3.17.2005

Style: The Texture of Text

Note: This post isn't completely polished. This note will disappear when it is.

Hopefully this is worth waiting a month for. I tried to capture both the meaning of the term and its breadth, which means a long article albeit probably not long enough to contain the numbers and ways that style can be used which a book might be able to cover.

Style is the feeling you get from reading the text. In order to capture this feeling, you must temporarily remove the meaning of the words and listen to their music only--like mentally peeling off the lyrics of a song to hear what feelings the tone is revealing. Even the vocalist has a sound, where the keening--if the vocal artist has any talent--matches or contrasts with what the lyrics literally say. Haven’t you asked yourself, “Does the saxophone really sound in love?” or “Does the shrieking vocalist truly sound enraged by the loss, or is the shrieking hitting all the wrong inflections?” This analysis of sound is what we look for in style. If we were interested in the vocalist’s character we would use the emotional state/style intimated in the vocalist's tenor, but we also would ignore the saxophone and take into account what is said in the lyrics.

Starting simple before we get to more complex examples, we might say, “Bob sped to the market to deliver the goods.” Style is more interested in how sound smoothes the reading experience. “Sped,” while it resonates with the last syllable of market, gums up the flow with the unpleasant “speh” sound (which may or may not be effective, depending on the context). Plus it doesn’t capture Bob’s action well (though it might for a car).

Let’s exchange “sped” for “jogged,” which resonates with “Bob” and “mar” in “market.” It’s a better stylistic choice, but may or may not improve/change the character. “Sped” again doesn’t reveal much of Bob’s action although one might say it marks extreme urgency (an extreme exaggerated unless Bob can run faster than a train, plane, or automobile) while “jogged” might show nonchalance or arrogance in the face of danger.

But style's focus isn't on character but the texture of the overall story. One can change “market” to “grocery store” to see what the style change brings and not gain an iota of change in the character (unless Bob was supposed to jog to the market--ha, ha). Sometimes I worry that we get so smart we confuse ourselves. Anything in the story that affects character is character. Anything in the story that affects style is style. Sometimes effects overlap because talented authors use sentences in more ways than one. For instance, a far more tangled web that no intellectual seems to confuse but should is character and plot (thank you, Henry James). If we consider ourselves intellectuals, we sneer at plot because stories of the pulp tradition concern themselves more with plot than story. But what is plot but the action of or on character? Apparently, and thankfully at this moment, we are not confusing the two (though there’s obviously not enough understanding of plot if we sneer at it, but that’s another topic which will take me another month of working out).

Getting more complex and specific, in Lucius Shepard’s Life During Wartime, he establishes a very dry, academic or nonfictional tone--that is, an almost toneless tone or a lack of style--much as a director might leave a scene without music to heighten the tension:

One of the new Sikorsky guships, an element of the First Air Cavalry with the words Whispering Death painted on its side, gave Mingolla and Gilbey and Baylor a lift from the Ant Farm to San Francisco de Juticlan, a small town located inside the green zone, which on the latest maps was designated Free Occupied Guatemala. To the east of this green zone lay an undesignated band of yellow that crossed the country from the Mexican border to the Caribbean. The Ant Farm was a firebase on the eastern edge of the yellow band, and it was from there that Mingolla--an artillary specialist not yet twenty-one years old--lobbed shells into an area that the maps depicted in black-and-white terrain markings. And thus it was that he often thought of himself as engaged in a struggle to keep the world safe for primary colors.


There’s one real moment of music in here that sparks a glimmer of intrigue into the rest of the style. While the last line establishes a surreal goal for the character, the music highlights sets off something else entirely different: “with the words Whispering Death painted on its side.” The sound is almost onomatopoeic for its meaning--“Whispering Death”--and the surrounding “w” and “s” and mostly short vowels reinforce this sense (the “p” and long “a” in “paint” jerks us momentarily though evocatively out, back into the dryness of war. We often use euphemisms to describe war to pull us away the harsh cruel realities it inflicts, i.e. “casualty” instead of “death”--so that this dark, soft sound breaks the illusion of distance from death.

So is this an instance of style conveying character or a subliminal thematic signal that Shepard has slipped to the reader?

***

In “Jaguar Hunter,” Shepard juxtaposes opposing sounds of feeling in the character, Esteban Caax:

By nature he was a man who enjoyed the sweetness of the countryside above all else; the placid measures of a farmer’s day invigorated him, and he took great pleasure in nights spent joking and telling stories around a fire, or lying beside his wife, Encarnacion.

The sounds all lull the reader, except the “k” in joke which the long “o” helps mask the harsh, turning it into a sound not unlike a bark of laughter. Meanwhile, listen to the harsh staccato “k” and “t” and “g” sounds in this next sentence:

Puerto Morada, with its fruit imperatives and sullen dogs and cantinas that blared American music, was a place he avoided like the plague.


How does “blare” make you feel about “Ameri[K]an musi[K]”? Is it not unlike an abrupt change in volume? But what is the style that tells us why he is in town and reluctance to be there? It cannot be defined because it is told without frill:

It was his wife’s debt to Onofrio Esteves, that brought Esteban Caax to town for the first time in almost a year.


Does the way this is stated conjure anything outside what the words directly state? Does it evoke any feeling? No. It’s told in a relatively straightforward manner. But, one might say, he chose those words and not any other, and that’s style. What he chose was a lack of style for this particular sentence.

That said, Shepard has a larger story style within the framework of the style of his sentences--a style I’d always pictured as some strange beast lumbering towards a weighty finale--perhaps due in part to his patience of long sentence and plot--not unlike Joseph Conrad in The Heart of Darkness, where the effect also builds cumulatively. Roald Dahl’s style relies on such an overall structure by his repeated use of unveiling surprises in the middle. Such repetition of plot structures, although each story feels fresh, makes the structure unique to the author and, hence, their style. But structural style has little bearing on a story unless one is making a comparative analysis.

***

Geoff Ryman in Air adopts a quieter, simpler tone, by shortening and simplifying the sentences to create the mood of the simple, uncomplicated life of the Eastern rustic. No mad traffic dashing about, no loud noises or American music, no cruel and cornered rats willing to fight for the diminishing city space. Just life in country. You probably won’t find words--pending a sudden change in mood--like “artillery” or “invigorate.”

Mae lived in the last village in the world to go online. After that everyone else went on Air.

Mae was the village’s fashion expert. She advised on makeup, sold cosmetics, and provided good dresses. Every farmer’s wife needed at least one good dress.

Mae would sketch what was being worn in the capital. She would always add a special touch: a lime-green scarf with sequins; or a lacy ruffle with colorful embroidery. A good dress was for display. “We are a happier people and we can wear these gay colors,” Mae would advise.


Notice where the language gets more specific. We are being shown through style that this is what Mae loves. But what effect of style is at play in the sentence “Mae was the village’s fashion expert”? Again, this is told without any special sense or inflection.

***

An interesting debate I had with Ryman over Clarion was whether poetry had a place in prose. Since I have before and am now analyzing text based on the sound of words, obviously I think it has major import, even in Ryman’s work. Ryman may have meant simply: If you don’t know poetry, don’t inject/inflict your idea of poetry into/upon your readers the pain of bad poetry.

But it is poetry which originates many of the more interesting styles that we find in prose. In fact, styles in poetry are generally much more complex.

so much depends
upon

a red wheel
barrow

glazed with rain
water

beside the white
chickens

--William Carlos Williams, from “Spring and All”


Here Williams is more concerned with sound than sense--a complex fluid sound purposefully interrupted at odd intervals. Style is not always the beauty of sound, but in this case, sound interrupted to cause us to pause at certain sounds. Williams forces us to consider each word that passes, breaking the lines at unexpected places: “a red wheel” as an entity separate from “barrow.” He also does this with “rain/water,” but does he need to? Doesn’t “glazed with rain” convey the same meaning as “glazed with rain/water”? “Water” would appear to be a useless appendage except for the alliteration with “white” and the continuity of three-word/one-word stanzas.

Wallace Stevens also, while inviting the reader in with sound, denied the reader access to living in the poem as a lived thing but as a symbolic thing to be lived:

She sang beyond the genius of the sea.
The water never formed to mind or voice,
Like a body wholly body, fluttering
Its empty sleeves; and yet its mimic motion
Made constant cry, caused constantly a cry,
That was not ours although we understood,
Inhuman, of the veritable ocean.

The sea was not a mask. No more was she.

--Wallace Stevens, “The Idea of Order at Key West”


As opposed to Williams’ poem which opposes idea only for you to live in the poem (going so far as to deny sense in favor of sound), it is not until you see the poem as “idea” that you can live in this poem. Williams said, “No ideas but in things,” yet Stevens has transformed an idea into a thing as living and breathing as the things.

Gertrude Stein [may have] invented the idea that the same ordinary words have music that can be repeated ad nauseum to different meanings/effects:

I knew too that through them I knew too that he was through, I knew too that he threw them. I knew too that they were through, I knew too I knew too, I knew I knew them.

I knew to them.

--Gertrude Stein, “A Valentine to Sherwood Anderson’


But Stein borders on a monotony that Samuel Beckett borrowed and slowly wrote towards, so that in his middle years there was something spectacularly fresh and original to the sound while still conveying a sense beyond style:

They clothed me and gave me money. I knew what the money was for, it was to get me started. When it was gone I would have to get more, if I wanted to go on. The same for the shoes, when they were worn out I would have to get them mended, or get myself another pair, or go on barefoot, if I wanted to go on. The same for the coat and trousers, needless to say, with this difference, that I could go on in my shirtsleeves if I wanted.

--Samuel Beckett “The End”


Some styles depend on rhythm--an idea also borrowed from poetry--based both on the natural inflection of language (meter) and the length of lines (Whitman expanded our definition). I suspect this--not just Hemingway’s stark vocabulary--draws us into Hemingway’s style:

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.

--Ernest Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms


By using few adjectives that directly modify nouns, it forces the use of prepositional phrases, which have a breathing pattern all their own--that is, they generate a natural pause in the line: “In the late summer [beat] of that year [beat] we lived in a house [beat] in a village [beat] that looked across the river and the plain [beat] to the mountains.” One might legitimately position “beats” before all conjunctions and prepositions, thereby including a few more beats.

Richard Christian Matheson shortens the lines further with commas and periods to create a starker staccato effect, which often better suits Matheson’s horrorific material (and in this case, jogging):

Andy chugged up the incline, sweatsuit shadowed with perspiration. His Nikes compressed on the asphault and the sound of his inhalation was the only noise on the country road.

He glanced at his waist-clipped odometer: Twenty-five point seven. Not bad. But he could do better.

Had to.

--Richard Christian Matheson, “Third Wind”


Matheson’s abbreviated sentences create a sense of panicked urgency. Joyce Carol Oates, on the other hand, stretches the length of sentences out with unabashedly modified nouns, which not unlike Shepard, when Oates writes the grotesque (which includes both the horror and suspense genres) , creates a sense of inexorable, impending doom.

A sleek tiny baby he was, palpitating with life and appetite as he emerged out of his mother’s birth canal, and perfectly formed: twenty miniature pink toes intact, and the near-microscopic nails already sharp; pink-whorled tiny ears; the tiny nose quivering, already vigilant against danger. The eyes were relatively weak, in the service of detecting motion rather than figures, textures, or subtleties of color.

--Joyce Carol Oates, “Martyrdom”


This story is powerful too due to the structural choice--stylistic because it sticks out from the average story (if most stories did this, then this could not be considered style; however, most stories will probably never do this because we naturally see things from one perspective)--of numbering and alternating perspectives in every lengthy paragraph.

***

If every author used style, why should some be more noticeable than others? Style is an expression of ego: Look at what I do, says the writer of style, with the way I put words on the page. Ego may also have played a part in Orson Welles’ reinvention of film through Citizen Kane. I don’t find the ego criminal, as a large segment of our society does, but an acceptable, even fascinating expression of an individual, much as we might admire an actor like Marlon Brando who is capable of rendering himself visible against a backdrop of actors who render themselves invisible. Some writers actively seek or at least resist such individual expression, standing out with a style. Flannery O’ Connor comes to mind as one who, when an editor requested a few beautiful sentences to break up the lack of style, balked at the suggestion (O’Connor, of course, displayed an oeuvre, structural style in her choice of subject matter, but this only stuck out because her contemporaries--as well as some writers today--don’t want to write about the baser instincts). The invisible style--or no style--calls more attention to the myth of the narrative as reality and forces the viewer to deal with the content more than a stylistic choice, which always puts the reader at a distance from the reality of the narrative--whether with a rose-colored or dung-colored lens. I suspect this is why people balk at a movie like Citizen Kane. They are made aware of Welles’ style, which requires an appreciation. After I watched it the first time, I too wondered what the big deal was. Only after watching it three times with and without commentary tracks (Ebert did the better job), did I gain a fuller understanding of what it achieved, as did the history disc charting what the film represented at the time of its showing. Slapping the label “style” over every author or director does a disservice to both those who seek style and those who spurn it. I don’t think a work of art can be fully appreciated without knowing how the authors chose what they chose.

This intimates that a further debate exists--Which is better: style or no style?--which is exactly the wrong question to ask. The work has to be evaluated upon the basis which it chooses to present itself. A character story cannot be evaluated by action/adventure standards, nor vice versa. A standard romantic comedy cannot be evaluated for the use of noir motifs, nor vice versa. After all, there are some things we can only see with a dung-colored lens, some we see only with a rose-colored one, other things require a lens without tint. So that the question--Which is better?--is irrelevant in seeking the true mode of the art’s art.

Sometimes styles are inappropriate, i.e. roses cannot be viewed through a rose-lens, which is why Ray Bradbury’s lovingly nostalgic style flops when it isn’t examining the seamier side of life to some degree. Ted Kooser, Nebraskan and our nation’s current poet laureate, just got criticized in the latest Nebraska Review for putting a good spin on the bad of life, but if this is an expression of his aesthetics--which structurally becomes his style by what he chooses to examine--how can one say he doesn’t look at enough shadows? What a critic can say is that the critic prefers to looks at shadows and that these are not present in Kooser’s work. However, the style itself can be criticized if it fails to do what it sets out to do. One criticism in the review that comes close to doing this is pointing out a cancer ward description that refuses to take in the depressed mood of the place, pointing out the funny little knit hat that one patient wears, but again if this is Kooser’s chosen aesthetic--seek the silver lining in the hurricane--I’m not sure how well the criticism sticks. In fact, reflecting on my critique Bradbury, the cancer ward may be the best place for Kooser to lay down his style, to heighten his strength through contrast of subject.

***

So if the reader remained unconvinced, the question remains for any other definition of style: How does style convey character and not plot? And if style is everything--i.e. what normal people call “story”--how is this meaningful to or enlightening the study of stories? How can one understand the whole if one cannot parse the parts?