What is style?
To me, the easiest definition of style is pragmatic. It’s not from the viewpoint of the writer but from the viewpoint of the copyist: style as the recognisable-because-recurrent linguistic features that we’d copy if we were trying to pastiche or parody another’s writing. It’s the features of another writer’s prose you would use if you were trying to do something ‘in the style of X’. These could be techniques of paragraph construction like bathos (One long, convoluted, intricately articulated, perhaps pompous, sentence. Another long, convoluted, more intricately articulated, and perhaps pompous sentence. And yet another long and convoluted, even more intricately – indeed pointlessly – articulated and quite definitely pompous sentence. And then the fuckin punchline.). It could be a matter of sentence construction, where the writer consciously or unconsciously favours particular grammatical forms. It might just be individual words like ‘gibbous’.
I think this is where the idea of style as a patina comes from. The most notable stylistic features are technical – to do with syntax and lexicon – and so self-evident in the text; and that means a copyist can produce a fair simulation of another writer’s style by copying only these most obvious features of their writing. Because the similarities may be only “on the surface”, because the copyist’s prose style may achieve a purely formal sophistication by mimicking the original, while the corresponding thematic intricacy may be lacking because the complexity of the prose is… decorative rather than architectural… because of this, we often see style as purely composed of a sort of technical ‘finish’ to the prose. This sort of second-hand facsimile of another’s style can be, at its worst, like the difference between a Gothic cathedral and a Victorian Mock-Gothic folly. Style, to many, is mere ornamentation, a glossy polish or a crusty patina put on the story.
I think to some extent this type of copying may be part of the learning-to-write process. Writers starting out will often be heavily, *ahem*, influenced by a favourite author’s style. In other words, they (*ahem*, we) copy it. A healthy multiplicity of influences might give us a distinctive style in the pick’n’mix of tricks we’ve picked up from a wide range of reading; but we can still be using these devices more because we like them, because we see them working well in others, than because we actually understand the how and why of them. When we talk of writers having “found their own voice” I think this is just an attempt to distinguish a level of stylistic competency. Learning why the author(s) that influenced us actually used those features, understanding what functions the various tricks, tropes and techniques serve, we only then gradually start to use them consciously and deliberately (or maybe not-quite-consciously but at least purposefully) rather than as simple mannerisms that make our prose sophisticated.
Part of this maturity comes I think when we start to recognise deeper stylistic features of writing – character types, plot structures, recurrent themes. These may be less obvious than textual markers but they are often as much a part of an author’s idiosyncratic voice as anything else. These are stylistic features, I’d maintain. Certain characters are so identifiably Phildickian that Dick himself wrote A Maze Of Death as a deliberate attempt to kill them off, to widen his range. Peake’s use of the grotesque in characterisation is stylistic. Indeed, that type of characterisation is so deeply associated with another writer’s style that we call it ‘Dickensian’. Likewise we associate certain story forms with this or that writer. Asimov’s interest in crime fiction leads to his use of a particular plot structure with a mystery at its heart and a reveal at the end. Yes, we might prefer to differentiate low-level syntactic and lexical features from these higher-level constructions, to call the one ‘style’ and find some other term for the latter, but if paragraph structure can be stylistic then so can scene structure, I’d argue, so can plot structure, so can character structure.
I suspect that recognising those sort of macroscopic features goes hand-in-hand with understanding how language can be used best at the microscopic level. From seeing the mere surface details of gargoyles, rose windows and other Mock-Gothic fripperies we come to understand the layout of naves and chapels, the use of vaulted ceilings, the real core features of the Gothic architectural style. That’s when we actually begin to understand architecture in general. That’s when we begin to understand how stories work. That’s when, as I see it, the author is usually said to have ‘found their voice’.
But what is voice?
Voice in that sense strikes me more as a judgment of virtuosity than anything else, of stylistic individuality. A consistency and competency of style across the levels, skill in structuring the text at all levels. Of course, that voice changes between works and over time, adapting to suit different stories, different aesthetics. Some writers have vast range in their voice, will vary their style considerably from story to story, novel to novel. Others maintain a consistent style throughout their career. We could make a comparison with painters. Picasso’s work falls into different periods, the Blue Period being quite distinct from the archetypally Cubist works. Caravaggio’s distinctive use of chiaroscuro, on the other hand, is consistent throughout his work.
Actually, come to think of it, this painter example also helps illustrate my view of ‘style’ as more than just the low-level technicalities of how words are put together. With an artist like Van Gogh the brushtrokes are the key identifier of style. Thick, swirly, bold and broad, there’s a wildness to them that’s distinctly Van Gogh. But with Picasso’s Blue Period it is the tonal pallette that marks the style. With his Cubist work it is the structural technique. With Caravaggio it is the interplay of light and dark across the canvass. With these painters, the uniqueness of their style, their voice, is not simply a matter of brushstrokes. Similarly, I think literary style is not solely about the nitty-gritty of syntax and lexicon.
But back to voice.
Just to complicate things we use the term voice to relate to a number of different features of writing. The stylistic ‘voice’ of the writer is quite another thing, I’d argue, from ‘voice’ as we use it to denote the sense of a particular character-based viewpoint expressed in narrative. Joyce’s personal stylistic ‘voice’ permeates Ulysses. The narrative ‘voice’ of Molly Bloom that comes through in the closing pages of that book is a different type of voice entirely. It’s not a matter of ‘voice’ being one or the other; we just use the same term for two quite different things.
Voice in that latter sense, narrative voice rather than authorial voice, is an effect, I’d say, created by associating particular low-level stylistic features with particular viewpoints. For a cliched example, we only need to look at the clipped, staccato narrative of the stereotypical noir detective, the pastiche of pastiches of Chandler you get in a movie like Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid or in countless sub-Gibson cyberpunk novels. Rhythm of prose, lexical choices, syntactic structure and so on – all these stylistic features are used to create an attitude within the text itself to the events being narrated. It’s a sneaky surreptitious way to build character in the background rather than in the foreground, through descriptions of motivations and / or actions. In the interests of elucidation (and self-promotion) here’s two examples of my own attempts at narrative voice as a technique for building character, both from Vellum:
THICK WITH TREES AND THUNDERSTORMS
North Carolina, where the old 70 that runs from Hickory to Asheville cuts across the 225 running up from the South, from Spartanburg and beyond, up through the Blue Ridge Mountains and a land that’s thick with trees and thunderstorms. It’s on the map, but it’s a small town, or at least it looks it, hidden from the freeway, until you cut down past the sign that says Welcome To Marion, A Progressive Town, and gun your bike slow through the streets of the town centre with its thrift stores and pharmacy, fire department, town hall, the odd music store or specialist shop that’s yet to lose its market to the Wal-Mart just a short drive down the road.
She rides past the calm, brick-fronted architecture that’s still somewhere in the 1950’s, sleeping, waiting for a future that’s never going to happen, dreaming of a past that never really went away, out of the small town centre and onto a commercial strip of fast food restaurants and diners, a steak house and a Japanese, a derelict cinema sitting lonely in the middle of its own car park – all of these buildings just strung along the road like cheap plastic beads on a ragged necklace. She pulls off the road into a Hardee’s, switches off the engine and kicks down the bike-stand.
The burger tastes good – real meat in a thick, rough-shapen hunk, not some thin bland patty of processed gristle and fat – and she washes it down with deep sucking slurps of Mountain Dew, and twirls the straw in the cardboard bucket of a cup to rattle the ice as she looks out the window at the road, hot in the summer sun, humid and heavy. The sky is a brilliant blue, the blue of a Madonna’s robes, stretching up into forever, stretching –
– and she stands in front of the mirror in the washroom, leaning on the sink a second, dizzy with a sudden buzz, a hum, a song that ripples through her body like the air over a hot road shimmers in the sun. The Cant. Shit, she thinks. She must be getting close. She looks at the watch sitting up on top of the hand-dryer. The second hand flicks back and forth, random, sporadic, like one of those aeroplane instruments in a movie where the plane is going down in an electrical storm.
It’s August 4th, 2017. Sort of.
Steady again, she studies her eyes, black with mascara and with lack of sleep, and pushes her dark red hair back from her forehead. Even splashing more water on her face she still feels like a fucking zombie. Fucking zombie retro biker chick, she thinks. Beads in her hair, a beaded choker round her neck, a chicken-bone charm necklace over a gold circuit-patterned t-shirt. Shit, she looks like her fucking techno-hippy mother.
She picks up her watch and slips it over her wrist, reels out the earphones from the stick clipped to her belt and puts them in, clipping them into the booster sockets in her earrings so her lenses can pick up the video signals. The Sony VR5 logo flickers briefly across her vision as she shoulders her way out through the door, tapping at the datastick to switch it onto audio-only.
She doesn’t need a heads-up weather forecast with ghost images of clouds or sunbursts, or a Routefinder sprite floating at every turn-off to point her this way or that. Not today.
She grabs her helmet from the handlebar of the bike and puts it on as she swings her leg up over the seat, flicks up the stand, zips up her leather biker jacket, kicks the engine into life.
The antique creature of steel and chrome growls between her legs, and another antique creature – one of leather and vinyl – screams in her ears.
– Looooooooooooooord! howls Iggy Pop, and the murderous guitar of the Stooges’ TV Eye kicks in, as Phreedom Messenger opens up the throttle on the bike and roars out of her pit-stop on the way to hell.
YELLOW PAPER AND BROWN PENCIL LINES
– Tommy boy, sometimes ye talk as much rot as I’ve got between me toes here. Sure and I don’t know what ye’re on about half the time.
Seamus looks at the small sketchbook that the boy treasures more than anything, more than any of them treasure anything, he thinks sometimes, more even than all the tattered, battered photographs of sweethearts and mothers, and the lockets, and the father’s watches, and all the decks of playing cards with the nudie women on them and all; and he thinks the boy’s daft, so he does, but, in a way, he understands. Seamus looks at the drawings that the boy spent so much time on, so much care, last month on leave in Lascaux when he could have been whoring it with all the rest of them, whooping it up, sure, the way a boy his age stuck in this shite to fight for someone else’s King and Country should be; and all that Seamus sees when he looks at the little sketchbook is yellow paper and brown pencil lines. But Tommy now…
Tommy reaches over and takes the book out of his hands, shaking his head.
– Ah, you’ve got no soul, Seamus, no soul.
But the boy is blushing shame even as he tries to play the old game of young lads, sure, they way they bandy abuse about but with a twinkle in the eye and a nudge of the elbow, because, aye now, ye know I don’t really mean it. The boy can’t really carry it off – too shy, he is, and too much of a young gent even if he wasn’t quite born with a silver spoon in his gob, not that he comes on all Lord Muck-a-Muck, like. He’s just… ach, he’s just a good lad what misses his mother and his home like the rest of them, only he shows it more. O, but he gets a right roasting from the other lads of the pal’s battalion sometimes, he does, just like he got back home, and where would he be without Seamus sticking up for him, as ever?
Seamus wanders over towards the door of the dug-out where, apart from the mud and the mud and the fookin more mud, ye can just see a wee blue hint of sky up there, if ye’re hunkered down a bit so ye’re looking up at the right angle, sure, which ye are anyways on account of the fookin low ceilings. He reaches into the inside pocket of his jacket to pull out a cigarette from the crumpled packet of Gauloise in there – fookin nasty shite that they are, but what’s a man to do when he’s smoked all of his and the quartermaster’s as crooked as a British politician, sure, and he’s just putting it to his mouth-
– Jesus Fookin Christ!
Tommy’s howling like a fookin wean and it’s fookin dark but Seamus can feel the fookin dirt raining down on him.
– Jesus Fookin Mary and Fookin Joseph! Fooken shite! Fookin Hun fookin bastards! Seamus is down on the ground, hands over his head – Christ, and he wasn’t even wearing his helmet – and he doesn’t even fookin remember diving down there, but he’s sure as fook happy to be there and he’ll just stay right where he is for the time be, thank you very much, ma’am, and…
– Jesus. Tommy are ye alright there? Ye’re not hit or nothing, are ye?
The boy’s panting like a dog, gasping for air like he’s fookin drowning, sitting there, just right there at Seamus’s elbow, with his arms wrapped round his knees and his teeth biting into his trousers, panting and kind of whining like a sick animal; and as Seamus touches his knee, he flinches.
He looks at Seamus like he’s looking right through him, eyes wide, nostrils flared, seeing and scenting his own golden, pouncing death.
Some writers are big on this type of voice. Others maintain a distance from their characters, investing an omniscient narrator with a distinct voice – like humourists, for example, suffusing their narrative with the arch attitude of an after-dinner spinner of anecdotes and tall tales – or simply keeping the prose impersonal, devoid of attitude. It should be fairly obvious from the above excerpts where my sympathies lie. It’s not the only way of building character by any means, but it’s a technique I like on the “show don’t tell” principle. It short-circuits the need for any explication of motivations and does not depend on the reader decrypting the underlying psychology of a character’s actions. Instead the narrative becomes a sort of running commentary on itself, told as the viewpoint character might phrase it were they actually telling the story… communicating their attitude to the situation implicitly – ‘mud and mud and fookin more mud’.
But we do have to distinguish the stylistic voice from the narrative voice. There are other features in those excerpts that are entirely to do with my own stylistic voice rather than the narrative voices. The punch paragraph – “It’s August 4th, 2017. Sort of.” – which ends the third section of the first excerpt, for example, is a stylistic technique I probably overuse because I like the kick it gives. I’ve no idea if there’s a technical term for it but it’s quite definitely a syntactic technique. As I say, it’s probably one I’m rather too fond of but because of that it’s an identifiable feature of my ‘style’. Which brings us back to stylistic voice and style in general. Style as patina.
Having developed an individual voice as a writer – our own set of recognisable-because-recurrent linguistic features – of course, it’s then entirely possible for a reader, a copyist, or a critic to superficially recognise the individuality of that voice, picking out these characteristic features but entirely failing to see the how and why of those features, the way they are integral to the articulation of the plots and themes and characters. The way this is often expressed involves a separation of style from content or ‘substance’… that substance being seen as a distinct (or even absent) thing in its own right. The suspicion that stylistic tricks and techniques are being used as mere mannerisms leads to the use of words like ‘stylist’ as derogatory terms, the implication being that while the writer has a compelling voice they actually have nothing to say, or that what they have to say is basically uninteresting.
I can understand that attitude to some extent because I think it’s possible to develop the technical craftsmanship to fluently articulate character, plot and theme through a distinctly individual and quite accomplished stylistic voice, but have huge intellectual and imaginative blind spots when it comes to human beings and how they interact. Characters do not ring true, plots feel contrived and artificial, themes obvious and banal. The writer is ‘a mere stylist’. There is no substance to their work, no meat to get one’s teeth into, merely the puff pastry of fancy prose. But this is not really a matter of ‘style over substance’, I feel; that exterior packaging / interior content is an inappropriate metaphor.
I’m wary of talking about ‘style over substance’, you see, of assuming that the fault lies in a misguided concentration on achieving surface sheen at the expense of ‘substance’. Language is the substance of a story. If anything is substantive in a text it is the language. And whether copied en masse from another’s style, cobbled together in an amalgam of influences, or articulated consistently in a personal voice, the linguistic tricks, tropes and techniques which make up the prose are not just some pretty skin; these are the very cells which constitute the bones and the muscles of the writing. As I say, the macroscopic structures of plot, theme and character are as much stylistic features as any more low-level linguistic construct. If these are weak, badly constructed, artificial, it’s not a lack of substance; it’s a lack, I’d say, of shape. What is missing, really, is a sort of… representational pay-off. When we talk of a lack of substance, of content, we seem to mean that there’s no observation or insight offered, no emotional or intellectual picture of sorts. Whether we’re looking for information or entertainment in the interplay of interesting characters in interesting situations, we feel that we haven’t got it, so we talk about there being nothing inside or underneath the surface of the text.
In fact, if anything is an illusory surface, a mere matter of appearances, I’d argue, it is those very things we tend to differentiate as substance. Plots, themes and characters are tricks of smoke and mirrors produced by the real substance of text, the language in its nuts-and-bolts technicality. When we reduce a story’s complex structure to shallow, sketchy generalities and thumbnail overviews aren’t we putting a superficial gloss on it? It’s a heist story. It’s about grief. She’s a feisty young tomboy with a biker’s attitude. When we talk about a lack of content in terms of plot, character or theme, aren’t we actually just saying that the writing doesn’t pay off for us by producing the required epiphenomena of the reading experience, the ups and downs, thrills and chills, intellectual and sensational, the whole structure of tension and resolutions? But those epiphenomena are not content but projections, not the substance of the text but products of it. Ghosts in the machine.
Of course, the more linguistically complex the prose, the more opaque it can become for many readers who prefer their prose pared-down for a pacier narrative, and the less likely they then are to find that pay-off. This seems to be when you get the label stylist applied, an accusation of ponciness and pointlessness, I think, underlying that label. Sometimes this is fair, I suspect. When we dismiss writers as stylists, implicitly dismissing style as a superficial (and therefore perhaps superfluous) quality – a surface sheen – it can be down to a failure on the writer’s part to cater to those expectations, an inability to do the job. But it might also be a deliberate choice, a rejection of conventional aesthetics, conventional approaches to representation. Fantastic fiction has been, I think, for maybe fifty years or so, the hide-out of latter-day Modernists, writers concerned with surrealism and abstraction, alternative aesthetics which may well seek to directly challenge realist preconceptions of what art is supposed to do, how it is supposed to work. Fucking with character and plot, frustrating expectations of closure, they end up producing works which defy easy interpretation and which simply make no sense to many readers, just as Picasso and Kandinsky and Mondrian leave many viewers asking themselves but what’s it meant to be?
Modernism is not everyone’s cup of tea, to put it mildly. Some react to it with absolute vitriol, despising it as pretentious, pointless, meaningless garbage, an empty artifice, mistaking its unconventional approach to representation as an actual absence of subject matter, an absence of this figmentary substance. I think at times though, this can be a failure or a refusal on the reader’s part to recognise what’s on offer; we might blithely miss the point that’s as clear as glass to someone else, or we might just be so irritated by what we consider gratuitous complexity and artifice that we cannot see past that damned style… and so we refuse to accept that there could be anything underneath that damned style.
But Picasso’s Guernica, to take one example, is anything but an empty artifice. To me, Guernica is a perfect illustration of the power of Modernism. There’s no empathic photorealist portrait of the victims of war here, no conventional perspective of foreground, middle-ground and background used to show the destruction of a whole town. The Cubist approach, the Cubist style adopted here involves a deliberate fragmentation of perspective, an approach to figurative representation which owes more to cave-painting than to realism. And that fragmentation and primitivism could not be more sympatico with the subject matter; that style, that approach, is the very substance of the painting. And it’s a fucking powerful painting as far as I’m concerned. I can understand, I guess, why many get their hackles up when they stand in front of a late Mondrian and, seeing only black lines and coloured squares on a white background, think What the fuck is this? But most Modernist fiction is more akin to Guernica, strange and unconventional perhaps, fragmenting character and plot as Picasso fragments space, but doing so for aesthetically valid reasons and doing so in ways that are not that obscure and opaque, not that inscrutable if we give it half a chance.
In the end, I think I’m wary of the whole idea of style as surface sheen because, I have to admit, I’m a Modernist myself, out to fuck with exactly those things we artificially, I feel, label as ‘substance’. I’m suspicious of those ghosts in the machine; implicitly preferenced by that idea of packaging and content, the idea seems to be that these aethereal products are what really matters, and I’m not convinced that people are like characters, that our lives have plots, that it’s the writer’s job to offer Aha! moments for the intellect or Wow! moments for the imagination. While I want the reader to get their kicks from my work in fairly conventional terms, to get that intellectual and sensational satisfaction, I’m suspicious of any suggestion that the purpose of writing is to inform and entertain, that the linguistic craftsmanship is just wrapping paper for an exciting package of insight and excitement. Insights are ten-a-penny and excitement can be bread-and-circuses. Writing is not about playing the preacher or the performing seal, as far as I’m concerned. The blow-hards and the hacks are just as phony as the ‘stylist’, seeming trustworthy in their humble, no-frills style, but selling platitudes and banalities as wisdom or tits and ass as entertainment. Smoke and mirrors, I say. We can call it content but it’s just cotton candy.
No. I think style gets an unjustly bad ride when we try to justify writing as a sort of infotainment. I think the process of representation and abstraction has its own value. The actual words-on-page writing are the key product, not just a slick packaging around some inner meaning, some essentialist content, some insubstantial substance. Style isn’t just some snake-oil salesman revivalist barker standing outside a circus tent, trying to smooth-talk us in to a sermon-cum-sideshow where we might learn Important Truths or see Astounding Sights… or where we might just be rooked, having followed the sign to the Egress and ended up outside with nothing to show for it (damn that slippery-tongued style!). There is no tent of hidden mysteries, no snake-oil substance on sale, just the barker himself as showman, selling his routine. The craftsmanship of that routine, how well constructed it is on both macroscopic and microscopic level, is what matters most to me. To separate the surface features of a writer’s style out from deeper, more embedded structures which are also integral aspects of that writer’s style, to call only those most low-level syntactic and lexical features ‘style’ and see that as a sort of finish – something perhaps not really necessary to the story – is, I think, a mistake, an artificial differentiation of the whole aesthetic product.
But then I am a Modernist. I would say that, wouldn’t I?
Hal Duncan is a sodomitic Scots smoker who staggered drunkenly into the SF Café in 2005 with his debut, VELLUM, and now has various novels, novellas, short stories, poems and essays circling in print or the aether. Further scribblings and rantings can be found at www.halduncan.com.