A Few Thoughts on Style

Obviously, different writers have different styles, and some writers’ styles are almost indistinguishable from others, and some writers’ styles are very different. Occasionally, a writer’s style is so unique that it’s virtually impossible to imitate or emulate, and, in general, such writers tend not to be huge financial successes, although a very few do manage it, usually those whose styles do not scream out the nature of their uniqueness.

That’s easily said, but what is style? According to the sixth edition of A Handbook to Literature, “Style combines two elements: the idea to be expressed and the individuality of the author. From the point of view of style it is impossible to change the diction to say exactly the same thing; for what the reader receives from a statement is not only what is said, but certain connotations that affect the consciousness.” Or what about this definition? “In fiction, style consist of the codified gestures by which the author tells the story.” Or this one by the mystery author Nancy Curteman? “Style is not what an author writes, but the manner in which she writes it. It is an author’s unique way of communicating ideas. One might say that style is the verbal identity of a writer. An author defines her style in word choice and syntax.”

The last definition centers on how a writer chooses words and sentence construction to convey the story to the reader. There are two aspects of that conveyance. The first is whether the words and structure are clear and in general accord with the “rules” of grammar, or at least enough so that the reader understands what is going on. The second is how the reader perceives that construction, and often that perception is based on the reader’s skills as a reader, having little to do with the writer’s skills as a writer. Use of unfamiliar terms, less common tenses, or extremely complex sentences are often cited as “stylistic” flaws, but their use, per se, is not a stylistic flaw. Only their misuse is.

Another question about style that’s especially relevant to fantasy and science fiction is whether the ideas presented are themselves part of style, or whether only the way in which they are presented represents style. This may seem like hair-splitting, but it’s really not, at least not in F&SF. In mainstream fiction, including mystery novels, frankly, the ideas are all out there. Most of them have been there for centuries, if not longer; so the stylistic issues center around the presentation of the ideas, not the ideas themselves, and this this mindset is reflected in the Curteman definition above.

By presenting new ideas or new perceptions about technology that does not yet exist or magic, which may never exist in our universe, except in the sense described by Arthur C. Clarke, an author changes the reader’s context, and by changing that context, influences, and perhaps even creates conflict with, the reader’s normal connotations of what some words may represent. By initially presenting “black” as the color of order (with the associated connotation of “law”) in the early Recluce books, I definitely challenged certain perceptual connotations, at least for American and western European readers. In a different way, the “culture” novels of Ian Banks also create challenges to standard connotations, and certainly so do the works of China Mieville and others.

Add to this the possibility that the presentation and development of an idea in fiction cannot truly be separated from the way in which it is presented and developed, and that suggests that critics and readers who talk about a writer’s style and ideas as if they are separate are missing the point. Over the years, I’ve read and heard comments about writers along the lines of “great ideas, poor style” or “great style, weak ideas.” That’s missing the point. Ideas are a part of style, not separate from it. Elegantly crafted sentences without the support of ideas well-presented are the literary equivalent of empty calories, and ideas thrown baldly at the reader might be classed, using the food metaphor, as raw meat of some type or another, possibly digestible, but hardly palatable to most. Or put another way, good style is when an author captivates you to the point where you enjoy the meal without thinking of either the ingredients or the way in which the chef put it together.

2 thoughts on “A Few Thoughts on Style”

  1. Daze says:

    That’s assuming you’re allowed to have a style by your editor. CJ Cherryh has a tale about a manuscript being returned with the copy-editor having used a grammar checker to render the whole thing into standard business english, removing all individuality of phrasing, accents, rendering of non-english-speakers misuse of words …. style …

    1. I only had an experience similar to that once — some fifteen years ago — thankfully when grammar checkers, otherwise known as grammar error compounders, were not in wide use and when Tor still required paper manuscripts, so the “corrections” were in red on paper. I pointed out the idiocies and suggested that Tor never hire that copy-editor again. I don’t know if Tor did, but I never saw that editor again.

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