comments was overwhelmingly negative, with many troll comments that captured a lot of the discussion. Given the ongoing discussion, she wondered if crafting a more positive novel would have received more attention.
In another example (right), the student commented on an article that reviewed Starbucks drinks. She was pleased with the attention it received. From the student’s reflection: “For some reason, this one got 50 thumbs up, but I think that's just because everyone was picking on this dude's horrible review. Here, I suppose, the style adds to the insult. And people like that.” Her post is under the name “Amanda.”
In this case, her post aligned very closely with the overall sentiment of the group comments, which undoubtedly helped many of the readers relate to it. In its context, you can see how Amanda’s stands out thanks to the juxtaposition of the first sentence displaying a longer construction and heavy apposition with the stripped-down fragment of the second sentence, aided by the kicker at the end. The student talked about how surprised she was at the attention this received, and she also implied that enflaming the mob mentality with the style of the assignment pointed to the power of style as a concept for her.
In a final example (below), the student posted about a Yahoo News story about the dwindling population of a fish. His comment: “Lionfish, assassin of the sea, swim freely until man silences its roar. Its flesh, sustenance for its capturer.” He received two replies as of the assignment due date: “Nice turn of phrase there” and “Haiku, sweet.” In this case, he mentioned that the gravity of the article seemed to match what he perceived as an overall gravity to Fénéon’s style. However, in most of this student’s other posts, the student wrote witty summaries of movies and posted them under their trailers on YouTube. He noted that these trailer summaries often received positive votes but no replies, which made him think about the effect of his tone within the context of a current news story in a sad vein about overfishing versus within the context of ongoing comments on movies that may have been released 15 years ago. He also said, “The worst of America usually can come out in those threads, and for the most part my posts were ignored save a few likes and comments. Then, at the same time, perhaps it is hard to make fun of something that is borderline poetic.”
In short, the student reflections often note how time-consuming it was to discern the shape and feel of the comments sections, how difficult it was to craft passable Fénéon constructions using the concepts we covered in class (and worried it didn’t seem that way since they are so short), and how exciting it was checking back to see what responses they received. I have been able to note that the experiment greatly increases their stylistic aptitude, both in applying certain technical concepts and being able to discuss other author’s works in digital spaces. Many students noted in their reflections that they began questioning all of their default subject-verb-object patterns and clarity-brevity-sincerity styles, and I noticed a much improved ability to discuss their own and others' styles in terms of specific constructs instead of general impressions as before. Students who deployed their experiments in a range of different areas (i.e., not just Yahoo News or YouTube) seemed to benefit the most because doing so required more agility and practice. In the future, I plan to include more social media outlets and perhaps have students track responses over time in those realms.
Tips for Teaching This Assignment
- Some students are surprised by how many of Fénéon’s novels revolve around injury, death, or serious topics such as the separation of church and state (many entries, for example, center on public headmasters and principals arrested for failure to remove crucifixes from classrooms in violation of a new French law enacted at that time). These students often produce overly morbid novels, so I am sure to try and pick out some of the lighter ones for class discussion and to encourage them that their novels can be about any subject, even silly ones, so long as they demonstrate and reflect Fénéon’s style.
- Collect the work in an open online format if possible. For example, instead of collecting just a paper copy, have students post images of their novels, such as screencaptures or photos of where exactly they posted. (Just collecting a link won’t suffice because the number of responses in many of the posting locations means the student’s response is often buried and will take a lot of time to find it.)
- I also ask students to share their novels with each other so they can gauge other people’s experiences with the assignment. These shared documents can foster great class discussion because students are exposed to a wide variety of posts, contexts, and replies. I always ask students whether appropriating the style was difficult and whether they were surprised by some of the reactions their comments got.
- In terms of assessment, I tell students Fénéon’s work is their rubric. To get full credit, a student's work must exhibit the hallmarks of his style we went over in class. One issue is how much to value punctuation in the assessment. Fénéon’s style relies on grammatical structure for effect, so punctuation is very important in achieving that; however, his work also relies on sentence structures and punctuation elements such as colons and em dashes that many students just haven't used much before. As a result, I'm sure to point out mechanical issues for future reference, but my grade concentrates on how well they attended to the spirit of Fénéon’s work as a whole.
- Fénéon was an anarchist. Don’t cling to rigid ideals during this assignment. Originally, I was focused on having students post only on large sites with robust public spaces tied to a particular object such as a YouTube video or a Yahoo News story. Students were quick to branch out if they didn’t get responses right away, which ended up with them posting everywhere from Twitter and Instagram to Snapchat. In addition, although I was focused on digital realms, one student was fascinated by what would happen in real time, in real space, with her posts: She took it upon herself to write messages on her workplace chalkboard, a restaurant that stays open until 3:00 a.m. on weekends and caters to students, encouraging them to write on that same chalkboard. A world away from a digital comment section, perhaps, but instructive nonetheless and able to project different aspects of the style. I include one of her chalkboard posts (left). The fast-food restaurant is famous for serving dozens of types of French fries, so she appropriates the style in service to a message about potatoes and student customers. She recounted how students, not used to seeing anything that wasn’t strictly informational or advertising-related on the board, were often mesmerized by it, and, although many mentioned writing responses, they shied away from it, not sure whether it was permissible to respond.
- Fénéon had anonymity, so try to encourage students to embrace anonymity as well, especially considering the often heavy content students choose to embrace based on how morbid many of the originals are. Some students post with real names, for example, even though their style might attract personal attention in a negative way. Even so, this experiment allows students to see the connection between online identity, tone, and style. As one student wrote, “Honestly, I was a little bit tentative about what I posted as not to offend anyone. Fénéon is so blunt and jarring with how he reports on the deaths, I didn't want to do that on these public boards as so to look like a jerk or insensitive. Then again, that's Fénéon's style. I suppose I concluded that in public forums, people don't really know HOW to respond to this kind of comment. Overall, I though it was a really fun experiment to try to emulate someone else's style, but also very challenging.”
In an unparalleled age of composing speed and spread, we press for something fresh and exciting more than ever, resulting in more frequent discarding of styles. Just as the design industry constantly recycles old ideas and combines them with current realities to make something new, recycling styles through a digital lens allows instructors and students to truly practice (and thus comprehend) the redesigned as formulated by the New London Group (see Cope & Kalantzis, 2000). This assignment allows instructors to focus on style in a way that’s accessible, which in turn allows students to not only deploy digital style more effectively but also to learn the building blocks of style in such a way they can scale these building blocks up to more complex versions (and locations) of born-digital style. In addition, the assignment allows for interrogating time/history in a way that illustrates how much context impacts such writing issues as brevity and felicity in productive ways. I encourage you to experiment with Fénéon or to find your own Fénéon and bring that person into digital realms; the more work we do with style in a digital age, the richer our discussions and compositions become.
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