Style is Story is Style

Jeff VanderMeer • February 27th, 2011 @ 4:16 pm • Writing Tips

It should come as no shock to anyone that style in fiction is the arrangement of words in a story by a writer. If the writer is said to have a “distinctive” style it is because the writer’s voice has found expression in a way unique to the writer that resonates with the reader. Inasmuch as a story has depth, it is usually because the style can “multi-task,” to use a horrible word, and operate not “just” as how a story is told but in an intrinsic way, with each sentence/paragraph performing a different function in the context of the different elements of a story (character, setting, theme, etc.).

Some styles cannot multi-task. This is not a function of the simplicity or complexity of the words chosen necessarily, but a function of the simplicity or complexity of the layering the writer wishes to achieve; some writers have no choice but to operate at a simple level, while others can create simple and complex layering as they choose. Sometimes, the inability to multi-task is due to the banality of writer’s worldview. Sometimes, it is due to writing for a specific audience. Sometimes, the writer hasn’t yet matured to the point where his or her style can carry the weight (or carry it in an effortless fashion). Sometimes, of course, it is a choice—and a damn good one. Nor does a multi-tasking style mean baroque or purple prose; many great multi-tasking styles are “invisible.”

(Interrogatory: What is a superior style? Superior to what? And how do you judge? Each and every story must be told in the style best suited to it—whether simple and unadorned, or convoluted and ornate; some stories require both, or some hybrid. Most writers work in variations of one voice, but within those variations whole different worlds of meaning shift into focus, so this idea of “variation” is actually rather wide in its effects—and, thus, multiple styles.)

In relation to style, character is the arrangement of those particular words in a story that create an image of a construct, which, for the duration of the reader’s suspension of disbelief, appears to share some of the attributes that we believe constitute a human being, even though the only truly empirical evidence we possess in this regard is the anecdotal evidence of inhabiting our own skins. For all we know, everything around us is a construct of a rapidly decaying mind and our body lies upon a fever-sweated cot in the corner of some stark prison in another reality altogether.

Thus, our suspension of disbelief while reading a story is a micro version of the faith we have in the people who inhabit our real world, since we have no way of truly verifying anything we think we know about them beyond, perhaps, the most basic of banal facts.

(Counter-argument: Character is style, true, but this is like saying a person is made up of atoms. Yes, well, so is this chair I’m sitting in right now. What’s your point?)

Painters and writers are somewhat similar with regard to style, although they often have different goals with regard to the idea of narrative. Like writers, painters have a palette of colors to work with, which they then deploy to create a painting using brushstrokes. These brushstrokes are dictated by the types of brushes they use, and their personal approach to creating the brushstrokes. How they mix and layer the paint. The resulting image of a person will seem to exist independent of the brushstrokes, but it has no such autonomy (like a golem). This may not enter into a reader’s thoughts about why they liked or disliked a story, even though, were that person to view a painting, thoughts about the use of charcoal rather than watercolor, oils rather than acrylics, might come to mind almost automatically.

Some, of course, believe that style is merely an overlay, or an element of a story rather than the totality of the story—in part because any discussion of style by dint of focusing on it as a subject seems to make of it a separate element. But style doesn’t encrust a story, form on top of it. Instead, style permeates. It inhabits. It exists at the particle level, in each word as strung into a phrase, into a sentence, and, in some writers, in the syllable.

If you are Greer Gilman, it doesn’t exist just in the syllable, it exists in every meaning and derivation of the word from the beginning of written history, and thus as you read, each word creates layers of association that constitute a special kind of style. This is a special kind of obsession, true, but beautiful.

***

Is what I’ve written in this short essay true? Yes and no. As a writer and reader, I hold many different constructs in my head at once, with regard to ideas about fiction. That includes multiple approaches to thinking about style. It will always be healthiest for me to do, even if the ideas may seem mutually exclusive. The point isn’t to find a path, but to open as many paths as possible.

32 Responses to “Style is Story is Style”

  1. John H. Ginsberg-Stevens says:

    Weirdo.

    OK, serious now. I find this meditation on style very compelling, this notion of constructs-in-interpretation that are influenced not just by word choice and various associations (cultural, linguistic, etc.), but by organization, by . . . syntax, in a sense? Style shifts from an aesthetic choice to a principle integral to the story, and also becomes decoupled from a simple duality of prosaic/preposterous or commonplace/avant-garde. “Style over substance” becomes bullshit, which I think is s good thing.

  2. jeff vandermeer says:

    The style over substance debate is not only as corrosive as the genre/literary debate in falsely simplifying and creating gross generalizations…it also then feeds into false art vs commercial binaries. I call these discussion tumors–as they metastasize they render the debaters ever weaker and less able to process certain kinds of complexity. Of course, there are also discussion goiters, which just inconvenience a person….

  3. Theodora Goss says:

    I love this essay! :)

  4. Bryan Russell says:

    It is, as always, a pleasure to see you write about writing.

  5. Bryan Russell says:

    (And I love the idea of permeation. It reminds me of reading Dubliners years ago, trying to parse out the multiple meanings of words, the shifting and interconnected layers of meaning. And yet on the surface the style seemed so simple. Its depth was in word choice and resonance rather than sentence complexity.)

  6. Matt Cheney says:

    Good stuff!

    Whenever I think about such things, which is too often, I always get stuck on the question of translation, because there are compelling books that have survived quite bad translations, and so much as I want style to, in fact, be everything and inseparable, doubts nag at me, especially because I love the Russians. And can’t read a word of Russian. And if any group of writers has survived a bunch of bad translations, the Russian writers of the 19th Century is that group. (At least, according to people I know who can read Russian. They could be lying to me.)

    Somewhere years ago I read somebody who hypothesized that the reason certain writers — I think Dostoyevsky and Kafka — were able to become popular in England and the U.S. is that their early translators (Constance Garnett and the Muirs) smoothed out their writing, removing some of the things readers of English at the time would have found difficult (sudden changes of tense; nonstandard punctuation), and thus made them a little bit more palatable. By the time more accurate translations were published, these writers had already achieved an audience and reputation, so the later versions were welcomed, whereas if those versions had been the very first ones, they might have been too weird to achieve much appeal beyond a very small group of ultra-weirdos (like inveterate Dadaists).

    And yet … though I prefer the accuracy of later translations of “The Metamorphosis” over the Muirs’ version, no matter what, the story still axes the frozen sea within me every time I read it. I read The Brothers Karamazov in two translations at once, alternating — one recent (indeed, even fixing the title to The Karamazov Brothers), the other the Garnett, I think. And it still felt like the same book. It could be that I am an insensitive reader, but I think there’s something else going on, though I’ll be goshdarned if I can locate exactly what it is.

    This is true for me even with the untranslateable — I never read just one trans. of Paul Celan’s poems (and I have enough German to be able to pick out the absolute basics of the originals), but though they are hugely different from each other … there’s still something that is, to me, ineffably Celan in all but the very worst versions. The difference in quality between the translations is more noticeable than with fiction, because Celan is a writer for whom every syllable is, indeed, important, but still… (There are writers for whom this isn’t true. Various people have pointed out that nobody has yet managed to capture in English what is really beautiful in Rubén Darío’s poems in Spanish, and back when my now-very-dusty Spanish was good enough to read Darío, I found that to be true. My own clumsy translations made the poems blah, but so did the professional translations I read.)

    Which is not to deny anything you’ve said — indeed, to applaud it! Oh, I could go in all sorts of différant post-structural directions about this, and sometimes, insomnified, I do, but it never gets to the Thing Itself, which I suppose is a Transcendental desire (I live in the land of the Transcedentalists), and so, like Galway Kinnell’s bear hunter,

    “the rest of my days I spend
    wandering: wondering
    what, anyway,
    was that sticky infusion, that rank flavor of blood, that
    poetry, by which I lived?”

    (Man, those poets have style!)

  7. Shweta Narayan says:

    Love this, and now you have me thinking about those aspects of style, for writers and artists, that are in conversation with previous pieces — not quite thinking at Greer Gilman’s level of layered history but at the ways in which we’re unconsciously or consciously mirroring or responding to other aspects of the culture in the way we choose our word palettes.

  8. jeff vandermeer says:

    Thanks, Shweta. Meant to link to your piece on perspective awhile back but wanted to add a thought that I need time to write out.

    Matt–I know exactly what you mean and thus my own ambivalence at the end, in that however one talks about style it always feels like a construct and like as soon as you name it, it slips from your fingers. Which is fine. The attempt and then the additional commentary like yours is always useful and fuel for further thought.

  9. jeff vandermeer says:

    Matt: Maybe what you sense is a connection through the ghost– recombined words in a different language–to the original living organism. A skeleton or a wraith or even a creature reimagined retains a sympathy for the cellular complexity of the original.

  10. Nihilism and Plagiarism Redux – and a little bit on Style | Cora Buhlert says:

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  11. Radu Romaniuc says:

    My language is vastly different from English/American (which I try to learn and write in) and I can’t see how something that I write in Romanian can be properly translated and retain its style.

    First of all, there’s a lot more words in Romanian (’cause it doesn’t have all those composed words), the grammar is way more complicated, the phrase forms differently (in English, German, French you put the Subject first, Action second? “The Germans are coming.” In Romanian is the other way around, Action first “Vin nemtii.”), and so on. And the words I use – I can construct a phrase in a certain way when I have a word like “naduf” for example, which suggests a lot by its sound (the word means that feeling you have when you’re upset and you let go of your anger through a gesture or sound). And the way verb tenses change (I think Matt Cheney mentioned that too in regards to Russian works), this is something I can use again to make my phrases “sound” in the way I need, but in English is confusing. This bit of style goes away in translation, doesn’t it?

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  17. Carrie Vaughn says:

    I like this, too. I’ve always thought of style as “thinking about the words you use and what effect they have on the reader/story/experience.” So to discount style is to discount everything.

  18. s johnson says:

    “In relation to style, character is the arrangement of those particular words in a story that create an image of a construct, which, for the duration of the reader’s suspension of disbelief, appears to share some of the attributes that we believe constitute a human being, even though the only truly empirical evidence we possess in this regard is the anecdotal evidence of inhabiting our own skins. For all we know, everything around us is a construct of a rapidly decaying mind and our body lies upon a fever-sweated cot in the corner of some stark prison in another reality altogether.”

    The narrator is the first construct, but it need not (once upon a time, usually?) did not have an image. Even the traditional omniscient narrator is a construct, as unique as the author, as subjective as religous experience. Theme and incident and character also reveal the narrator. Formally, the arrangement of words, “style,” means the construction of the narrator. (For “narrator,” you can substitute something like “point of view on the fictional representations created by the sequence of words,” but this seems ungainly to me. Bad style, so to speak.) Yet, in common usage, “style” refers to a series of sentences like statues in a gallery. The reader meanders amongst them, peers at them from all angles, without boring lectures from guides or factoids from placards. The bare marble, the unadorned bronze embodies the purity of the emotional response created by the author. The absence of narration serves to mask the narrator. Aren’t masked narrators, like most masked figures, menacing?

    The striking way that character is dismissed as fictional as other people, as exterior reality itself explains why in practice beautiful sentences are not arranged to reveal theme or incident or character. Such dialogue with the abyss is absurd. The beautiful sentences are paper cranes cast upon the tides. Their beauty is precious because they are so quickly wafted away into the eyeless chaos.

  19. Ben Jones says:

    Very penetrating and very true. A writer can’t simply concentrate on the story and ignore everything else, because “everything else” is enmeshed in the story. It’s why you’re writing it and no one else is.

  20. Gary Farber says:

    I simply wish to say “yes!” to every word of this post, and its fine style, which is content, which are words, which are put well.

    But I’ll pull these quotes in particular:

    Each and every story must be told in the style best suited to it—whether simple and unadorned, or convoluted and ornate; some stories require both, or some hybrid. Most writers work in variations of one voice, but within those variations whole different worlds of meaning shift into focus, so this idea of “variation” is actually rather wide in its effects—and, thus, multiple styles

    [...]

    Instead, style permeates. It inhabits. It exists at the particle level, in each word as strung into a phrase, into a sentence, and, in some writers, in the syllable.

    Yes.

  21. Kelly Barnhill says:

    I’m gonna link to this any time someone asks me “Why do you write like that?” Answer: “Because VanderMeer Says I can.”

    I remember the first time I heard the mowing scene from Anna Karenina read in Russian. It was a revelation – though I don’t even speak the language. But it was the first time that I realized that sound *matters* in writing, even if it’s never read out loud. Even in silence, sound matters.

    In my work, it’s all about the sound, the rhythm, the whisper of the piece against the skin – and this post, Jeff, is my new manifesto. So thank you.

  22. Paul Jessup says:

    Kelly-
    “I’m gonna link to this any time someone asks me “Why do you write like that?” Answer: “Because VanderMeer Says I can.”

    That’s a powerful thing

  23. Nick Mamatas says:

    Feminazi thug!

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  25. Colin says:

    What is a superior style? Superior to what?

    Well, superior to Dan Brown, obviously.

  26. s johnson says:

    Dan Brown? This reminds me of some discussion a few weeks ago. (Started in the Guardian? The details have already fled my memory.) Some sad sacks repeatedly cited Brown and Stieg Larsson as mystifyingly successful horrible writers. In the US millions of people believe in Christianity but have never thought about it. And Brown’s Da Vinci Code offered a new perspective on the view of human history and religious belief, but these people couldn’t figure out that this might be, you know, interesting. (The assumption was that Larsson’s exposition on Swedish maritime law or whatever was boring. I haven’t read Larsson but I’m not certain that detailed information about something real is necessarily boring.) It is also true that Brown’s thematic interest could have been addressed even better with a minimally competent writing style. The real question is. why do so few good stylists have anything half as interesting to say as Da Vinci Code? Is it really so hard to comprehend that, say, Kelly Link’s Magic for Beginners might not have much of an audience because, as beautifully arranged the words are, they don’t add up to much?

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  28. Trip says:

    “It is also true that Brown’s thematic interest could have been addressed even better with a minimally competent writing style. The real question is. why do so few good stylists have anything half as interesting to say as Da Vinci Code? Is it really so hard to comprehend that, say, Kelly Link’s Magic for Beginners might not have much of an audience because, as beautifully arranged the words are, they don’t add up to much?”

    Sorry, but those are just empty statements. To my mind, most good stylists have much more to SHOW that poor stylists SAY, with however much aplomb they say it (Dan Brown and his “thematic” cosmic revelations are a case in point). So, who of us is right? That’s where examples come in. You give none. The same goes for your comment about Kelly Link’s Magic for Beginners.

  29. s johnson says:

    Dan Brown and Kelly Link are examples. The interestingness of Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code is incontestable. The bibliography of works addressing a badly written thriller proves it. If there are issues in accepting this, they have nothing to do with words as art. The general lack of interest in discussing most of the fine stylists is painfully obvious to the fine stylists, and their admirers. The uninterestingness of Kelly Link’s stories is a personal observation. If you want examples to discuss style over substance, try Charles Dickens versus George Eliot.

    A much better example of an empty statement is “A skeleton or a wraith or even a creature reimagined retains a sympathy for the cellular complexity of the original.” Good luck figuring out what that could possibly mean.

    The other examples in the comments were the translations, the existence of which prima facie refute the thesis of the essay. The only defense of “style is story is style” is to forthrightly avow that there is indeed no such thing as translation and instead every translation is its own work of art. It seems to me that Professor Cheney clearly does favor this interpretation. But discreetly, discreetly, because it is quite extreme. In its own way it’s as bizarre as taking seriously the idea that the universe is a fever dream.

    The original essay cites one example, Greer Gilman. I’ve never heard of this person and am heartily sorry to say that the citation inspires no interest at all in finding out more, which is an unusual non-response. The original essay relies heavily on the metaphor of painting, casting word choice as brush stroke or choice of medium. Which is a well chosen metaphor. But, I also think, as so often, a well chosen metaphor explodes the thesis. Things like theme and narrative and character parallel differences in painting with linear perspective or primitive painting or geometric painting or religious/ceremonial painting that relies on conventional symbols to communicate.

    Literature has emergent properties. I’m not sure why this is difficult to accept.

  30. Trip says:

    The bibliography of works addressing Dan Brown’s thriller has a purely marketing and sensationalist purpose. I’ve translated one such “work” into my native tongue. These works do not address the Da Vinci Code as literature. They discuss it as something on par with the “revelations” of madame Blavatskaya and Ernst Muldashev.

    “The general lack of interest in discussing most of the fine stylists is painfully obvious to the fine stylists, and their admirers”

    As I said, patently untrue, as far as my experience is concerned. You cannot possibly expect a *widespread*, *common* interest in fine literary technique, or fine film technique, or even the finer aspects of popular entertainment. But, as far as my experience is concerned, what *actually* counts as interest is the excitement of a group of experienced, sensitive readers and the lively, argumented dialogue it enters in with other such groups, excited by different aspects of the work or maybe not excited at all. But the dialogue and the readers’ competence is what counts. A guy with a lot of intellectual and creative clout, Samuel Delany, says basically the same in an essay of his about literary quality. It has been the case in *my* experience as a reader, writer and reviewer, long before I read the essay (which I did about two weeks ago).

    Having said that, I am not convinced of your level of competence when you cite the number of money-milking booklets about Dan Brown as a proof of his merit. It’s not a smart argument, to my mind.

    A general observation on your first paragraph – it doesn’t matter how much you repeat that something is obvious; that doesn’t *make* it obvious. See, there are a lot of people that have thought about literature much longer and deeper than you and me combined, and have read much more literature that you and me combined, that I guess would laugh you out of the room if you try to argue with them with that kind of attitude. (Please notice, I’m not talking about the quality of your arguments. I’m talking about the “Well, OF COURSE it’s obvious!” attitude to the matter.)

    Also, when I speak about examples, I don’t mean pitting author vs. author. I’m talking about looking at *texts*. The author vs. author stuff is for third-graders. I’m not even talking about putting authors/texts/whatever *in opposition*. It’s a communicatively bankrupt way of having a conversation about literature, something one should start growing out of at about the time one enters college. And when I said “looking at texts” I mean looking at them not as tools to prove a point, but as something to just talk about. Conversations about literature thrive on intellectual tension; their aim is never resolution. Which is why the sense of certainty I get from you nags me. It might be the way I read you, so I’m willing to place the blame for that at my door.

    “The other examples in the comments were the translations, the existence of which prima facie refute the thesis of the essay. The only defense of “style is story is style” is to forthrightly avow that there is indeed no such thing as translation and instead every translation is its own work of art. It seems to me that Professor Cheney clearly does favor this interpretation. But discreetly, discreetly, because it is quite extreme. In its own way it’s as bizarre as taking seriously the idea that the universe is a fever dream.”

    Of course there is such a thing as translation. But as a person who’s studied the practice and theory of it, I can attest that “translation” does NOT in any way mean “creating an equivalent of the source-language text in the target-language text”. It strives for equivalent effects. Moreover, it strives for the equivalents of effects that the translator has felt/seen in the text. One and the same text, translated by two different translators, has two different sets of aesthetic effects. Inevitably. Sometimes a couple of synonym choices may turn a character from cock-sure to an asshole. Sometimes it may change the whole picture the reader gets.

    Our local translator of Steven Erikson’s Memories of Ice, for example, translated the word “ornate” (it had to do with the battle-masks of a warrior-culture) with a word that in my language (Bulgarian) means “many-colored”. A little later in the text it’s explained that the masks are black-and-white. That word “many-colored” stood out like a wart on the page. So no, translations are not “their own” works of art, they are derivative works of art. Nabokov speaks about the art of translation and bemoans the way narrative tenses are screwed up in the English translation of Madame Bovary. Actually, any translator that has ever had anything to do with serious translation would talk to you about how translation is an art, and not just as a fancy aphorism. It combines many of the meaningful aspects of both reading and writing. And just so we’re clear – translation is an *act*. What it results in is *a work of art*. It is a work of art, different than the one in the original language. Translation is, to some extent, salvage. You CAN’T dredge up everything from the original, although you MAY dredge up something new and different that will serve you just as well.

    As to your last sentence of that paragraph – there goes that certainty, only tinted with a touch of hilarity. I mean, you somehow equate the idea that there’s no such thing as full-equivalence translation with a cosmic untruth (or rather, as a cosmically bizarre concept)? It’s funny, admit it ;)

    “Things like theme and narrative and character parallel differences in painting with linear perspective or primitive painting or geometric painting or religious/ceremonial painting that relies on conventional symbols to communicate.”

    It’s either your grammar or English not being my native language, but I didn’t get that sentence. Also, what does “Literature has emergent properties” mean?

  31. s johnson says:

    “You cannot possibly expect a *widespread*, *common* interest in fine literary technique, or fine film technique, or even the finer aspects of popular entertainment. But, as far as my experience is concerned, what *actually* counts as interest is the excitement of a group of experienced, sensitive readers and the lively, argumented dialogue it enters in with other such groups, excited by different aspects of the work or maybe not excited at all. But the dialogue and the readers’ competence is what counts.”

    Very clear and pertinent. This clarifies the issues in the essay and responses perfectly. Thank you for your assistance.

    As to the questions about my competence and language difficulties, I don’t take them at face value any more.

  32. Trip says:

    Well, they were meant to be taken simply as questions.

    When I said I wasn’t convinced of your competence, I meant that particular argument didn’t convince me. It did not, for me, preclude the possibility of your convincing me of your competence. The same goes for my last comments. I genuinely didn’t understand what you were trying to say. By “your grammar”, of course, I meant your grammar in that particular sentence.

    I admit I usually don’t have much respect for opinions that describe this or that as “self-evident” and “obvious” and turn literature into a battle of the authors, but I would never stoop to sarcasm (otherwise I wouldn’t be as wordy as I am). The comment about the third-graders was intended to put across forcefully the fact that I *do not* like discussion that put authors/traditions in opposition. Literary dialogue is not a football match. There are no results at the end, no winner.

    A question, out of curiosity. Did you come up with the sentence about the wraiths or you took it from somewhere? :)

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