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April 2006

Writing Well

Installment Three

Think of literary style as pornography. That is, when you can’t decide what style is or how to define it or how to find one of your own, remember what one U.S. Supreme Court Justice said of pornography – “Maybe I can’t define it, but I know it when I see it.”

Every successful writer has a specific style, however reticent or inarticulate that particular writer may be in being able to describe his or her own style. It can be argued that style is what makes good writing. In an our egalitarian age where too many writers and readers insist that it is story that is king and that all other elements of literature must subordinate themselves to the tyranny of the tale, it is the style of the great writers from the past – from Plato to Pynchon, from Austen through Woolf, from Dante and Shakespeare through Hemingway and Nabokov – that makes their otherwise often time-bound stories worth reading generation after generation.

But what is style?

In the final section of the indispensable Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style, in the chapter titled “An Approach to Style (With a List of Reminders),” the authors come as close to anyone in defining the elusive creature –
       “Style is an increment in writing. When we speak of Fitzgerald’s style, we don’t mean his command of the relative pronoun, we mean the sound his words make on paper. Every writer, by the way he uses the language, reveals something of his spirit, his habits, his capacities, his bias. This is inevitable as well as enjoyable. All writing is communication; creative writing is communication through revelation – it is the Self escaping into the open. No writer long remains incognito.”

Perhaps this release of the Monster of the Id, the “Self escaping into the open,” is what prompted Vladimir Nabokov to say – “You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style.” (For what is murder other than the ultimate exercise in self-expression?) This would certainly explain why so many beginning writers – and more than a few professional ones – seem to find it necessary to murder the English language in their attempts at style.

More to the point, perhaps this inescapable revelation of self through style is what made Henry James, whom we will meet again below, to say that the author is present in “every page of every book from which he sought so assiduously to eliminate himself.”

In other words, there’s no doubt that one can get away with committing murder. But no writer ever escapes the consequences of committing style.

#

Style is diction; style is cadence; style is syntax; style is word choice and the spectrum of a writer’s vocabulary; style is length of sentences and the careful placement of different length sentences into a paragraph in the way a master stonemason would set stones into an unmortared wall meant to last for centuries; style is repetition and knowing when not to repeat; style is omission; style is misdirection and subliminal suggestion; style is specificity set into deliberate vagueness; style is crafty vagueness set amidst a forest of specificity; style is the motion of the mind at work; style is the pulse and heartbeat of the narrative sensibility; style is balance; style is the projective will of the writer creating a portal of access to the receptive will of the discerning reader; style is the sound our words make on paper.

Style is goddamned hard.

Let’s quit talking about style and look at a famous example. (You might want to take notes. There’s going to be a quiz later.)

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.

 

All right, here’s the quiz I promised –

      1) Who wrote this passage?
      2) What was the novel it appeared in?
      3) How many sentences are there in the opening paragraph?
      4) How many words are in the opening paragraph?
      5) How many of those words have three syllables?
      6) How many of the words have two syllables?
      7) How many words have one syllable?
      8) What is the most frequently repeated word in the paragraph?
      9) What is the second most frequently used word?
      10) How many commas are there? (And how many “should there be” if the author had obeyed “House Style” now
            dictated by most publishers?)
      11) What elements of syntax, diction, word choice, and punctuation serve the liturgical cadence of the paragraph and how?

The good news is that you don’t have to take this quiz (although good for you if you did), but the bad news is that if you couldn’t answer questions #1 and 2, you haven’t read widely enough or well enough to consider becoming a writer. If you felt it was beneath you to count the number of sentences, repeated words, numbers of syllables, commas, and so forth – if your interests invariably focus on loftier and more philosophical and thematic aspects of becoming a writer – it’s very doubtful you have what it takes to become one. Sorry to be the bearer of such bad tidings. Tis true, ‘tis pity; ‘tis pity ‘tis true.

For a better analysis of that famous opening paragraph than I could ever give, I’m going to invite Joan Didion to speak for a minute. The following appeared in her essay “Last Words” in The New Yorker in 1998 –

“So goes the famous first paragraph of Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, which I was moved to reread by the recent announcement that what was said to be Hemingway’s last novel would be published posthumously next year. That paragraph, which was published in 1929, bears examination: four deceptively simple sentences, one hundred and twenty-six words, the arrangement of which remains as mysterious and thrilling to me now as it did when I first read them, at twelve or thirteen, and imagined that if I studied them closely enough and practiced hard enough I might one day arrange one hundred and twenty-six words myself. Only one of the words has three syllables. Twenty-two have two. The other hundred and three have one. Twenty-four of the words are “the,” fifteen are “and.” There are four commas. The liturgical cadence of the paragraph derives in part from the placement of the commas (their presence in the second and fourth sentences, their absence in the first and third), but also from that repetition of “the” and of “and,” creating a rhythm so pronounced that the omission of “the” before the word “leaves” in the fourth sentence (“and we saw the troops marching along the road and the dust rising and leaves, stirred by the breeze, falling”) casts exactly what it was meant to cast, a chill, a premonition, a foreshadowing of the story to come, the awareness that the author has already shifted his attention from late summer to a darker season. The power of the paragraph, offering as it does the illusion but not the fact of specificity, derives precisely from this kind of deliberate omission, from the tension of withheld information. In the late summer of what year? What river, what mountains, what troops?”

Didion’s 1998 essay is important to would-be writers trying to understand the mysteries of style partially because of the reason Didion was compelled to write the piece – “the recent announcement that what was said to be Hemingway’s last novel would be published posthumously next year” [1999]. It was published, of course, over the dead writer’s express wishes that his rough material never be published, and it turned out not to be the last “posthumous Hemingway” to be published. The family has authorized more edited releases of his rough drafts and notes in novel or book form.

The violation of dead author’s wishes – the publication of their rough work before they themselves had a chance to finish it, shape it, and polish it – sounds like a digression from our discussion of style, but it’s central to it. Didion recalls being galvanized, years earlier, to confront a bloviating professor of English at a Berkeley dinner party when the self-styled expert announced, repeatedly, that F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Last Tycoon served as irrefutable proof that Fitzgerald was a bad writer.

One hopes that Joan Didion indulged in the writerly pleasure of literally kneeing the academic horse’s patoot in the bajoobies, but all she admits to in print is that she finally objected strongly, pointing out to the professorial idiot that The Last Tycoon was “an unfinished book, one we had no way of judging because we had no way of knowing how Fitzgerald might have finished it.”

The other academics, intellectuals, and dinner guests there that night joined in a chorus of refutation of Didion’s argument. Nonsense, came their rejoinders, the editors had Fitzgerald’s “notes,” they had his “outline,” the thing had been “entirely laid out.”

“Only one of us at the table that evening,” continues Joan Didion, speaking with the absolute confidence of a writer, “in other words, saw a substantive difference between writing a book and making notes for it, or “outlining it,” or “laying it out.”

That “substantive difference” – as all writers would know – is style. It is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug.

The Hemingway family, beginning with the writer’s widow, Mary Welsh Hemingway, read into Ernest Hemingway’s repeated verbal and written directions that his unfinished work never be published a secret directive to go ahead and publish it all. The man who had spent his literary lifetime obsessed with style, apprenticed to the Word, and always trying to sharpen and improve the distinctive style that he had embarked upon as a young writer, now had others making all stylistic decisions – the literary equivalent of publisher’s current “House Style” that, if allowed to prevail, homogenizes fiction to a tasteless pulp.

“ . . . smooth the printer’s fur, cajole him some way,” wrote William Faulkner to his publisher, Boni & Liverright, in 1927. “He’s been punctuating my stuff to death; giving me gratis quotation marks and premiums of commas that I dont (sic) need.”

Mary Hemingway wrote in the introduction to True at First Light – the 1999 posthumous Hemingway book carved out of the hundreds upon hundreds of pages of rough draft, notes, outlines, and maunderings the writer had never got around to fashioning into any final form – “Except for punctuation and the obviously overlooked ‘ands’ and ‘buts’ we would present his prose and poetry to readers as he wrote it, letting the gaps lie where they were.”

Except for punctuation!!!!!???

Except for the obviously overlooked “ands” and “buts”!!!!????

Don’t these greedy spouses and sons and daughters of dead spouses read their own family members’ masterpieces??? Don’t they understand that the placement – or omission – of punctuation, much less those necessary, beloved, absolutely essential “ands” and “buts” mean everything to the writer?

Didion understood this – “Well, there you are. You care about the punctuation or you don’t, and Hemingway did. You care about the ‘ands’ and ‘buts’ or you don’t, and Hemingway did. You think something is in shape to be published or you don’t, and Hemingway didn’t.”

In the masterpiece of a story that Hemingway had written years earlier, “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” he has his main character – a writer dying of gangrene in a hunting camp in Africa – think to himself, “Now he would never write the things that he had saved to write until he knew enough to write them well.” (And in an even sadder coda to this thought, the dying writer thinks – “Well, he would not have to fail at trying to write them either.”)

Instead, a dead writer’s wife turns her sons and other inferior editors to failing at trying to write them, while showing an absolute lack of understanding of the dead writer’s style. Or of the importance of style itself.

#

Ford Madox Ford, a writer and editor who helped Hemingway get published – and whom Hemingway, characteristically, rewarded by betraying and ridiculing – wrote of Hemingway’s prose style in the introduction to A Farewell to Arms – “Hemingway’s words strike you, each one, as if they were pebbles fetched fresh from a brook. They live and shine, each in its place. So one of his pages has the effect of a brook-bottom into which you look down through the floating water.”

This is an interesting metaphor and it has been used by more than a few instructors of writing in explaining Hemingway’s “transparent style” – a form of writing so pared down and clean that the prose-style never gets in the way of the events and characters in a story or novel – but it ignores an obvious (if Zen-like) fact: Hemingway’s style is not only the clear stream, it is also the pebbles one glimpses at the bottom of the stream. In a real sense, his style is everything. It is what makes Hemingway Hemingway and what makes those who attempt to imitate him – even the later Hemingway – mere parodists.

Most of you reading this have heard of Hemingway’s famous “iceberg rule” for writing – that seven-eighths of the story should be underwater, invisible, only hinted at by the one-eighth tip of prose shown to the reader – but the truth is that all good writers have followed this rule, before and after Hemingway, no matter how complex and convoluted and anti-Hemingwayesque their style may be.

Style is illusion – it is the summoning of much through the revelation of little. It is the professional magician’s primary tool of misdirection – look here and . . .oops! Look what happened there! It is inference and insinuation via the illusion of specificity while actual specificity – What river? What mountains? What troops? – is often being assiduously avoided.

It is, in other words, the active and continous engagement of the intelligent reader’s participation.

Here is another example of powerful style. Be prepared for another quiz:

Under certain circumstances there are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea. There are circumstances in which whether you partake of tea or not – some people of course never do, -- the situation is in itself delightful. Those that I have in mind in beginning to unfold this simple history offered an admirable setting to an innocent pastime. The implements of the little feast had been disposed upon the lawn of an old English country-house,in what I could call the perfect middle of a splendid summer afternoon. Part of the afternoon had waned, but much of it was left, and what was left was of the finest and rarest quality. Real dusk would not arrive for many hours; but the flood of summer light had begun to ebb, the air had grown mellow, the shadows were long upon the smooth, dense turf. They lengthened slowly, however, and the scene expressed that sense of leisure still to come which is perhaps the chief source of one’s enjoyment of such a scene at such an hour. From five o’clock to eight is on certain occasions a little eternity; but on such an occasion as this the interval could only be an eternity of pleasure.

The bad news here is that there is a quiz on this passage – one demanding three hours of writing and upon which all advancement depends, but the good news is that the quiz isn’t yours, but was mine 36 years ago.

Actually, it wasn’t a quiz but part of an exhausting Senior Comprehensive Examinations gauntlet at my undergraduate school of Wabash College in 1970. Senior comps took three full days in the month before graduation, including a terrifying day of oral exams, and most Wabash students started worrying about them and preparing for them during their freshman year. Comps covered your entire four years of learning, focusing on your major and minor areas of study, and they were rigorous enough that some years no one at all in my major – English – received a coveted “1” on them. Fail Comprehensive Exams and it didn’t matter if you’d had a 4.0 average for four years and aced all of your senior final-semester exams – you didn’t graduate. I thought this might be an urban legend until, my senior year, I happened to answer the dorm phone and heard the Dean of Students on the other end; a fellow student in my dorm, the most popular guy on campus and the guy we’d elected class president, a young man who had a high-paying job waiting for him three weeks in the future just after had graduation, had flunked Comps and was not graduating. Period. Good luck back here next year, Dwight.

My method of study was to wait until a week before Comps and to kidnap the smartest person I’ve ever known, then or since – a classics major, roommate of mine, and Falstaffian figure named Keith Nightenhelser – and lock him into our suite for three days with me, feeding him only Cheese Poopies, pizza, and Cokes and not releasing him until he’d grilled me on hundreds of possible Comps question and suggested thousands of possible answers. (Nightenhelser was only a lowly sophomore at the time, but he already knew everything. To this day, he’s the only scholar on earth who knows the hidden structure of the Melian Dialogue.)

On the first day of Comprehensive Exams – we seniors did more than six hours of writing to essay questions that day, sitting at a giant round table in a sacred, echoing, round room in Lilly Library that had been off-limits to us for four years – I looked at the first question and found the passage listed above.

Holy Shit, Batman. Was this the end of Little Rico?

I knew it was Henry James, of course – I was an English major, after all – but I’d spent the better part of four years avoiding Henry James: skimming over his novels and stories when I had to deal with him, reading him grudgingly and with surliness when I couldn’t completely escape him. I really didn’t like Henry James. I didn’t have the patience for Henry James. Wabash College was (and remains, with only one other liberal arts college in America) an all-men’s school, and to say that Henry James seemed a little light in his loafers is an understatement. More than that, his writing was . . . hard. Difficult. It gave me headaches. The stylistic engine unleashed seemed all out of proportion to the small amount of freight the tales actually hauled.

As Clover Adams, wife of 19th Century historian Henry Adams and a friend of James himself once said – “Henry tends to chaw more than he bites off.”

Anyway, at some point in the previous four years I had grudgingly slouched my way through Portrait of a Lady, the novel from which the passage above was taken, and on that first day of Comps I threw myself into my first two- or three-hour essay with a fanatic’s absolute determination to shovel as much academic bullshit as I had to in order to get through the desert of James and onto the oasis of the next question. (Which, thank God, was about some small detail in Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, something I knew more than a little bit about.) My motto while shoveling wildly was – There has to be a pony in here somewhere!

I must have shoveled frenetically enough, or at least the English professors grading the essays took pity on my Jamesophobia, since I was the only English major at Wabash that year to receive a “1” on Senior Comprehensive Exams (and a Phi Betta Kappa Prize to boot), but I can’t remember a word of what I wrote in my adrenaline-assisted analysis of the style, content, and importance of the famous paragraph above. So, once again, let me invite in a guest speaker who actually knows what he’s talking about: in this case Sven Birkerts.

Birkerts’s The Gutenberg Elegies (published by Ballantine Books in 1994, released later as a Fawcett paperback) should be required reading not only for all prospective writers, but for anyone who loves reading. In the Elegies, Birkerts – a lifelong addicted reader and author of wonderful essays on reading and books, some gathered in his 1999 book Readings (Graywolf Press) – makes perhaps the most eloquent argument I’ve ever heard on the absolute importance of serious reading as “vertical engagement” in an age of all-encroaching electronic media as a source for our facts, perspective, and entertainment. TV, movies, radio, CD’s, DVD’s, and especially the Internet all are, Birkerts argues, primarily the media of images (even radio!) and create an information-involvement net that is very, very wide and very, very shallow. (Or as early explorers described the Platte River not far from me here in Colorado – “Six inches deep and six miles wide at the mouth.”)

Many of our books in the past 50 years have followed this trend toward wider, shallower, simpler, easier. Editors and publishers fear “alienating readers” by asking that they know anything or – God forbid – by demanding that they themselves work to appreciate the nuances of style in a novel or to see subtleties hidden in the giant lollipop that is story and plot.

All reading is vertical – one has to go deeper, to engage more deeply, in almost any book than any electronic or visual medium allows – but serious reading, reading someone like Henry James, is very vertical. It’s the K2 of reading verticality. Appreciating Henry James demands much from the reader, as does the work of spiritual descendents of James whether they be Nabokov, De Lillo, Pynchon, Gaddis, William H. Gass, or many others. Serious reading – since vertical engagement efforts requiring such levels of sensibility, involvement, concentration, context, and participation are very rare in 21st Century life – serves as a powerful antidote to the constant onslaught of shallowness pouring out of our televisions, movie screens, newspapers, read-on-the-plane bestseller novels, and the Internet.

In his essay “Reading and Depth of Field,” which first appeared in Philosophy and Literature, Vol. 2, #1, in April of 1996, Sven Birkerts has the following to say about the paragraph from Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady.

“How do we begin fashioning an interior world from this? (For I would argue that we do begin from the very first words.) Of what is this passage informing us apart from what it purports to be informing us?

“The passage – and the novel – opens on a note of leisurely indirection, not only naming the ceremony proper to a particular class, but doing so by means of a rolling period that, by holding its true subject – ‘afternoon tea’ – for the last, implants in readers their first sense of pace, scale, and the larger consequentiality of ritual. The diction, of course, is that of the educated upper classes, and the delayed gratification enforced by the syntax signals not only authorial playfulness but also the implicit conviction that the readers, themselves unharried, will allow the authorial sensibility to announce itself as it chooses to. That the passage itself is in part about delay – about pleasure being greater in anticipation – imparts a retroactive rightness to this first sentence, making it a kind of structural signal not just for the opening but, it could be asserted, for the whole work. That does not concern us here, however.

“The reader will then notice how the syntax and diction, in interplay with the sense of the first two sentences, enact a logic of discrimination. We begin with the first delimitation – ‘Under certain circumstances . . .’ that will be, of course, the circumstances soon unfolded before us – and then, with the following sentence, receive a further refinement: ‘There are circumstances . . . .’ The effect is of moving from the general – and for a certain societal echelon ‘universal’ – to the somewhat more specific, for now there are people implicated – takers and refusers of tea – and the circumstance has become a ‘situation,’ which is to say it is very nearly concrete. The third sentence narrows the aperture further – there are people that the narrator has ‘in mind’; and the fourth, citing ‘the implements of the little feast’ and the specific setting of ‘the lawn implements of the little feast” and the specific setting of “the lawn of an old English country-house,” nearly lands us in the event. It is the most tarrying of paces, yet there is strong purpose behind it. The impression of slow, easeful motion at once informs us of a ‘universal’ societal order and uses that as the backdrop for the introduction of the various specific elements that will figure so vividly in the telling. A subliminal sense of balance is established., a part-to-whole harmony, in which what follows is in accord with the larger system of assumptions already laid out.

“The second part of the passage – now moving from generalization to the more concrete business of setting, of place and time and weather – fulfills a similar discriminatory process. We are placed in ‘the perfect middle of a splendid summer afternoon’ and then led, by careful stages, to bring our attention to rest on a brightly illumined part of the stage – the brightness the more precious for the sense we have, literal and figurative, of encroaching shadows. The general societal distinctions made in the opening sentences are reinforced – subliminally amplified – by the concrete correlatives of light, shadows lengthening across the lawn, and highlighted radiance. Thus, and by his discreet authorial self-insertions – ‘Those that I have in mind’ and ‘what I should call the perfect middle’ – James makes coextensive the narrative sensibility and the world it sets forth. The narrative voice – its manners, civilized paraphrases, strategic delays – maps exactly the rhythms and behavior patterns of the subject society. Our confidance in the concord between how and what allows us to postulate the terms, the order, of that world before we have even passed through the first gateway. James has told us next to nothing, but he has informed us of a great deal.”

I rarely choose to quote any passage at such length, but Birkerts’ insights are important – not just for pondering the vertical engagement of reading Henry James amidst the easy-access, horizontal information flow of the 21st Century – but for any reader who is thinking of becoming a writer and interested in discovering his own style.

Did you notice a repetition of many of the same terms and techniques here that Joan Didion used in explaining Ernest Hemingway’s style to us? Diction and syntax – moving from generalization to the more concrete – the use of light and shadows as objective correlatives to coming mood – dealing with one season while suggesting the encroaching shadows of a grimmer time or situation to come – style as a sense of balance – the withholding of information to the reader and the importance of part-to-whole harmony?

Both the Hemingway and James passages cited above might be thought of as fragments of a shattered hologram, or as skin cells containing a human being’s DNA: the whole is always present in the part.

Few author’s styles could seem as dissimilar as Henry James’s and Ernest Hemingway’s, but all good writers have the same small set of tools and seek the same effect – cadence and diction and syntax and the use of style to create a subliminal sense of balance that will permeate (and reflect) the themes, plot, interactions, characters, and even dialogue throughout the novel or story. Hemingway and James, who seem to have so little in common, are veritable twins in terms of being masters of the same art.

Terrifyingly, when trying to come to some separate peace with Henry James, we learn that The Portrait of a Lady reflects his earlier, simpler style. While his later novels such as The Ambassadors far transcend The Portrait of a Lady in stylistic eloquence and structural complexity, the verticality of the reading engagement in the later novel becomes . . . scary. As readers, we’re like climbers used to practice rocks who are suddenly confronted with a 3,000-foot sheer face to climb or descend. The cry goes out for pitons, carabiners, jumars, and rope . . . lots and lots of rope. Oh, yes, and please send us a good climbing partner – someone who can show us the route.

In his later stories, James’s “suspension of meaning” within a sentence – the “delayed gratification enforced by syntax” Birkerts writes about above – becomes almost dizzying as James sustains the suspension and deferral of gratification by ever-increasing parenthesis. It’s like a game he’s playing – not so much with us, the readers, as with the entire limits of the short story, the novel, and the English language itself. In his late-James style story “The Birthplace” we encounter this opening –

“It seemed to them at first, the offer, too good to be true, and their friend’s letter, addressed to them to feel, as he said, the ground, to sound them as to inclinations and possiblities, had almost the effect of a brave new joke at their expense.”

Imagine today’s high school seniors who are often too lazy and bored to be bothered to wrestle with a straightforward sentence from, say, Mark Twain or James Conrad – kids who’ve beeen encouraged their entire academic career to “find their own comfort level” (in other words, find your slide and grease it, kid, since we’re afraid to ask anything difficult of you) -- having to engage with this (relatively simple) opening to an increasingly difficult Henry James story.

Recently – and I have no excuse for this procrastination since I’ve long since made my peace with Henry James (and hope to have him as a major character in a new novel of mine) – I read his incredible story “The Beast in the Jungle.” This story is very “late-James” indeed – one might say it must be near the apogee of the outward parabola of his ever-increasing skill and sensibilities – and no magazine published it during his lifetime or after. Even in an age, very early 20th Century, where readers were expected to deal with steep vertical engagement in most of their reading, “The Beast in the Jungle” was too much for editors and their theoretical readership. It was the K2 of style, the Everest of subliminal balance in words, and even the editors in that vastly more literate day than ours didn’t trust their readers not to fall – screaming and flapping all the way down – off the vertical 5.9-difficulty slope of such a stylistic icefield.

Deep in the story we encounter this passage –

“He did this, from time to time, with such effect that he seemed to wander through the old years with his hand in the arm of a companion who was, in the most extraordinary manner, his other, his younger self; and to wander, which was more extraordinary yet, round and round a third presence – not wandering she, but stationary, still, whose eyes, turning with his revolution, never ceased to follow him . . .”

It is not giving away some gimmick ending to tell you that this scene takes place in a cemetery, but if you haven’t read the story yet, you’ll have to take my word that these few sentences, imbued with what one writer called “that curious passionate and masculine delicacy of phrase,” are more terrifying, horrifying, despairing, truthful, final, beautiful, (and sad) than any scenes ever written by Edgar Alan Poe or Stephen King or Peter Straub or – most certainly – by Dan Simmons.

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The goal in this and future installments of our Writing Well discussion is not to turn you into a literary critic – nor even to try to educate you in the art of what was called “close reading” in the long-gone day of my literary education in the now-obsolete New Criticism – but to say to you, as a potential (or at least interested) future writer, that style is – and always will be – ineffable, but that the mastering of it is absolutely essential if you wish to write well.

Some would-be science fiction writers have asked me – “Should I do my ‘world-building’ before I start writing my novel?” They mean do the SF jiggery-pokery of deciding the gravity of a planet, the flora and fauna, what kind of sun the place has and how far from it the world is, the color of the sky, etc., etc.

My answer is yes, but not the kind of “world building” – often dealing with math-based computer programs – that they’re talking about.

Worlds are built through a writer’s style more than by the content of any mere descriptions of places or people found in the tale. Much as a magician’s magic comes through his dexterity and misdirection, so does a writer’s magic arise from his or her ability to defer, to involve, and to infer. Read again the two long passages set off above – one by Ernest Hemingway, one by Henry James – and you’ll see that in a few mere paragraphs in which specifics are avoided in favor of moods foreshadowed, in which far more is suggested than revealed, in which an author’s careful, careful choice of diction and syntax prepares to resonate with and shape a much larger work – entire worlds have already sprung into being.

We trust authors who give us so much so quickly – and so generously -- and we trust them to take us to important places. It makes us, the readers, willing to work hard to join them in those enchanted places, even if those worlds – like James’s lost world of Edwardian upperclass privilege or Hemingway’s Europe of WWI – are far, far more alien to us than Mr. Spock’s planet Vulcan.

William H. Gass once said – “Words may be the ultimate things – they are completely minded things.”

So is any good writer’s style – “the sound your words make on paper.” Every writer, including you, (should you put in the terrible time and effort and study and apprenticeship and frustation and labor and self-doubt it takes to join the ranks of real writers,) will be present on every page of every book from which you seek so assiduously to eliminate yourself.

In the next installment of Writing Well, we will look at ways you can analyze your own style – active or incipient, deliberate or accidental, well-honed or newborn, derivative or original – and compare it with other authors’ work, even while using some surprising tools such as T-unit analysis which can allow your writing to tell you things about itself that even you, the author of those sentences, might not know are there.

 

(Note: Between installments of WRITING WELL, visitors to this web site interested in discussing writing issues can talk to each other and to me on the new ON WRITING WELL strand in the Dan Simmons Forum. While I will answer questions there from time to time, my hope is that these Writing Well installments might serve – at least partially – as a template for discussion so that we can move more slowly toward the usual huge questions of “How do I write a masterpiece and where can I get it published?”)

 >>click here to go to the Forum and On Writing Well thread

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