One of my perennial quandaries, which rises afresh every time I complete a novel, is expressed in a simple question: “What is style?” Perhaps even more tellingly, I could ask: “Where is style?” How does it manifest itself in a story? I’ve batted this around with other writers, other avid readers, and my Newfoundlands Bruno and Rufus. (Joy is still a little young for literary analysis.) There’s no agreement on the subject. The common thread among those who believe that style is objectively real and at least potentially separable from the rest of a storyteller’s work is approximately “I know it when I see it.”
I’m still not sure I believe in style. I don’t have one, myself – at least, not consciously. As a reader, I have my preferences, but they resist being pinned down in a fashion that would permit their use by a private eye. As a writer…?
Quite a lot of writers are obsessed with style, and with developing a personal style that will mark a story as “theirs.” Literary prize juries tend to be concerned with style above all other things. At least, that’s the impression I get from their awards. But das Ding an Sich remains elusive.
There’s a website that specializes in analyzing your prose style and comparing it to that of other writers. I’ve used it many times out of my desire to know what my style is. But it’s given me endlessly varying results. At various times it’s told me that I write like:
- Agatha Christie
- Arthur C. Clarke
- Stephen King
- Edgar Allan Poe
- Anne Rice
- David Foster Wallace
…and other writers of note. So it appears that style is a much a mystery to the analysis engine employed by that site as it is to me.
Where is a writer’s style expressed – and can it really be separated from the stories he tells?
The late, great Florence King once spent an interval writing – girls, hold on to your boyfriends – porn. She was trying to make ends meet, always a challenge for a young writer, and at that time of her life writing porn was a relatively easy way for a writer to make a few bucks. What she discovered was that porn’s own style is infectious: it creeps into everything one writes or says. Here’s a delightful bit of King’s whimsy: a description of the eating of a soft-boiled egg as a porn writer would do it, from her novel When Sisterhood Was In Flower::
I took the glistening, virginally white oval out of the fiercely bubbling cauldron of hot, hot, hot water and cupped my hand around it, feeling its contours with sensations of shimmering delight. I reached for my long, sturdy, battering egg knife and tapped. The shell slipped off and I touched the tender, moist, protein-swollen membranes of the secret softness. The steamy slice of hot, ready, delectable egg burned my fingers but I thrust firmly with my rigid tool and inserted the erect, serrated blade. The lubricious, golden yellow, ambrosial nectar of the pulsating, quickening core gushed out into my egg cup, I centered my mouth over the slickened surface of the gently curving silver spoon and ate, ate, ate.
I must admit that there’s a unique and discernable quality in that paragraph – but does it apply to all porn? My limited exposure to that, ah, literary form speaks otherwise.
As a reader, I’ve always been principally concerned with a writer’s overall orientation toward the fundamentals of drama: truth, justice, fortitude, love, and the ultimately tragic nature of human existence. If I find that my values march with his, I’m likely to enjoy his tales. The inverse is also true. I do become irritated by ineptitude in technical things. Most writers make mistakes, and being a grammar Nazi, I’m sensitive to them. But I’m more likely to be forgiving of such things if I like the writer’s orientation as I’ve already captured it.
That leaves me no better off as regards the question of style and whether it can be isolated from the rest of a story. I’m still on the hunt for its elements: those aspects of a writer’s prose that delineate his style apart from his choices of plot, theme, characterization, and setting.
I know there are a few other writers among the Gentle Readers of Liberty’s Torch. So, if you have an opinion, let’s have it here. Readers, too! If I can make sense of your thesis, it might stimulate an extended discussion that would do us both good.
Style certainly does exist, resting over the entirety of the plot and character development.
My own fiction style is very spare in terms of descriptions of place or people, providing only the necessary details. I tend to use vocabulary which is advanced for the intended audience. I change speech patterns and depictions of thoughts depending on the character’s age, intelligence, and mood. Put it all together and I can easily recognize a passage of my own work even if I don’t remember writing it.
Contrast with most authors, who are luxurious in their descriptions, who focus on characters’ emotions over actions, and whose characters’ speech is scarce distinguishable. Or those who write in choppy sentences with reduced vocabulary. Or who…
-shrug- Or maybe “style” means different things to you and to me and I’m missing your point.
Steve, from the above you put strong emphasis on characterization. We have that in common. But if that’s a component of style, then it’s not separable from characterization as far as I can see. Also, it blends into the subject of technique…but that re-emphasizes the question of whether style is a separable thing.
Technique is a related topic. Some aspects of it are easy to discuss — choice of narrative mode, for example — but others, such as how much description and setting to include in a narrative, are more elusive. Moreover, some technical choices are demonstrably better suited to some kinds of stories. Try to imagine Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” told in the first person, or in third person multiple with the thoughts of the narrator included. I can’t do it…and that’s rather suggestive.
It leads me to think that style, technique, the story’s plot and theme, and the author’s overall sensibility are too intertwined to be separated. Alternately, “The style is the man…and the story, too.”
I fed in chapters one, three, and five of my current MS. Got Agatha Christie all three times. Didn’t bother with any of my other dozen books. Having never read anything from her, I do not know if this is a good or bad thing.
I have been told by more than one that I “write screenplays” or have “a cinematic style.” I just know I don’t spend many words describing a physical scene. The characters’ interaction is more important to me.
Combined with your own assessment Clayton, there may be some validity in the site’s conclusion.
Christie’s short story, “Witness for the Prosecution,” that she adapted 30 years later into a successful play, came to my attention in the wildly successful Billy Wilder screenplay and movie. I was only 10. Its impression stayed with me, and I passed it on to my kids. Its strength comes from its strong characters and their interaction filled with twists and turns. If you never saw it, you are in for a treat of great performances.
Cultural reporter Sam Karnick provides some insights without giving the story away: http://theamericanculture.org/billy-wilders-witness-and-the-pleasures-of-genre-fiction/.