2.17.2005

Style Is Style

I’m several months late coming to Daniel Green’s argument that style is character. He actually convinced me for the length of the article--clever bastard: Could centuries of analysis be mistaken? It isn’t the first time I’ve heard the argument though I have not heard from where the argument originated, which might aid my coming to grips with the theorist’s underpinnings. But of the theory that I’ve seen, it needs work.

First, people create new terms to describe phenomena. If style were character, we could--thank Occam and his razor--eliminate the use of either one. But we cannot because they are distinct. Then what is style? What is character? Since we use words to communicate, Green suggests that words are style and, presumably, everything you need to know about story (he limits his discussion to character, but his argument would suggest that style is also plot and theme and point of view and, well, another word for "story"). Character is the portrayal of the dramatis personae and all that defines and shapes them while style is how a story is told, not what. Words are used with both how and what, confusing Green's point. As the how of a story, style merely lays a patina over how the story will be interpreted--which is not unlike POV in its effect although POV is the storyteller’s [potential] bias while style evokes the mood. Style can influence how the reader sees character (and plot, setting, POV, theme, etc.), but it cannot substitute for it.

Second, if style were character, a story could not have one style, or it would only have one character (unless the style is evoked entirely in the voice of one character or POV--but this phenomenon has another term already called “voice,” the mix of style and point-of-view).

Third, if one writer had a superior style to another, then the character(s) of the superior style should also be superior.

Case History #1: Compare Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms to his To Have and Have Not. The former has a superior style and a bland protagonist. The latter Hemingway admitted he spent less time on (it shows in overall story/theme as well as in style) and the primary protagonist is far more intriguing. [More on To Have and Have Not later, which I read to compare to Geoff Ryman's Air, or Have Not Have--no relation as it turns out, but interesting to talk about, nonetheless.]

Case History #2: The characters in Zadie Smith’s Autograph Man are banal (quirky, yes, but ultimately uninteresting--presumably purposefully to illustrate the story's theme brought out in the finale) up until the entrance of the elusive Kitty Alexander. How could that be if Smith’s style had not changed and were somehow inferior up until the entrance of Alexander?

Case History #3: The horror stories in question which I reviewed had interesting styles but blank-slate characters. In fact, one might make a legitimate claim that horror is more about style than any other genre including literary works and it is this very claim that H.P. Lovecraft uses to dismiss Henry James' The Turn of a Screw. So if Green's claim held water, Lovecraft or at least Lovecraft's exemplars of supernatural literature would have better characterization.

Fourth, riffing off point number two, if style were character, bringing in four authors should bring in four powerfully distinct characters, right?

Case History #4: Looking at “Green Fire” by Eileen Gunn, Andy Duncan, Pat Murphy, and Michael Swanwick [no longer online that I can see], we find that Gunn begins an attempt to examine the characters, but Andy Duncan--clearly the best stylist in this story--does absolutely nothing with them. So, in this example only, the weak stylist is the best character-writer while the strongest stylist is the flabbiest writer of character.

No single element makes a story. Some advocate idea or theme over all other elements, some character, some images and setting, some style, some imagination. [In the last case history, Swanwick by design had the most imagination but not the better style or character though, again, this is not meant to be a comparison of writing careers summed up in one story that they tossed off for the thrill of writing a pulp adventure, albeit more in the style of the generation preceding their protagonists.]

Some advocate politics over all elements, which I surmise to be one of Green’s legitimate complaints of certain literary theories [I'm running out of time--google Green's blog for politics or theory], and I couldn’t agree more. Terry Eagleton in Introduction to Theory shot down T.S. Eliot because Eliot didn’t share Eagleton’s politics. What a crock. I had to put the book down. How can I trust Eagleton’s judgment as a critic of art if he cannot value art’s aesthetics, flattening all works of art to a single aspect which he accepts or dismisses based on his divine knowledge of the perfect governmental approach (as Leguin said: one man’s utopia is another’s dystopia)? If a critic wants to shoot down a legitimate art, invariably he recreates an inferior simulacra to knock down. Such straw men are the perennial favorite gimmicks of politicians and demonstrate how incapable politicians are at handling or understanding politics.)

There may be a legitimate, scientific reason why critics (or politicians--I’m not including Green amongst this nefarious lot unless he considers style the end-all-be-all of fiction) flatten art to a single component like politics: Humans can’t handle more than four variables at a time. But there’s hope. There’s a way around our limitations: Do as John Gardner told us: Break the elements down and build them back up again. But in order to break them down, we have to know what they are.