My books can be purchased as e-books for only $1.99. If interested, just click here: Books.
Match Play is a golf/suspense novel. Dust of Autumn is a bloody one set in upstate New York. Prairie View is set in South Dakota, with a final scene atop Rattlesnake Butte. Life in the Arbor is a children's book about Rollie Rabbit and his friends (on about a fourth grade level). The Black Widow involves an elaborate extortion scheme. Doggy-Dog World is my memoir. And ES3 is a description of my method for examining English sentence structure.
In case anyone is interested in any of my past posts, an archive list can be found at the bottom of this page.
My newest novel, Happy Valley, can be found here.

Saturday, September 12

Writing Style

As an old English teacher, I often notice a writer’s style, especially when the style is noteworthy for one reason or another. Michael Dirda, in "Style Is the Man," defines it thus: "Beauty, I learned, grows out of nouns and verbs, and personal style derives from close attention to diction and sentence rhythm. When Yeats decided that his poems had become too ornamented and flowery, he took to sleeping on a board. Before long, he’d put the Celtic Twilight far behind and was producing such shockingly blunt lines as 'Nymphs and satyrs copulate in the foam.' "

Style is a combination of word choice, sentence type and length, descriptive accuracy, images that either bore us or surprise us, and a few other characteristics that are hard to explain. But I can recognize good style from bad. Most writing doesn’t need to do anything unusual. It simply needs to communicate whatever its message is. That’s what most non-fiction does or should do. I call it an invisible style, just doing its work without bothering or confusing the reader. Maybe the best and best-known American writer who wrote invisibly and yet managed to win the Nobel Prize for Literature was John Steinbeck. A good, maybe even a great writer, but not a stylist. Some writers love jargon and obfuscation and don’t want to admit they don’t know what they’re talking about. These are writers one should avoid. They’re bad and their styles are bad. Romance writers often use a purple style, lots of flowery images and sexual innuendo. It’s an easy style to spot and one you would do well to avoid.

Since I’m much fonder of fiction than non-fiction, I’ll stick to writers of fiction. The two I always cited in my English classes were Hemingway and Faulkner, polar opposites stylistically. Hemingway was what I’d call a plodder. His sentences came at you like a somnambulistic heavyweight, one simple sentence after another, sometimes two simple clauses in a compound sentence, the words agonizingly chosen. In real life he exuded machismo, and he wanted his writing to do the same, to be a plodding tough guy. Often he might get only one or two saved pages after a full day at the typewriter. Writers who followed Hemingway and tried to duplicate his style most often fell flat on their faces. It may appear simple but its looks are deceptive.

Then there’s Faulkner, who drives us crazy with his complexity. I’ve often wondered if he was actually aware of how complex his sentences were or if it simply came naturally to his ear. There is that sentence in “The Bear” that goes on and on for several pages, going ever deeper in the layers of subordinate thought, hooking word groups together with colons and dashes and parentheses. And the poor reader is swept along with him, hoping to find shore before drowning. Faulkner is more admired in the writing than in the reading. Most readers just don’t have the patience to figure him out. Of the current writers, James Lee Burke comes closest to Faulkner in both style and Deep South setting.

Some writers caress the reader with their style. Fitzgerald is a good example. Although he wrote many short stories for The Saturday Evening Post and Collier’s, stories he wrote hurriedly and without much revision, he was still one of the most elegant writers our nation has ever produced. Listen to Nick’s thoughts at the end of The Great Gatsby, thoughts about the dead Jay Gatsby and his dream: “Most of the big shore places were closed now and there were hardly any lights except the shadowy, moving glow of a ferryboat across the Sound. And as the moon rose higher the inessential houses began to melt away until gradually I became aware of the old island here that flowered once for Dutch sailors’ eyes—a fresh, green breast of the new world. Its vanished trees, the trees that had made way for Gatsby’s house, had once pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of all human dreams; for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.” Elegant.

The modern writer with an elegant style is Kate Atkinson, who is the most quotable writer today. Nearly every sentence she writes is new and elegant and quotable. Two examples from One Good Turn: “Gloria didn’t believe in heaven, although she did occasionally worry that it was a place that existed only if you did believe in it. She wondered if people would be so keen on the idea of the next life if it was, say, underground. Or full of people like Pam. And relentlessly, tediously boring, like an everlasting Baptist service but without the occasional excitement of a full immersion. . . . He thought he was invincible, but he’d been tagged by death. Graham thought he could buy his way out of anything, but the grim reaper wasn’t going to be paid off with Graham’s baksheesh. The Grim Reaper, Gloria corrected herself. If anyone deserved capital letters it was surely Death. Gloria would rather like to be the Grim Reaper. She wouldn’t necessarily be grim, she suspected she would be quite cheerful (“Come along now, don’t make such a fuss”).”

Gloria remembers a time when Graham had been stopped for speeding, drunk, speaking on his cell phone while eating a double cheeseburger.

“Gloria could imagine him only too well, one hand on the wheel, his phone tucked into the crook of his neck, the grease from the meat dripping down his chin, his breath rank with whiskey. At the time, Gloria had thought that the only thing lacking in this sordid scenario was a woman in the passenger seat fellating him. Now she thought that that was probably going on as well. Gloria hated the term 'blow job' but she rather liked the word 'fellatio,' it sounded like an Italian musical term—contralto, alto, fellatio—although she found the act itself to be distasteful, in all senses of the word.”

And that leads me to a writer I’m fond of, Lee Child. I and millions of others have read all the books in his Jack Reacher series. I just finished the latest, Make Me. If ever a writer had a distinctive style (without judging it as either good or bad), Lee Child is such a writer. I’d compare his style to a slap in the face, or if Reacher were doing it, a violent head butt. It’s characterized by lengthy descriptions of time and distance and weapon calibers and statistical analyses. The style typifies Reacher more than Lee Child. For example, in Make Me, Reacher is confronting a hit man who has come to take out him and his female companion. The faceoff is in a shabby apartment building hall and lasts from start to finish about three minutes, but it takes ten pages for Reacher/Child to explain exactly what will take place—the moves, the countermoves, the kind of blows he will need to deliver to foil the shooter. Reacher is obsessed with facts and details, and the style shows it. And as I earlier said, it’s neither good nor bad, just distinctive.
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