Tuesday, 1 October 2019

Style and substance


Style's often the first thing you notice about a person or a book. Sometimes it's the only thing. But shouldn't content always be the priority? That's the issue we're going to investigate this evening. We'll look at what happens when you try to add or take away style. We'll look at some examples that experts love, and some they hate. We'll probably not agree with the experts or each other. After the break we'll assess how well style and content interact in some examples.

This is going to be a prose evening, but I'd like to start briefly with poetry. At its most simplistic, poets have a style vs content issue whenever they choose a word that fits the rhyme scheme rather than one that communicates best. But of course it goes deeper than that. Here's what a poet wrote in an introduction to one of his books where he was trying to focus on content -

"They who have been accustomed to the gaudiness and inane phraseology of many modern writers, if they persist in reading this book ... will, no doubt, ... look round for poetry, and ... inquire by what species of courtesy these attempts can be permitted to assume that title"

i.e., he was worried that removing the style might make readers think that there's not much poetry left. The poet? Yes, Wordsworth. Coleridge didn't agree with his approach. The style/content debate is still raging in the poetry world. But what about prose? Does the same apply?

Many years after Wordsworth, in 1953, "Degree Zero" was published in which Roland Barthes praised the work of writers who "create a colourless writing, freed from all bondage to a pre-ordained state of language". Barthes credits Albert Camus (in particular, "The Stranger") with the initiation of this "transparent form of speech". In England, George Orwell's writing is often proposed as a model of plain language.

Later still, in 2010, David Shields published "Reality Hunger" which suggested that literary conventions have become so ingrained that we've forgotten how contrived novels - even Camus' novels - are. "I don’t think the literary novel is dead," he wrote, "I think it’s undead." Like Shields, award winning Rachel Cusk believes that traditional fiction is broken; she seems to long for an alternative that is wholly without artifice, dispensing with every convention she can think of: plot, dialogue, interiority. But does it work?

Spoiler Alert - It all depends!

First let's see if we can write like George Orwell

Exercise 1 - Effective Writing

Here are Orwell's guidelines -

  • Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  • Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  • If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  • Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  • Never use the passive where you can use the active.

Orwellise these -

  • she abhorred all concealment where no real disgrace could attend unreserve; and to aim at the restraint of sentiments which were not in themselves illaudible appeared to her not merely an unnecessary effort but a disgraceful subjection of reason to commonplace and mistaken notions.
  • I am too old to look good in a bikini and I have not, across the years, paid enough attention to looking good in a bikini for me to look good in a bikini. But, even when young, I never paid enough attention to looking good in a bikini
  • It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.
  • 'Get down!' said Bond sharply, and threw himself sideways off the bed as the big eye of a searchlight in one of the black windows blazed on, swerving up the street towards their block and their room. Then gunfire crashed and the bullets howled into their window, ripping the curtains, smashing the woodwork, thudding into the walls.
    Behind the roar and zing of the bullets, Bond heard the Opel race off down the street.

Notes: Sense and Sensibility, Jane Austen; Joanna Walsh; A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens, "The Living Daylights" (Fleming) - all stylists. Do any have dominating features? Which were easiest to Orwellise? Does style ever get in the way of the action? What makes texts "difficult"? When Oprah Winfrey phoned Toni Morrison to say that she had had to puzzle over many of the latter's sentences, Morrison's reply was "That, my dear, is called reading."

What is style?

In a sense, what you did in the previous exercise is cool the language down to degree zero, so what you removed was the style. What terms can we use to describe style? Can we break style down into its components? Here's one list of features -

  • Diction: the style of the author’s word choice
  • Sentence length/structure: the way words are arranged in a sentence
  • Tone: the mood of the story; the feeling or attitude a work creates
  • Narrator: the person telling the story and the point-of-view it is told in
  • Grammar and the use of punctuation
  • Creative devices like symbolism, allegory, metaphor, rhyme, and so on

Literary Stylistics is a more formal way to analyse style using more measurable features and longer words. It's like the Rhetoric they taught in Medieval Universities, but with more numbers. I'll test you on 2 terms - "Pronominalisation"?; "under-lexicalisation"? If you like numbers you might want to try MS Word's readability feature. You enable it by accessing the "File menu > Options > Proofing" tab, then under the “When correcting spelling and grammar in Word” heading, you’ll see a box that says “Show readability statistics”. LibreOffice used to have an extension which did the same thing and more. The Flesch reading-ease score (FRES) for the Austen fragment is 2.5 (reading age 30!). For the Fleming piece it's 72 (reading age 14). On the web I've put a little Python 3 program that gives basic statistics - see http://www2.eng.cam.ac.uk/~tpl/pythontextcheck.py (but you'll need to be a programmer to use it)

In stylistics they've identified four purposes of style -

  • Embellishment - ornamental: "The man sat heavily, like a bean-bag being dropped"
  • Self-reference - focusing the reader's attention to the language: "You've grown. That gown you own looks good on you"
  • Representation - Re-enforces the content: "The sad man moaned"
  • Manner - Displaying an author's characteristic style, their choice between similar options: "For a fat man he could sure run fast" or "He could run fast despite his weight"

The Bond example above was short on Embellishment and Self-reference. It used Representation - short clauses, with crashing, howling, ripping and zinging.

Now that we know more about style let's look at some other examples -

Exercise 2 - What is style?

Use any of these these factors -

  • Diction: the style of the author’s word choice
  • Sentence length/structure: the way words are arranged in a sentence
  • Tone: the mood of the story; the feeling or attitude a work creates
  • Narrator: the person telling the story and the point-of-view it is told in
  • Grammar and the use of punctuation
  • Creative devices like symbolism, allegory, metaphor, rhyme, and so on

as a way to describe the styles used below. Is there anything that's mere embellishment, or words that draw attention to themselves?

  • Through the fence, between the curly flower spaces, I could see them hitting. They were coming towards where the flag was and I went along the fence. Luster was hunting in the grass by the flower tree. They took the flag out and they were hitting. Then they put the flag back and they went to the table, and he hit and the other hit.
  • One Christmas was so much like another, in those years, around the sea-town corner now, and out of all sound except the distant speaking of the voices I sometimes hear a moment before sleep, that I can never remember whether it snowed for six days and six nights when I was twelve or whether it snowed for twelve days and twelve nights when I was six; or whether the ice broke and the skating grocer vanished like a snowman through a white trap-door on that same Christmas Day that the mince-pies finished Uncle Arnold and we tobogganed down the seaward hill, all the afternoon, on the best tea-tray, and Mrs. Griffiths complained, and we threw a snowball at her niece, and my hands burned so, with the heat and the cold, when I held them in front of the fire, that I cried for twenty minutes and then had some jelly.

Notes: William Faulkner (The Sound and the Fury) (limited vocabulary, few transitives - show not tell); Dylan Thomas (Memories of Christmas (1945)). Compare/contrast. Which narrator do you like most?

What is good style? What is style good for?

Having done some measuring, let's now be more judgemental.

  • Invisible/Ostentatious - I read on the web that "The secret of good style is to say what you have to say as simply and directly as possible". I don't really believe that. I think Orwell's way of writing is a style that's good for some purposes but not others. It isn't "natural", it's just another convention - such a common one outside of literature that we barely notice how contrived it is. There are other models of naturalness - the "slice-of-life" anecdotes of Anton Chekhov or the intense "hyperrealism" of Raymond Carver for example. Some might say that folk tales and legends are more natural. After all, in Art, realism was a late arrival. Perhaps Orwell's is a sophisticated and limited style.
    Sometimes readers want the style to be invisible. They want to be immersed in the world of the story. Any reminder that the story's made of words destroys the illusion (like watching a film about the Bible and seeing a microphone boom dip into the frame).
    But there's something to be said for ostentatious style - at least you'll be noticed. In one writing guide I read that "Creating and refining your own unique style of writing is important, particularly in the modern Internet age, where a high content turnover means readers are constantly in pursuit of something original and clever."
  • Literary/Non-literary - Styles have pros and cons, literary style especially so. On the one hand stylish prose is considered to be "literary fiction" and in some quarters is considered worthier of respectful attention than even the best-written thriller or romance. On the other hand, audiences want a good read. Agents do too - Lizzy Kremer (Head of the Books department at David Higham Associates) in a festival programme wrote that her "taste is for totally credible, emotionally involving narrative where story and place take precedence over style."

Fortunately your unique style needn't be quirky or ostentatious. Let's investigate a quieter style -

Exercise 3 - James Salter

The much admired George Saunders wrote an obituary article admiring the style of James Salter. He liked the sentence "Lights were appearing in parts of distant houses". He said "I don't know why" adding that a lesser writer might just have said "Lights were appearing in distant houses".

He quoted the passage below as an exemplar of style, saying "Its beauties are many but they're irreducible. They have to do, yeah, with rhythm, with strategic omission, with the great sympathetic human heart present behind the writing ... How did he do it? I have no idea."

See if you can list these beauties in the categories Saunders suggested. Perhaps you might want to focus on one category - "rhythm", "strategic omission", or "sympathetic human heart".

Finally we emerge at the roaring iron galleries where meat is handled. It's like coming upon a factory in the darkness. The overhead lights are blazing. The smell of carnage is everywhere. The very metal reeks with an odor denser than flowers. On the side-walk there are wheelbarrows of slaughtered heads. We stare down at the dumb victims. There are scores of them. The mouths are pink, the nostrils still moist. Warm knives with the edge of a razor have flensed them while their eyes were still fluttering, the huge, eloquent eyes of young calves. The bloody arms of the workers sketch quickly. Wherever they move, the skin magically parts, the warm insides pour out. Everything is swiftly divided.

One way people view literature is that language is the barrier between the things in the author's head and the readers' understanding. Some people think that if that barrier can't be removed, at least it could be a transparent window (like Orwell's style, I suppose). That's one model of how things work. Paul Valery on the other hand thought that "If what has happened in the one person were communicated directly to the other, all art would collapse, all the effects of art would disappear" and I tend to agree.

Continuing that analogy, some writers (poets especially) seem to create stained glass windows so dense you can barely see anything through it. Stained glass windows are pretty in their own right, but in literature (well, prose anyway), readers often prefer clear glass. But how clear is that glass really?


We'll investigate another style now, this time a style many of us share even if we don't realise it - the literary style. What do I mean by that? I mean what happens to people and events when they're put into stories.

Exercise 4 - Literary Content

Last year I read Lisa Appignanesi's "The Good Woman". When I tried to guess what would happen next I realised I was guessing using my experience of reading novels, not my experience of living life. Novels are made up. Thrillers follow one set of conventions, Romantic fiction another. Each have expectations of style.

What things happen commonly in novels but rarely in reality? And vice-versa? This is an Open-ended exercise, maybe difficult, so work in pairs if you want. Not language quirks, just plot and character issues.

Notes - In real life: a character suddenly disappears, 2 characters with the same name, Checkhov's gun not used, Loose ends (Barthes' Reality Effect), boring phases. In Literature: Tidy plots, Tidy endings, Murder. Hayden White coined the word "emplotment" to describe how, even in non-fiction, we twist events into masterplots - "rags to riches", etc

These conventions are often recommended in writing guides. Writers use them because they work, they're reliable. But they are expendable. It's not just the events that are literalised, it's the language.

Exercise 5 - Literary Language

List language that's in literature but not in life.

Notes - (Dialog: "he retorted", no plans/pictures). If someone asks me what my holiday in Venice was like, the odds are I'd get out my phone and show them pictures rather than use words. Rather than describe his house and how someone talked, David Eggers included a stave and a floor-plan in his book

Earlier I suggested that

      substance -> stylewindow -> reader

I think it's often worse than that - there are two windows

      Reality -> literisingwindow -> Literature -> stylewindow -> Reader

My guess is that Barthes wanted to smash the stylewindow and Shields wants to smash the literisingwindow. But if you get rid of both style and literalising, will anyone be interested in reading what's left? We're back to Wordsworth's concerns. Let's see if we can exploit style rather than discard it.

Adding style

In the first exercise we tried to reduce style. Let's see what happens when we try to turn on the style.

Exercise 6 - Mixed metaphor danger

When writers try to be more stylish they sometimes add loads of similes and metaphors, perhaps relying more on barrages of hit-and-miss verbiage than on careful use of just the right words. Here's the start of "The Half-Skinned Steer" by Annie Proulx -

In the long unfurling of his life, from tight-wound kid hustler in a wool suit riding the train out of Cheyenne to geriatric limper in this spooled-out year, Mero had kicked down thoughts of the place where he began, a so-called ranch on strange ground at the south hinge of the Big Horns.

B. R. Myers says "Like so much modern prose, this demands to be read quickly, with just enough attention to register the bold use of words. Slow down, and things fall apart."

Do you agree with that judgement? Are the examples below any better?

  • "a brassy light slaps the leaves awake" - C.G. Menon
  • "The verandah gate opens and a bearded fleet of uncles and uncles-by-marriage begin to steam up like full-bellied sailing ships" - C.G. Menon
  • "Market women trudged across it with baskets balanced on their heads and worries nailed to their feet, while schoolboys skimmed back and forth in ragged clumps like swallows" - C.G. Menon
  • "Furious dabs of tulips stuttering in gardens." - Proulx
  • "An apron of sound lapped out of each dive." - Proulx
  • "The ice mass leaned as though to admire its reflection in the waves, leaned until the southern tower was at the angle of a pencil in a writing hand, the northern tower reared over it like a lover." - Proulx
  • "The children rushed at Quoyle, gripped him as a falling man clutches the window ledge, as a stream of electric particles arcs a gap and completes a circuit." - Proulx
  • "While inside the vaulting of the ribs between his knees the darkly meated heart pumped of who's will and the blood pulsed and the bowels shifted in their massive blue convolutions of who's will and the stout thighbones and knee and cannon and the tendons like flaxen hawsers that drew and flexed and drew and flexed at their articulations of who's will all sheathed and muffled in the flesh and the hooves that stove wells in the morning groundmist and the head turning side to side and the great slavering keyboard of his teeth and the hot globes of his eyes where the world burned." - McCarthy (All the Pretty Horses, 1992)

Notes - Of Proulx' extract, Myers wrote that she "seems to have intended a unified conceit, but unfurling, or spreading out, as of a flag or an umbrella, clashes disastrously with the images of thread that follow. (Maybe "unraveling" didn't sound fancy enough.) A life is unfurled, a hustler is wound tight, a year is spooled out, and still the metaphors continue, with kicked down - which might work in less crowded surroundings, though I doubt it - and hinge." Of McCarthy's, Myers wrote that "it's really just bad poetry formatted to exploit the lenient standards of modern prose".

Getting the balance right?

Some writers hope that readers will get so caught up with the action that they won't notice the lack of style (Jeffrey Archer?). Others write such elegant prose that it doesn't matter if nothing much happens (Proust? Julian Barnes?). But surely style and content can fuse successfully. Helen Lederer wrote this about Muriel Spark - "The author's attitude is all contained within the style, so the reader knows exactly what she's thinking without being told." Even if they don't fuse, they can cooperate - for example, the style can help emphasise aspects of the content.

Let's try to assess how well style and content interact.

Exercise 7 - Style and Content working together?

In ski jumping, diving etc there are marks for both what you do and how you do it. Let's suppose that there's a similar scheme for writing. Give each passage below a mark out of 5 for Content (is it informative?) and a mark out of 5 for Style (try to describe it). Then (and this is the tricky bit) give a total. If the style and content are amazing, enhancing each other, the total might be more than the sum of the parts. If the style detracts from content the total will be a lot less than the sum of the parts.

Whatif she be in flags or flitters, reekierags or sundyechosies, with a mint of mines or beggar a pinnyweight. Arrah, sure, we all love little Anny Ruiny, or, we mean to say, lovelittle Anna Rayiny, when unda her brella, mid piddle med puddle, she ninnygoes nannygoes nancing by.
Nor did the severity of the winters deter me. They would be hard, I knew; not casually hard, as the tedium of January in southern England is hard, with its mud and drizzle and skies like sodden newsprint, but a force in opposition, a way of being rather than a backdrop; and consequently their survival would confer the certainty of great courage, persistence and inner strength.
Stung by the crisp wind I feel the fish’s pain, I cannot breath. This time, this year, I don’t have that hand to hold. Usually I can use my paints to distract from this feeling but now they threaten me for all I am.
Varieties of warm colors fill my palette but none match the color of his eyes, the sound of his laughter, and the love in his voice. Warmth, comfort, security, I need it all.
Xarthic skies overhead cast dark shadows on the lonely creek bed. You are supposed to be here next to me. Zealous lover this clear air is not breathable without you.
In the late summer of that year we lived in a house in a village that looked across the river and the plain to the mountains. In the bed of the river there were pebbles and boulders, dry and white in the sun, and the water was clear and swiftly moving and blue in the channels. Troops went by the house and down the road and the dust they raised powdered the leaves of the trees. The trunks of the trees too were dusty and the leaves fell early that year and we saw the troops marching along the road and the dust rising and leaves, stirred by the breeze, falling and the soldiers marching and afterward the road bare and white except for the leaves.
Long ago in 1945 all the nice people in England were poor, allowing for exceptions. The streets of the cities were lined with buildings in bad repair or in no repair at all, bomb-sites piled with stony rubble, houses like giant teeth in which decay had been drilled out, leaving only the cavity. Some bomb-ripped buildings looked like the ruins of ancient castles until, at a closer view, the wallpapers of various quite normal rooms would be visible, room above room, exposed, as on a stage, with one wall missing; sometimes a lavatory chain would dangle over nothing from a fourth- or fifth-floor ceiling; most of all the staircases survived, like a new art-form, leading up and up to an unspecified destination that made unusual demands on the mind's eye. All the nice people were poor; at least, that was a general axiom, the best of the rich being poor in spirit.
Numa, the lion, crouched behind a thorn bush close beside the drinking pool where the river eddied just below the bend. There was a ford there and on either bank a well-worn trail, broadened far out at the river's brim, where, for countless centuries, the wild things of the jungle and of the plains beyond had come down to drink, the carnivora with bold and fearless majesty, the herbivora timorous, hesitating, fearful.
Abruptly, the manifest realization welled up within him, like cold black water surging up through a rift in river ice - Richard remembered when it was he had heard Gratch growl like that. The fine hairs on the back of his neck stood out like icy needles in his flesh.
What a lark! What a plunge! For so it had always seemed to her, when, with a little squeak of the hinges, which she could hear now, she had burst open the French windows and plunged at Bourton into the open air. How fresh, how calm, stiller than this of course, the air was in the early morning; like the flap of a wave; the kiss of a wave; chill and sharp and yet (for a girl of eighteen as she then was) solemn, feeling as she did, standing there at the open window, that something awful was about to happen; looking at the flowers, at the trees with the smoke winding off them and the rooks rising, falling; standing and looking until Peter Walsh said, "Musing among the vegetables?" - was that it? - "I prefer men to cauliflowers" - was that it?

Notes - (James Joyce); (Jessie Greengrass);(Danielle Hickin); (Ernest Hemingway’s “A Farewell to Arms, 4 sentences, 126 words. 1 three-syllable, 22 two-syllable. 4 commas. "the" 22 times, "and" 14 times); The opening of "The Girls of Slender Means", Muriel Spark; The opening of a Tarzan story by Edgar Rice Burroughs (distracting language?), Terry Goodkind, from "Blood of the Fold", Virginia Woolf

Practical tips

Very generally speaking, if you're describing action, words get in the way. But if you're describing thoughts and emotions, style and content are entangled. Style becomes meaningful.

If you want to keep most of the readers happy most of the time -

  • Don't keep switching styles (Rushdie does)
  • Use style "Representationally", supporting rather than displacing content.
  • Connect style to a character, so that style illuminates some aspect of their psychology. i.e. turn style into voice.

Following on from that latter point, if you look at the examples in the previous exercise you'll notice that the style's been added in various parts of the narrative structure.

  • A third-person omniscient voice - plain, Orwellian and unbiased - is a common backdrop to stories. If you want to add style you can keep that narrational voice and make the characters more interesting.
  • A popular alternative at the moment is the unreliable narrator, a distinctive voice (usually first person) of a character who's involved in the action. Their style - the way they say and see things - is a crucial aspect of the story. They may not tell the whole truth.
  • Less common is the anonymous narrator - a first or third person voice of someone who's never identified and isn't part of the plot, yet is opinionated and distinctive (the Dickens example?)
  • You could try multiple points-of-view (using different voices). Margaret Atwood used 3 narrators in "The Testaments". Some readers find such texts difficult.

In any case the style is likely to change during the course of a story. Even Bond has to take a break sometimes.

Mix'n'Match - going to extremes

If you're not convinced that style and content are inextricable bound together, maybe you can exploit their independence. In the first exercise, you managed to keep the content while changing the style, so maybe it's possible.

While Erasmus was in Cambridge in 1511 he started writing "Copia" a sort of style manual with examples of various styles. Raymond Queneau's 1947 work "Exercices de style" took the idea a step further, telling the same story in 99 ways. Joyce's "Ulysses" pastiches several styles as the plot progresses. It's probably not the recommended method for a best-seller.


Writing in a flashy style is risky - it might distract from the content and slow the action down.

Writing in a simple style carries risks too. It lacks individuality, and with no verbal fireworks or make-up to hide any flaws, mistakes become glaring. People might not consider the text literature at all.

Some kind of style is unavoidable though, and can be useful, especially if we're writing a first-person piece adopting a different persona - show not tell.

As I pointed out, a novel's "style" is partly literary convention, and partly your voice. Perhaps easiest is to keep your voice and throw away some conventions. I always like to leave audiences with some homework to do, so try this - get a list of rules of good style (many such lists are online - Orwell's will do) and choose just one rule to break. Break it in a big way. The results might be interesting. It hasn't done Rachel Cusk's career any harm.

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