The Ditchwalk Book Club is reading and discussing Rust Hills’ seminal work, Writing in General and the Short Story in Particular. Announcement here. Overview here. Tag here.
Style can be thought of in two ways: as an aspect of fiction and as a technique. When I talk about style as an aspect of fiction I tend to use the word voice — which Hills recognizes as synonymous in that context:
To some extent, obviously, theme and tone and style — as well as “voice” and “vision” and “world view” and so on — all overlap one another so much in meaning that they can be thought of as all meaning pretty much the same thing.
Voice (style) to me is inherent. To speak of Hemingway’s voice or Fitzgerald’s is to speak of the way they wrote apart from what they wrote; their distinctive use of language and phrasing. Voice in that sense passively reveals something of the author, in the same way that a person’s accent or speaking cadence may affect how you perceive them no matter what they are talking about.
I don’t think authors should try to manage or shape their voice. I think it should evolve organically as a writer learns to tell stories. There is always some mimicry in any author’s early writing — an inevitable influence either by passive preference or intentional emulation — but over time such affectations tend to fade. Writers establish a voice not in the way retailers establish a brand, but in the way friends establish trust. Voice (style) is organic in that sense, and I think it should be.
Because style is perceptible and can be consciously manipulated, however, it also meets the definition of a technique. Hills himself refers to it that way several times in this section:
But even if “style” is limited strictly to elements of the author’s language it is still a most significant aspect of fiction technique.
I don’t disagree with this, but it’s worth noting that the examples Hills gives all seem to reference not the intentional use of style as a technique, but the influence of a particular author’s voice (style) on their fiction technique. Hemingway preferred short sentences and Faulkner preferred long sentences, and those preferences are clearly a matter of style, but that aspect is consistent across all of their works. In order to demonstrate style as a technique one would ideally point to an author who radically changed the length of sentences from story to story in order to achieve specific narrative effects. I don’t think Hemingway or Faulkner ever did that.
Style is significant because it has an effect that can be observed and demonstrated. Because anything that can be observed can be commented upon, authors with a particularly interesting or affecting style will often get feedback about that aspect of their work. That, in turn, further draws authorial attention to issues of style — including aspects of voice the author may have been oblivious to while writing by themselves.
This creeping awareness presents a potential problem. Rather than focusing attention on what a writer has to say, style focuses attention on how a writer says it. Rather than facilitating transparency and suspension of disbelief, style has a habit of drawing attention to itself and by extension to the author. Words intended to cast or maintain a spell on the reader suddenly start demanding attention themselves. Language as text begins to compete with story as text.
We all like a clever or evocative turn of phrase. We all like the “originality of utterance” that Hills talks about, and that quality seems routinely apparent in great writers. But there’s more than a little truth to the age-old editing advice that authors should “kill all their darlings,” and style as a technique tends to emphasize darlings.
There are professions, of course, where style is necessary. If you’re a magician, style as a technique is critical to your ability to distract an audience at craft-critical times, as well as your ability to entertain over the course of an hour or two. If you’re a fashion designer style is your whole life: other than thread and fabric you have, literally, nothing else to offer. Style in fiction (and non-fiction), however, can be toxic and corrupting because its effects often run counter to the intent of the craft.
I openly acknowledge that I have bias in this regard. Across all mediums I am generally less interested in stylists than craftspeople. To continue the fashion metaphor, I want pants that will last a long time and fit me comfortably, not a trendy pair that will be out of style in a month and physically punish me the entire time. I prefer to live in a form-follows-function world, and to my mind style is not function.
And yet even as I say that I know I’m objectively wrong. As with fashion and the greater garment industry, there is and always will be a market for stylists in literature. While I care about story first, there are plenty of people who pine for authorial darlings, and the more darlings the better.
Authors are not oblivious to this reality. In fact, I think the temptation to treat style as a technique probably begins very early for some writers, for reasons that are understandable. Every aspect of technique that Hills talks about in his book requires a deep appreciation for the intricacies of fiction. Learning the craft of storytelling takes time in the same way that mastering wood-working or a musical instrument takes time. Style doesn’t take time.
You may write a ponderous, wandering story the first time out, but somewhere in all those shaky words will probably be a solid sentence or affecting turn of phrase. When you get feedback on that story your readers may not understand why the story didn’t resonate, but some of them will probably notice that glistening passage. If they’re not otherwise sure what to say — perhaps because of their own lack of craft knowledge — or they prefer to say something positive, your stylistic bright spot will probably garner mention.
Because most feedback is shallow, and most readers are not masters of craft themselves, the likelihood that any author will be told that a certain sentence or turn of phrase was effective is quite high. If what that author cares about most is attention or positive feedback, the likelihood is also quite high that the next story from that author will contain more passages of stylistic interest. Over time, this kind of iterative, ratings-driven feedback can corrupt an author’s native voice by turning style not into a narrative technique, but an affectation. (Aspiring to regionalism carries the same risk for the same reason.)
In my own writing journey the mere possibility that I might be seduced by the easy appeal of style led me to conclude early on that I never wanted to think of style as a technique. Like aspiring to art, I decided to leave the detection of style in my work to others. I won’t say I’m blind to the occasional entertaining turn of phrase when it flows improbably from my fumbling fingers, but I try to let such things happen naturally as opposed to engineering them. (Still, if anything stands proud of the rest of the work — if something is, indeed, a darling — it gets the axe. No exceptions.)
So how did I get to a place in my own head where I could consciously ignore style as a technique even as I wrote and rewrote and edited and revised? By focusing on craft. In order to determine whether something is a darling you have to consider it in context. The question isn’t whether it’s good or not, the question is whether it detracts from or aids your overall literary goal. If something you write is wonderful in itself, but has no inherent relationship to the rest of the work — if it stands apart, rather than working harmoniously, as Hills constantly advocates — then by definition the only criterion by which it succeeds is style.
Having said all that, if what you’re most interested in as an author is developing a following by any means available, I think the case can be made that being a stylist is the least-demanding and perhaps most effective way of doing so. (If anything, I think the internet age actually favors style over substance.) The downside, of course, is that flexing your biceps does very little to increase lung function. You may end up looking good in a t-shirt, but all those curls won’t help you run a marathon. Likewise, writing pithy tweets or ultra-cool hipster takes on current events may play well with white-collar readers trapped in brain-dead jobs, but it probably won’t help you learn the craft that goes into writing a novel, or even a well-wrought short story.
If you care about depth of effect, or being relevant fifty years from now, I think you should be suspicious of style as a technique. Offhand I can’t think of any great writers that I think of as stylists first. All great writers have distinctive styles — meaning their voice is recognizable and unique — but storytelling remains the focus of their work. If you follow their lead and stay focused on storytelling, style will take care of itself. If you focus on style that’s probably all you’ll end up with.
Next up: Theme.
— Mark Barrett
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