Style and the virtual cocktail party: part two in a series

Last week I introduced Robert Alter’s book The Pleasures of Reading in an Ideological Age by supporting his argument that literary art can in fact be distinguished from other forms of written communication. Alter wrote his book before even email became ubiquitous, and now, in the age of the tweet, there are even more forms of the written word to compete with the distinction of literature, so I think it’s worth reviewing the ground Alter covers, with my own perspectives and occasional critiques, in light of 21st-century life.

Alter did not set himself the project of covering all the functions of literary skill, just enough of them to outline what makes writing — and reading — good books a worthwhile endeavor. So I’m going to talk about style, which Alter did cover, along with genre and convention, which he didn’t.

Style, Alter says, is “the medium we swim in as we read,” and therefore is not something you can just pin down in a few descriptive phrases; but as he points out, it’s worth trying to tease out the concept so we can get a look at it. In general, writing exists because it’s a way of getting words from the person making them to another person who is not present. Now that we have phones and Skype and podcasts and television and Netflix, the fact that writing was made to cover that gulf of absence is somewhat obscured. But it’s one thing to leap that gulf with the written word; it’s another to make the most of it as a fillable gap, to turn it from mere negative space to an occasion for art that is complex, fanciful, representative, or stimulating, or all that and more.

That is where style comes in. The way in which a story is told is an intimate component of the story itself, and when a writer is skilled and in control of her instrument, that way of forming and ordering words “goes to the heart,” as Alter says, of the work. Connections are set alight, metaphors are ranked as buttresses, the fleeting experiences of the mind and soul are evoked; pace and diction shape the reader’s experience of the text in a way that draws them — or fails to draw them — into the dream of the writer’s world for the time that they are reading.

Alter also takes some pains to show how style is handled by less skilled writers: “A good deal of bestselling American prose,” he says, “is written in a mode one might call Standard Contemporary Novelistic, representing, I would guess, a homogenization and formulaic reduction of certain features of robust and muscular style introduced in the twenties and thirties by Hemingway, Dos Passos, Farrell, and others. This writing often reflects a certain workmanlike competence, but the suspicion of a cliche lurks around the corner of all too many sentences.” He goes on to say that striving to be “literary” is in fact a hallmark of mediocre writing, and skewers a passage of one of Barbara Cartland’s books in illustration of this.

I mean, on the one hand, ouch! But on the other, it’s worth getting at this sort of troubled synapse between the writer who hamfists a palette of literary styles, and the average reader who might, in fact, resent having to do even a little work to engage with a complex book. It brings to my mind two passages from books I’ve reread with enjoyment.

In my favorite of the Robert Galbraith novels written by J.K. Rowling, The Silkworm, our detectives are trying to unravel the mystery of a novelist who was killed, it seems, in the same tableau as the ending of his last manuscript. They wind up interviewing both “bad” and “good” writers, along with critics, agents, and publishers, who knew the victim, and Rowling doesn’t hesitate to draw direct parallels between the attitudes of the pathetically-derivative self-published writers and those of the celebrated masculine authors — their preening and their neuroticism, their senses of what’s decent among writers and how rarely those standards are lived up to, and so on. But the Cartland-like “bad” novelist insists on describing her work as “quite literary,” and undercuts her friend’s writing by saying “it’s not great literature or anything,” even while deploring how her friend had been treated by the murder victim. Alter’s right: an aspiration to be seen as “literary” is a sign of underdevelopment in a writer, one of those giveaways that tell you exactly what you’re likely to find in their work.

To compare with another meta-literary discussion: in Dorothy L. Sayers’s Gaudy Night, Harriet Vane attends a cocktail party with fellow writers, who are all talking about the Book of the Moment, either with admiration or bitterness, or a sort of Emperor’s-New-Clothes unwillingness to seem unsophisticated. “But what’s Mock Turtle about?” Harriet says, and is treated to a long description of an incomprehensible plot filled with grotesque characters. “But of course a lot of things came into it — it was one of those books that reflect the author’s reactions to Things in General. Altogether, significant was, he thought, the word to describe it….Harriet began to feel that there might be something to be said even for the plot of [her current manuscript]. It was, at least, significant of nothing in particular.”

I think one of the problems of the modern age (and by the modern age I mean a period that has its beginnings with the rise of the novel itself, leading to our polytextual mosaic of daily existence), is the perpetual consciousness of the literary arena in the mind of the writer. A writer doesn’t want to write from an external locus of what styles and subjects are “significant” — underdevelopment of one’s own style is one thing; failure to strike the right note among one’s peers is even worse. It’s not coincidental that these reflections on writers’ communities are from mystery novels — a genre which has been a handy scapegoat for all that is formulaic and hyper-laden with overused tropes. The writers of the mysteries actually in the reader’s hands — Rowling and Sayers — are taking their swipes at an establishment that dismisses their own literary merit out of hand even as it indulges its own artistic narcissism to a unrecognized and gross extent.

And the virtual cocktail party is always going on. Let a genre writer stick sensibly to “workmanlike” prose, and watch his book’s style be dismissed as unremarkable, his story as tropetastic. But let a genre writer conversely innovate one or more of her genre’s conventions, and she may get tagged as “pretentious” by reviewers and readers who “couldn’t get into it.” “Pretentious,” as it was pointed out in a blog I cannot now find, is a word that gets applied to people who the speaker thinks are undeserving of the thing they are “pretending” to, as a usurper pretends to a throne. To call someone “pretentious” is to tell them they ought to “know their place.” Alter says that he is unabashedly using literature and style as “honorific” terms, to counter the critical environment that has been busily deprivileging literary art as a mirage covering propaganda and deterministic structures. But Alter knows, I think, that we can’t just leave it at that.

As a writer and as a reader (and when they let me, as a critic), I think it’s part of the “high fun,” as Alter puts it, of literature to ask of a text how a thing is done, why it’s done, what effect it has, the sheer engineering of the thing; and then to apply a value judgment if appropriate. Here’s an example of a convention that irritates me as a reader, by way of example. In a lot of well-regarded modern fiction, it’s become a Thing to write dialogue without the use of quotation marks, and sometimes to dispense with the convention of starting a new paragraph with a new speaker as well. Whatever the author might intend by it, this has specific effects as the reader goes through the text. It buries the dialogue visually in the narrative as a whole, making the text appear to be a hermetically-sealed experience of the POV character if there is one, or the general situation if there isn’t. This can evoke a dream-like quality to the experience of reading which can quickly be escalated to nightmare if that’s what the writer wants.

As soon as I encounter a book like this, my reaction as a reader is something along the lines of: There damn well better be a payoff if you’re going to make me adjust to the absence of a helpful convention. And sometimes there is. But sometimes, it just comes off as a cheapskate way of making the text seem more difficult than it really is. Eventually, the Iowa Writer’s Workshop will move on to a new style Thing, and the tides will leave some books exposed as gimmicky.

As a reader, there are some difficulties I will tackle with joy — and some I will leave on the plate. I will read the Divine Comedy for the hell of it, struggle through a massively allusive Dorothy Dunnett novel, savor the patchworked personal narrative of a memoir like H is for Hawk; but Finnegans Wake? Someone else can read that. I’ve no axe to grind about what I’ve sampled of Lincoln in the Bardo, but I haven’t got round to finishing it either.

As a writer, I don’t aspire to produce deathless literary prose, in part because you can’t say “I’m going to go cut down a forest” without eventually having to tackle some tree or other. Erin Bow can write imagery with a miraculous economy and a gossamer touch, and I envy the hell out of that, but it’s a thing she no doubt developed by hard work while also being absolutely inimitable. In my youth I sought to write lots of first-person narratives because I had been reading a lot of very good ones and thought that was how you went about writing great fiction. But I’m not Harper Lee, either. While working on several fanfiction projects (and I’ll tackle the conventions of fic when I write about character and/or perspective at a later date), I learned how the surrounding style conventions worked and evolved, and chose what suited me to use; and by such degrees, and by reading more, and reading more kinds of things, I developed my instrument, which just happened to be useful for the kind of story I wanted to write. Go figure!

But as a reader who is also a writer, I crave discussion venues that aren’t just replications of the virtual cocktail party. In a response paper in a long-ago seminar of Victorian lit, I remarked on Jane Eyre that Charlotte Bronte had a quandary on her hands with the endgame of the novel, recognizable to writers and dreamers if not to anyone else — that Jane and Rochester had to get together at the end, and Rochester had to have suffered something by then, so how? What she did about the quandary makes for a much more interesting discussion, to me, than “I liked/didn’t like it” on the one hand or “Monological imperatives in Dick and Jane: a study in psychic transrelational gender modes,” from a Calvin and Hobbes strip pasted up on a fellow grad-student’s office door in an oblique commentary on our common critical enterprise. But a venue for real, actual literary discussion is surprisingly elusive — not just in the halls of academe but in listservs, blog communities, and book clubs whose purpose would seem to be nothing else!

I mean, I can’t be the only person who wants to have a thoroughgoing discussion about what’s actually in the book. Right?

And it helped, too

So yesterday was the kind of day where, although things didn’t exactly go badly, there was just a general atmosphere of stress, exacerbated by all the little things crowding the margins of my mind that I haven’t gotten done. I have taxes to do, and a sermon to write, and certain work deadlines have been glaring at me from beneath their heaps in Outlook for weeks.

(Speaking of exacerbate, a friend of mine has a running joke where when someone uses a 25-cent word, she says, “And [simpler word], too.” Once in our hearing, V remarked that something-or-other would exacerbate a certain situation, and C said: “It might even make it worse.”)

So at close of business yesterday evening, I shut down the lid of my laptop. “Fuck it,” I said, “I’m going to Bo Lings.” I put on my hat, grabbed my file of “Household Lights,” and went.

Bo Lings is one half of my mental spa ritual. The other half is Barnes & Noble. The order in which I visit them depends on how hungry I am, and whether I plan to purchase reading material to go with my dumplings and egg drop soup. In this case, preliminary editing was the order of the day, so after dinner I walked the two blocks to B&N and mouched about, browsing.

To my delight, I found that B&N had stocked Erin Bow’s new book. Which is, deplorably, not always the case at my local B&N.

Lo these many years ago, I was a failed beta reader for one of Erin’s early projects. Can we talk briefly about beta reading failure? Writers (at least all the writers I know including myself) continually trawl the mental rolodex of their friends for possible readers for their manuscripts: people with certain areas of expertise, or with discriminating taste, or with an editor’s eye for detail, or all of the above. But sometimes it happens that someone agrees to read a manuscript and then…just doesn’t. Or just can’t. And then there’s a shame spiral and they can’t even look at the file, and turn aside from the topic as soon as may be and may take to avoiding the writer on the street.

I’ve been on both ends of such a weltering disaster, and producing Ryswyck has taught me a lot about this aspect of project management. Well, actually, one of my betas taught me a lot about it: she suggested I give a timeline along with available dates for discussion so that she would be able to work it concretely into her schedule. “Ooh, concept,” said ADHD me. By providing a proposed deadline and other parameters, I as the writer can practice expectations management, and the beta reader can find it easier to cancel if necessary without having to say I don’t want to read your book ever ever ever.

Anyway, Erin has obviously found better betas, because she has now produced a string of brilliant books. I read through Chapter Six last night, and look forward to getting back to it. (You know, somewhere among all the abovementioned work.) Some writers worthy of the Evil Author badge are ingenious at making you cry by the end of the book, but Erin is special: she made me shed tears AT THE BEGINNING WTF.

Talk about a mental spa service upgrade. Couldn’t have found a better way to ameliorate my anxiety.