Orlean, Bronson, Butler and others on style

Some of my favorite stylists share their thoughts

Ask any writer to define literary style, and you’ll find that the answer is as distinct as, well, that writer’s style. I noodled around on the Net and found that Gore Vidal defined style as “knowing who you are, what you want to say, and not giving a damn.”

Italian filmmaker Federico Fellini, on the other hand, called it “craftsmanship”: “What’s really important for a creator isn’t what we vaguely define as inspiration or even what it is we want to say, recall, regret, or rebel against. No, what’s important is the way we say it. Art is all about craftsmanship. Others can interpret craftsmanship as style if they wish. Style is what unites memory or recollection, ideology, sentiment, nostalgia, presentiment, to the way we express all that. It’s not what we say but how we say it that matters.”

Poet Robert Frost remarked that “style is the mind skating circles around itself as it moves forward.”

Are you dizzy yet?

I took a crack myself at defining style in an essay in Talking Shop: I suggest that literary stylists use wonderful words, smart syntax, literary devices, and maybe even structure to echo or underscore the idea of their story.

But, mucking  around a bit more, I asked some of my favorite writers—including Po Bronson and Susan Orlean—how they define style, and whether they have favorite “stylists.” Here’s what they said:

Po Bronson:

I don’t have singular favorite stylists, I just keep a mental catalog of style tricks I’ve seen over the years, which are available to draw upon (if, theoretically, I could remember them at the right moment). But I do think about it. On my website I have this page where I have an example of a variety of fiction and nonfiction, implementing stronger styles of various sorts. One’s a story through FAQ style narrative. One’s nonfiction meant to read with the immersion of fiction. One’s about split alternative narrative futures. One’s an early short story in maximalist voice, my reaction to the popularity of minimalism in the early 90s.

Susan Orlean:

Style is so hard to describe… I guess I’d say it’s as ineffable and indescribable as someone’s personality, and in fact, I think a writer’s style is linked exactly to personality. It’s the voice of the storyteller, the distinct tone and tenor of how a writer “talks.” I think of it as a genuine and organic expression of the writer’s way of looking at the world.  My favorite stylist? Hmm. Non-fiction? Or fiction?

Tommy Tomlinson:

I usually think of style as something that strikes me AFTER I’ve read the story—if the story is really good, I’m a lot more concerned about what happens next than how the author is presenting it. When the style outshines the substance, I usually just put the book down. It’s a delicate trick, I think, to write in a style that sounds like a narrator (or a character) speaking, and not like the author speaking. I love a narrative voice that sounds more like somebody telling me a story than an author writing down words. When the style is right it’s intellectually absorbing AND emotionally rewarding.

Gary Smith of Sports Illustrated has a distinctive style—he talks directly to readers, guiding them through the story, peppering them with questions. Every time I read a new Gary piece, it’s a jolt to read that style, and I’m always thinking this is the time it won’t work. Then 100 words later I’ve forgotten all about it and I’m neck-deep in the story. This is one of my favorites. And here’s a story I did a few years ago as a Gary Smith homage.

Katy Butler:

The “literary style” I worship is compelling and transparent. If style is the window through which I see the story, I don’t want the window drawing attention to itself, covered with filigree or etching. I want to see the characters in the scene, and be absorbed in the writer’s thoughts. So I don’t like unnecessarily fancy words or over-clever thoughts. On the other hand, I work for hours on the opening of a piece to get it right. I don’t want any dirt or lumps on that window. I scan the sentences, as if they were poetry, because what trips the tongue will trip the eye, and beautiful rhythm will please and reassure the reader without her knowing it. You want the reader to know she’s in good hands. I omit unnecessary words and details. I trust my irrational mind or heart when it insists on including a detail whose significance I don’t understand.

In the opening of “My Father’s Broken Heart” [written for the New York Times Magazine], I HAD to include the mention of two cardinals in my mother’s birdbath, her Japanese iron teapot, the weak October sunlight in which we discuss turning off my aged father’s pacemaker.  I don’t want the reader to linger over those details, but I want them to subtly suggest the fidelity of a long marriage, my immigrant mother’s foreignness and interest in Zen, the weakening of the end of life.

So I like style that is pared-down, and yet beautiful. Metaphors and similes exist, but are sparely used. More is implied than stated. There’s rhythm, alliteration, choice of “kitchen table” Anglo-Saxon words rather than multisyllabic Latinate language.

On the other hand, I love Virginia Woolf, and her language is often complex. But the language never overwhelms the images. I am carried on a stream.

Primo Levi’s “Survival in Auschwitz” is another example of the style I like.

Good prose writers are secret poets. We use all of the craft skills of poetry: telling detail, synecdoche, repeating elements at the opening and the end, rhythm, scansion, etc. But we pretend we aren’t doing it.

My colleague Audrey Dolar Tejada, a journalist and poet who experiments with nonlinear storytelling at www.strangetango.com, added these thoughts:

Literary style is ultimate self-expression and exploration. In an era in which books are largely marketed to leverage on multiple platforms, in digital forms, as movies and screenplays, and as brands, I eschew the temporal for the eternal. Stylists like Italo Calvino and Jorge Luis Borges wrote novellas—a literary form now rarely published in which concept and form, not necessarily plot, are part of the intellectual and sensory enjoyment of literary works. Judged against today’s best sellers, Borges’ “The Library” and Calvino’s “Invisible Cities” are unmatched in their innovation, spare beauty, and ambition.

How do you define style? Add your comments, below. And if you’d like to play around a bit with style, there are some suggestions in Week Twelve section of Online Writing Classes.


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One Response to Orlean, Bronson, Butler and others on style

  1. Constance Hale March 2, 2011 at 6:41 pm #

    In a Q & A on Sliver of Stone, a new online literary magazine, Susan Orlean talks about her writing: http://www.sliverofstone.com/Susan_Orlean.html

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