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John Keene: Elements of Literary Style

FORM VS. CONTENT, THE ETERNAL CONVERSATION

By  John Keene

The following was delivered at AWP in Tampa.

Literary style is the material articulation, in whatever genre and form, of an author’s attempt to record their vision, sensibility, and apperception of the world. The more fluid or less fixed the vision, sensibility and apperception, the more fluid and less fixed the style. No style stands outside the history in which it emerges, or outside the political, social and cultural context in which the author deploys it. The further outside history and context we perceive a style to be, the more likely we are to call it antiquated, anachronistic, unusual, unique, alienated, a failure, forward-looking. No style is solely the product of a given author, but a conversation with and response to a vast network of styles that preceded, parallel and follow that of the author. The author is not dead, pace Roland Barthes, but no author ever truly writes alone.

第 1 段(可获 2.08 积分)

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Individual style is a personal watermark. Even when you write against your usual tendencies, the imprint, however faint, may press through.

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“The touchstone is emotion, not reason. We judge a work of art by its effect on our sincere and vital emotion, and nothing else. All the critical twiddle-twaddle about style and form, all this pseudoscientific classifying and analyzing of books in an imitation-botanical fashion, is mere impertinence and mostly dull jargon.”

–D.H. Lawrence, The Phoenix

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When I first began writing as an adult, although one of my major literary spurs to attempting to put words on the page was Alice Walker’s fiction, I found myself more drawn to the style of John Edgar Wideman. In fact, one of my first published stories heavily mimics his style, particularly his use of clauses connected by commas. The effect beyond sinuous sentences, is to knit a narrative net, to create a capacious space in which all sorts of things, voices, shifts in tone, actions, are visible and can emerge. In the hands of a pro, as he was then and still is, the style can be evocative and effective. In my hands, the results perhaps were cloudier. When I submitted the story to an anthology, the editor, assuming my commas errors, or perhaps attuned less to what I was attempting and more to his own training and aesthetics as a writer, changed a number of them to periods. The result was a transformed story. I got very upset. But eventually, rereading the story, I grasped why he might have reacted the way he did, and worked to ensure that the style did not precede or occlude the content. At least, to the extent that I could.

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Conversations overheard from infancy on. Kitchen (table) talk, telephone conversations. Banter, indoors and out. Schoolyard back-and-forth. Books, comics, newspapers, magazines, films, TV shows, the radio, records. Jazz, R&B, rock & roll, pop, hip hop, punk, House, classical and art musics. Studies in Latin, French, Greek, German. Later self-taught Esperanto, Portuguese and Spanish, other languages, snippets, texts in other languages. Translating other languages. Imaginary and invented languages, mine and others. Texts I cannot read but pore over nevertheless. Archival documents. The sounds and shapes of nature and the body itself, technologies human and otherwise. Silence.

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“The difference between prose and poetry no longer derives from issues of quantity or technique, but of quality: the style is in fact perceived as a sproduct of a particular and unrepeatable sensibility)”

–Fiorenza Lipparini, “L’oscurità nella poesia moderna,” in Lettere Italiane, LXI, N.2, 2009

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I may once have read and heard someone say, apropos of fiction—though never of poetry or drama—something along the lines of one’s style should not be “intrusive” or “obtrusive.” But a few of the fiction writers I deeply admire have or had demonstrative styles: Laurence Sterne, Gustave Flaubert, Henry James, Marcel Proust, William Faulkner, Virginia Woolf, Ernest Hemingway, James Baldwin, Yasunari Kawabata, Thomas Bernhard, José Lezama Lima, Gabriel García Márquez, R.K. Narayanan, Manuel Puig, Ernest Gaines, Wilson Harris, Raymond Carver, Alexander Kluge, Muriel Spark, Clarice Lispector, Guy Davenport, David Foster Wallace, James McCourt, C.E. Morgan, Dennis Cooper, Laszlo Krasznahorkai, Renee Gladman, and Marlon James. In each case the style for me is synonymous with the writer. Yet I also adore and often return to writers for whom style, while compelling, polished and influential, is sometimes less obvious or overt, at times shifting and recalibrating within and across texts, according to the demands of the narrative at hand, resonating indelibly with the work’s content: Willa Cather, Toni Morrison, Angela Carter, Toni Cade Bambara, Paule Marshall, Ursula K. Le Guin, Leslie Marmon-Silko, Juan Goytisolo, Julia Álvarez, Maryse Condé, Christine Brooke-Rose, J.M. Coetzee, Gish Jen, Jayne Anne Phillips, Samuel R. Delany, Alice Munro, Sarah Schulman, Edwidge Danticat, Tayari Jones, Bernardine Evaristo, Chris Abani, Jeffrey Renard Allen, and Bhanu Kapil, to name a few. Interestingly, to me at least, the first group are nearly all male writers, while the second includes many women and writers of color.

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Vivid literary style that overpowers content is a plain metal coat rack heavily festooned with a basement’s store of holiday ornaments; powerful content with inadequate style is a giant evergreen onto which someone has attached a few strands of Mardi Gras beads, strips of paper and a couple of Post-Its. In both cases, we are still compelled to look, even if momentarily.

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“To emphasize style is to slight content, or to introduce an attitude which is neutral with respect to content.”

–Susan Sontag, A Susan Sontag Reader

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Style is not just the clothing in which we place the body of the text, but the body itself fitted, as well or poorly as we imagine and sew them, to that body.

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At a reception after the American Book Awards two years ago, Ishmael Reed, my former professor and a writer whose poetry has inspired me since I was very young, noted to me in passing that the generation of Black writers who emerged in the late 1950s and 1960s had given up the influence of William Faulkner and similar modernists, in favor of a more direct style. He didn’t say “simpler,” did he? Now, he continued, in part under the influence of James Baldwin, younger Black fiction writers were returning to more florid styles. Or did he say something else?—though I know I heard Baldwin, another touchstone for me, invoked. I believe I nodded and planned to ask him more about this, but people approached both of us, and I made a mental note to contact him about it. I don’t think he was being critical as much as make a comment about a shift in styles he noticed. I had mentioned to him how I found his most recent novel Juice profoundly influenced by the blogging he had undertaken for a while, giving it a different and distinct flow from some of his previous work (though Mumbo Jumbo anticipates a blogging sensibility by many decades). At some point, perhaps on Facebook, I do hope to take up the questions of Faulkner, Baldwin and stylistic changes over the decades with him.

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“And in truth ambiguity may often add strength. An idea suggested is more weighty: simplicity of statement excites contempt.”

–Demetrius, “On Style”

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The history of literary styles in Western literature is the history of the West, with all that this entails: not just a succession of historical, aesthetic and cultural movements, from the Dark Ages through today, but the long history of Western colonialism, imperialism, capitalism, and the exploitation and domination of vast swathes of the globe. This history is encoded in the DNA of literary styles in every Western society, as well as of many others across the globe, because of this history and genealogy, and the uneven circulation of literature and culture, though we may not be aware of it. No style is free of politics, just as no aesthetics is. What does it mean to be aware of this history, and to write both in the wake of it, and, depending upon the writer, against or through it? How do minoritarian and oppressed writers decolonize their style? The immediate answer is that we should study the many writers who, over decades, have taken steps and shown us many ways to do this.

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My style is—or should I say styles are—shaped in part by modernism and its capacity not just to depict, but capture the flow of and embody consciousness, and yet I can say about all my writing that, like our contemporary society, it is also the product of postmodernism, with its emphasis on portraying overlapping and at times seemingly incommensurate realities. If modernism ushered in access to a grasp of human psychology that prior prose authors lacked—yet many nevertheless figured out how to represent the human mind and its complexities to readers—postmodernism and its heirs have opened a window onto the complex ontologies in which we live and move today.

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“You can’t think the same way after you read a certain voice.”

–Toni Morrison, “Interview with Angela Davis”

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When I was younger, some years before I published my first book, Annotations, I struggled against unwritten stylistic expectations I had internalized over the years. I thought my prose had to look a certain way, and could not sound or read in the ways that it eventually took. I accepted that there was a particular set of styles the US literary world found acceptable, and not only did I not want to conform to them, I found it hard to do so even when I tried. While it did not lead to silence, it did provoke me to constant experimentation, extensive reading and modeling of the work of writers I found to be counter-examples to the dominant styles, and, ultimately, to the path I have found myself pursuing.

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Is there an ethics of style? How might we talk about it? What happens when we consider how one template for now-dominant literary styles, emphasizing craft and de-emphasizing politics, that are taught in many—most?—MFA and undergraduate programs, may have their possible origins in the US government-funded approaches instituted at Iowa and Stanford, as Eric Bennett argues us in his 2015 scholarly study Workshops of Empire: Stegner, Engle and American Creative Writing During the Cold War (University of Iowa Press)? Even setting this particular history to the side, as usually occurs in most creative writing programs, doesn’t every artistic act require some level of ethical inquiry? Are there styles and stylistic approaches we might label more ethical or less, and if so, why? Or might another way to speak of the ethics of style be to raise questions not just of historicity and genealogy, but also of the truth(fulness) of representations in relation to a given narrative? What role or roles do the larger social, political, economic, and cultural contexts hold in this line of questioning?

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“In order to find his voice he must first have mastered style”

–A. Alvarez, The Writer’s Voice

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Prose (fiction) should not be musical; this is the province of poetry. (“Poetry is music set to words” –Dennis O’Driscoll.) This is another dictum I have always worked under, and to some degree, because of my inner sensibility, against. Yet so much of the most memorable prose, not just poetry, appears to aspire to, as the old phrase goes, and often achieves the condition of music. What lines in prose fiction do you most readily recall? Even the ideas and statements that engrave themselves on your consciousness do so not just because of their aptness and timeliness, but because of how they were written, how they unfold, almost like lyrics or lyric, as prose.

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L’écriture feminine, yes. How is style gendered? How is it raced or racialized? How is it classed? How does one think of these concepts in relation to literary style? I mused earlier about whether and by what means minoritarian and oppressed writers might decolonize their style, but can the direct heirs of the colonizers, the imperialists decolonize? What are some of the ways their new style might look and sound like? How does one queer style, open it up? Certainly the critic, in assessing style, should think about such questions in the act of reading and appraising. Where are the intersectionalities in styles? What does it mean when you address and answer these questions in the work itself, in and as its style or styles?

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“The closer language comes to coinciding with [thought], the finer the result … one might almost establish the axiom that there is no such thing as subject—style in itself being an absolute manner of seeing things”

–Gustave Flaubert

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The ear and eye, yes, but every memorable style possesses a tactility too. You can hear it as you read it, see it unfolding on the page, but you can also imagine touching its materiality, holding it, turning it around in your head and hands, which is often how you might articulate its shape and effects if you were to describe it.

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Superlative, beguiling, enchanting style—and voice—can carry a writer far, perhaps over the entire span of a short story. In fact, in a story of a paragraph or a few pages, it can be everything, as Grace Paley, Fleur Jaeggy and Lydia Davis demonstrate in different ways. It can even work with a novella or short novel, as Pamela Lu’s Pamela: A Novel, exemplifies. In the absence of or with a deficit in the other major components of fiction, style alone is usually not enough for a work longer than 100 pages, though there are, as always, exceptions. Poor style, or even incompetence in prose, however, can survive if the subject matter, the plotting, a character or characters, or any combination of these elements gains and holds the reader’s attention.

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“‘What’s the best advice anyone ever gave you?’ Find a poet whose style you like, emulate that style, then deal with things you know about. Don’t waste your time looking for your own style.”

–John Cooper Clarke

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Style, along with tone, can be one of the most difficult things to translate from one language into another. When I was translating Hilda Hilst’s Letters from a Seducer (Cartas de um sedutor) from Portuguese into English, not only did her vocabulary and rapid shifts between linguistic registers pose countless questions, but her style—or multiplicity of styles—raised the highest hurdles. Hilst was drawing upon multiple traditions, which manifest themselves in this text, as I have written about elsewhere. As a translator, I think I only captured a small portion of her stylistic genius, which is to say, I failed, and yet I also believe the reader nevertheless can gain a compelling sense of who Hilst is by reading my translation. Not the fullest sense, but a rich one, nevertheless.

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The simpler a literary style in any other language, the easier it is to render into English—unless the style involves linguistically and culturally specific particularity, polysemy, or radical condensation; example one, Fernando Namora, for whom every single word has multiple resonances; example two, Yasunari Kawabata, whose concision draws upon longstanding Japanese literary and cultural traditions. In other cases, a sociocultural asynchrony with the dominant styles in the Anglophone world can present challenges, making the work sound stilted and out of fashion, even though it was written just yesterday and rings with a freshness in its own local context. The easier any literary style is to carry over into English, the more likely it is to be read globally, and perhaps translated into other languages from English, a realization some writers working in other languages have taken to heart. Yet what about English-language writers themselves, or those writers in other languages who see the unique resources of their native tongues and their national and cultural literary and oral traditions as a source of strength, artistry, and innovation, as well as the fount of their distinctive styles?

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“To understand a literary style, consider what it omits.”

–Mason Cooley

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Within any given society, in given eras, certain styles become established, which many, though not all writers, adapt to—or are compelled, for various reasons and by various means, to conform to. In democratic societies, it is usually by internalization, mimicry and modeling, pedagogy and the push of capitalism; in authoritarian and totalitarian societies, it is by force—of law, or worse. In the case of the former example, I am thinking, for example, of literary minimalism and its diffusion throughout American literary culture in the 1980s and 1990s. What were its origins and its effects? It would take at least an essay to trace them out, but literary minimalism fit the political, economic, technological, and cultural shifts of the time. It had powerful, well-placed champions, and some brilliant exemplars. Yet even during literary minimalism’s heyday, there were writers penning in the opposite direction: ample, expansive, baroque. No style works for everyone, though the further you are from the accepted style or styles, the more likely you are to be viewed as behind the times, or ahead of them.

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If effusive, overwrought prose is purple, what is parched, sere prose? Gray? Ash? Bone?

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“Style; sensibility and technique distinctively brought together, frees the writer from the weight of her own personality, gives to her an incandescence of personality, so that what she can express is more than, other than, what she is.”

–Jeanette Winterson, Art Objects

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Not all great writers are great stylists, but we remember the distinctive stylists among the greats, and the stylists among the not-so-greats. We sometimes forget those whose greatness lay in other literary strengths, though we also may be as likely to remember specific works by them, because of the subject matter. One immediately thinks of Theodore Dreiser. But even if we can describe those works in summary fashion, can we describe their style? Probably not, though does it matter? Or does it?

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Simplicity and efficiency. These are the touchstones for today. Pare down the modifiers, simplify the syntax, make it easy to read, i.e., consume. Avoid rhetoric. Shorter sentences, briefer paragraphs. In this neoliberal age, the time of Twitter and Facebook and Instagram and similar social media, in an arena in which words in print are yielding to a vast, mirrored ever-expanding hall of images, what does it mean to defy these trends, even if they are not dictates? (“Don’t use three words when one will do, we are told, and yet in many ways I’d rather use six words than three or, in contrast, no words at all, to leave gaps in the narrative, fissures where the reader might live.” –Christian Kiefer) If readers cannot skim or merely grasp something in a glimpse, will most of them struggle too much and give up? With the seemingly simplest styles, if there is too much ambiguity, too little explanation, will they prove too much of a challenge? Even if a writer aims to defy the technological and cultural shifts around her, might she be internalizing these aesthetics and cultural trends nevertheless?

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“I just want the music.”

–Christine Schutt

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There are degrees of literary style, styles that operate at the micro-level up through the macro-level of sentences and paragraphs. Sometimes style is in the service of form, sometimes it becomes it. Sometimes a writer’s style is evident no matter what form they employ; I am thinking of how, no matter what book of his I pick up, now matter how formally innovative, philosophically engaged, and distinct in focus—and this writer is a master of invention—I can always tell once I start diving into the sentences that a given text is by Percival Everett.

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Can a simple style capture a density of ideas? On his eponymously named blog, Michael Dalvean has argued that since the Middle Ages, “idea density” has fallen, and cites a paper, “Idea Density—A Potentially Informative Characteristic of Retrieved Documents,” by Michael Covington, at the Institute of Artificial Intelligence at the University of Georgia, to make his case. The basic algorithm for idea density, a concept long established in psycholinguistics, is “number of propositions ÷ number of words.” Two examples Covington gives are: “The mare is old, the mare is gray” (idea density=2.500, very low); and “The gray mare is very slightly older than…” (idea density=0.625, very high). Covington is clear to note that “idea density” does not correlate with the now famous Flesch-Kincaid reading level metric, nor with vocabulary size. Dalvean argues that as idea density has fallen, certain cognitive phenomena and effects associated with literature have disappeared as well. To put it another way, the effects of reading more “literary” vs. “popular” works are measurable in terms of testable responses after we read texts falling in each category. What do we lose with a plainer, less dense style, fewer modifiers, a simpler storyline? Or do we gain and reach more readers?

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“The sentence is the frame.”

–Kim O’Neill

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Can we teach style in high school and college classrooms? Shouldn’t we? Don’t many writers do this—have to do this—for themselves by reading on their own? To paraphrase Walter Benjamin, the old tradition of learning to write involved repeatedly copying out the best texts of the past. A colleague developed an updated version of this method for the undergraduate majors and minors at Northwestern University, where I taught for a decade. My fellow creative writing teachers and I, teaching the first half of advanced classes in the three genres of fiction, poetry and creative nonfiction, would select several writers and texts as models that the students would then strongly emulate. I tried always to create an educative and provocative mix of writers and texts that would give my students a sense of the wider range of possible options, and not just in terms of style, but subject matter, form, and so on.

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Certain models proved almost hypnotic to them: George Saunders, Amy Bender, Haruki Murakami, Junot Díaz, ZZ Packer. (Other strong influences, including David Foster Wallace and Roberto Bolaño, also kept materializing as models for the students, even when I was not teaching them.) The student writers who arrived in the class with strong individual literary compasses often brushed the influences off, intentionally or not, and their particular voices and styles were soon apparent. But many students fell under the spell of Saunders, say, or Murakami, as if writing in their ateliers. What I came to realize, however, was that as these students continued writing and reading, eventually their own stylistic tendencies, though shaped and trained by the established figures, would emerge. They had models to draw upon, and were on their way to becoming writers.

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Is erudition in style a marker of class privilege? Perhaps, and perhaps especially today, when many basic components of literary history and style probably are not being taught at the elementary and secondary school level. Can most students situate authors, texts and styles in relation to a historical-critical chronology? I often find that I have to define what I mean when I use terms like “modernism” or “post-modernism,” let alone “the Renaissance” and “Romanticism,” while also anchoring them for my students in a multilayered timeline. Training in rhetoric has mostly gone the way of the dodo bird, for arguably defensible and indefensible reasons. But literary style is not the province of the elite, even though today, as in the past, certain styles are privileged and championed over others.

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I think, for example, of the styles in Olaudah Equiano’s gripping narrative, or Harriet Wilson’s Our Nig, or the stories and novels of Frances E.W. Harper, or the oeuvre of Donald Goines, none of whom graduated from anyone’s college, but whose styles live with me even today. What are we talking about when we talk about style in relation to privilege? What are the aims of critics of style today, and do they articulate them fully for their readers? How might we make the history of literary styles—and by extension, literary history and histories themselves—more accessible to a wider array of readers?

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“Taken as a whole, literature in democratic ages can never present, as it does in periods of aristocracy, an aspect of order, regularity, science and art … Style will frequently be fantastic, incorrect, overburdened, and loose … The object of authors will be to astonish rather than to please, and to stir the passions more than to charm the taste.”

–Tocqueville, Democracy in America

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Literary style can disclose the inner tensions between a writer and her subject matter, between a writer and her peers, between a writer and her time. The style, like every other aspect of the work, may reveal truths the writer only subconsciously grapples towards.

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Write enough, and your stylistic tendencies will eventually make themselves visible, like water finding its level. This is both your promise, and your challenge.

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“You write in order to change the world … if you alter, even by a millimeter, the way people look at reality, then you can change it.”

–James Baldwin

Our styles are one way we do this.

Many thanks to Christian Kiefer for organizing this panel and for his introductory essay, invoked in various ways here, that sparked this response. Many thanks also to all of my fellow panelists, Coffee House Press editor Caroline Casey, and acclaimed writers Kim O’NeillChristine Schutt, for their insightful thoughts at the panel on this topic. (The reader can find a number of the citations by other authors online, as well as on the website “Some Literary Criticism Quotes,” which is where I culled some of them.) Unless otherwise noted, however, the comments and thoughts are mine.

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