Sunday, August 16, 2009

The Devastation of Style

I've been thinking the unthinkable.

Actually, I've been thinking of something that seems to be terribly unfashionable. The idea of literary style. Are there writers who are even bothered about this any more? Yet it is the one thing that is un-copyrightable, un-copyable, un-biddable. There are certainly some stylish writers out there, and certainly, as well, some writers, who are clearly in thrall to a certain type of style.

Our readers, though, what do they think? Do they even care any more? Clearly in the non-fiction world, it is a populiser like Malcolm Gladwell who can take certain ideas and make them fly, and style must come into this - must be a commodity with value. Writers as disparate as Nick Hornby, Philip Pullman and A.L. Kennedy have quite recognisable voices. Yet, style, seems to be of an altogether different quality. It is, primarily, I think, a literary aim. Something that is so unreachable, yet so accidentally reached at times, that once it grabs hold of a writer, there's little else that matters; plot, character, whatever. It is a gold standard.

I've read several bloggers and other comments, that have been highly critical of Salinger's "Catcher in the Rye." Salinger, that most effortlessly stylish of writers! It is not the adolescent Holden Caulfield, nor the "classic" status of the book that gets them, I'm sure. It's "style." Somehow it's an affront. Can't the book be "more" than this? Like an aesthete who insists on everything being perfect for a dinner party, a stylist is laughed at for his or her pretension, even, for caring about style.

Yet how many writers have big ideas? There is an innate conservatism about long fiction, in particular. It does not trailblaze as often as it looks back; as if fifty or so year of modernist experimentation, was enough, thank you, and can we have our Dickens back? (Dickens, of course, is best read not for his stories or his characters - great as they may be, they're sometimes too melodramatic for every taste - but for his style.)

What style does for a certain type of reader (and I'm one), is remain in the mind long after the deux ex machina of the novel itself. By this reading, "Lolita" can never be a dirty book; Lawrence's novels can never be overwrought; Fitzgerald cannot be dismissed as a flapper. Style elevates the prose writer to music, to art. (To poetry, as well, though that's a different, and complex debate.) It is why "The Good Soldier" stays in my mind as the finest novel I've read in the last couple of years, yet I'd find it hard to paraphrase the plot. It is why I'm reading Thomas Mann's lugubrious late novel "Doctor Faustus", slowly, with Alex Ross's "The Rest is Noise", and the history of the 20th century always at hand.

Also, and this is why style is overwhelming my thoughts at present, I realise that it is the subject that demands; it is the sensibility that demands. A pot boiler can be written with the ingredients to hand; a bigger subject (and aren't all subjects that are worth writing about, by necessity "bigger"?) requires a far subtler ingredients list. This is not about getting things always right. Lawrence is a prime example of lines and paragraphs that seem wrong on their own, but become essential when together; Fitzgerald was a dreadful speller (his editors fixed that one.) In translated fiction, style is everything - for the workmanlike story can be re-told; the stylish prose has to be re-worked.

For style is devastating, as well as invigorating. It makes writers do things for the sake of it; it makes writers do things beyond them; it makes writers choose the wrong projects for too long; and its unwinnable, as all mortal battles are. Yet, the Gods knew this, I think; immortality doesn't come without it.


Tim F said...

...and the new Dan Brown is out next month.

To paraphrase Arnold Bennett, is bad style better or worse than no style?

Adrian Slatcher said...

I shall take care not to mention the D-- B----- in any of these postings,