Songs, Styles, and Rackslappers

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July 18, 2016 by libroshombre


Frank Sinatra was known for the finely stylized phrasing of his songs, and Sammy Cahn was his favorite lyricist. Cahn hit the big time in 1937 when he re-wrote in English the words to a Yiddish tune called “Bei Mir Bist Du Schon.” A singing trio called the Andrews Sisters who’d just arrived in the Big Apple heard it at his apartment, asked to record it, and they all soon became wealthy and famous. Cahn often wrote special lyrics for particular singers, like “Three Coins in the Fountain” for the most particular of all: Sinatra.

Sinatra refused to appear in the MGM musical “Anchors Away” unless Cahn wrote the music’s words, and Cahn was still at it when Old Blue Eyes starred in the Rat Pack classic, “Robin and the 7 Hoods.” In it he wrote a forgettable duet for Sinatra and Dean Martin called “Style”: “You’ve either got or you haven’t got style. If you got it, you stand out a mile. A flower’s not a flower if it’s wilted. A hat’s not a hat ‘til it’s tilted. You either got or your haven’t got class. How it draws the applause from the masses!”

Raymond Queneau knew something about style, too. The library’s Dictionary of Literary Biography database rated Queneau “one of the most amusing and versatile French writers of the twentieth century. He was a poet, novelist, critic, editor, playwright, filmmaker, philosopher, mathematician, and even a painter.” Nonetheless, Queneau was always suspicious of fads and fashions and “kept his distance from literary movements.” He was interested in style, however. In 1958 Queneau published “Exercises in Style” in which he “presents an insignificant incident … This incident is recounted in ninety-nine different ways or styles, each one varying the arrangement of events and choice of diction, tone, and emphasis. One such style is termed metaphoric, another tactile, still others exclamatory and vulgar … his purpose is to rid literature of its rusty, crusty conventions.”

Unfortunately, our library doesn’t own that book, but our library can borrow it for you from another library through the wonderful interlibrary loan program. Our library loans books that are needed by other library’s patrons, and in return, we can borrow books from thousands of other libraries, thereby making almost any book obtainable, free of charge.

Our library owns a similar, and better, book: Matt Madden’s “99 Ways to Tell a Story: Exercises in Style.” Like Queneau, Madden takes a simple story – a man gets up from his computer workstation and walks into another room to get something from the fridge, another person asks him the time, and then he can’t remember what he was looking for – but Madden does it through the medium of graphic literature, AKA “comics.” A review of “99 Ways” by Scott Pack in another library database, Literature Resource Center, observed that “By giving us a comic book version, Madden is able to be more original, more surreal, and more amusing than Queneau.” For example, one of the versions of the story is told from the perspective of the refrigerator, and another is done as a map.  

Having read both books, I can attest that Queneau’s is initially intriguing, but ultimately rather forced, while Madden’s is more inventive, entertaining, and, compelling. By combining words with illustration in a sequential manner, many more permutations to storytelling are possible. Publisher’s Weekly observed in its starred review of Madden’s book, “A new discovery awaits the reader on every page … new elements are introduced and removed: different characters, more panels, fewer close-ups, flashbacks, text-only, or a focus on sound or color effects … Favorites include a how-to on building a comic, a palindromic story that reads the same backward and forward, and a calligram (with text formed into a question mark shape).

Madden’s book is so rich, it’s hard to select a favorite style. Styles are forever transitory and mutable, and it’s nice to know there are many to choose from. But as Molly Ivins noted, “The trouble is, once one has managed to achieve a style that indicates one’s status group and expresses one’s personality, then a whole herd of Bloomingdale’s rack-slappers comes along and copies it, and then one has to start all over.”


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