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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

style? forget it

A couple of days ago I was talking with my mother about writing. She was saying that one of the things she frets about while writing is how to say something--the issue of style.

I used to concern myself quite a lot with style, but I don't anymore. Or: not much, anyway. Now I believe that if, as a writer, you're focusing on style, you're directing attention at the wrong thing. It's a waste of time for at least two reasons:

1) the most important effects of creative writing are unrelated to style;

2) any style that is self-consciously "used" comes across as affected, which places an obstacle between the reader and the content of the work.

Now I associate "chosen" styles with commercial writing. I think back to writing for hire that I've done, such as a couple of small pieces for Vancouver magazine back in the 1980s. I wrote them in the snappy, breezy style that was the tone of that section of the magazine--and collected my (small) checks. It was perfectly good work, and I myself enjoyed reading that part of the magazine. But if I set out to write a novel in that style, it would be self-conscious and phony exercise (and possibly a work of "chick lit").

I'm no more happy when "serious" writers fool around with their writing style. To me, the work of, say, Ernest Hemingway comes across as affected. Maybe it wasn't; maybe that was his natural and spontaneous way of writing. But I don't think so. It reads, to me, like the work of someone trying to write a "special way" for effect--to impress, in some way.

I'm afraid I can't even exempt my literary idol, James Joyce. Much of Ulysses is a stylistic tour de force. But to the extent that it is such, I'm afraid it is not very powerful--not to me. Such tricks rely on the reader's education in understanding some abstract point or joke being made by the writer. There is then, presumably, a burst of detached, ironic amusement, or some such. Compared to what literature is capable of, this is an empty and arid experience.

I hold much more with E. B. White, who said that style is not something that a writer can really contrive; it is a natural expression of the totality of the writer's being. Your style arises from the sum of your personality, experience, and education. At the moment of writing, you can't change those things; they are what they are, as distinctive as your fingerprint. It's almost impossible to change--and why would you want to?

An excessive concern with style shows that the writer is either ignoring or taking for granted his subject-matter. But this is a bad idea. The first duty of the writer is to have something worthwhile to say. And the more important your subject, the less important the issue of style is. If you've witnessed a genocide and want to write about it, it would be foolish and narcissistic to fuss over your literary style, aiming for precious effects. You've got bigger fish to fry.

Aristotle, in his Poetics, devotes maybe 3 or 4 pages to "diction"--roughly the equivalent of style as I'm using the term here. The rest of the 40-odd pages he devotes to content: your story. That accords with the balance I would propose: spend 90% of your effort on story, or what you're writing, and 10% on style, or how you write it. No: make that 95% and 5%.

The tip I offered Mom was to write the way she might write down a vivid and important dream when pressed for time. If you've only got 10 minutes to write down your dream, how do you attack it? You're not sweating over the fine points of style; you've got something to say, and you've got to get it down--now. That way, you'll rely on your natural style, whatever it is. For better or for worse, it will be you.

I might boil it down thus: don't be clever; be honest and accurate.

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