Monday, July 06, 2009

On style

Patrick Kurp closes a typically fine discussion of the Anglo-Russian novelist William Gerhardie by quoting him on style:

A writer’s style is the measure of his personality, and cannot be acquired consciously. It shows unmistakably what you are: gives you away for what you are.Michael Oakeshott, his six-years-younger contemporary, says something similar. “Not to detect a man’s style,” he writes, “is to have missed three-quarters of his actions and utterances; and not to have acquired a style is to have shut oneself off from the ability to convey any but the crudest meanings.”[1]

A writer’s style is the most effective means of identifying him. Yet style is neglected in literary criticism and education. It has been replaced by racial or ethnic identity and its cousins gender and class. A writer is identified, not by detecting his unique and peculiar style, but by identifying him with a physiological category or social group with which he may share only superficial resemblances. This eliminates any need to wrestle with his thought, which might distinguish him from the group.

The problem, of course, is how to define style. In his introduction to an anthology on the problem, J. V. Cunningham shows that there are three basic kinds of definition—negative, affirmative, and neutral. Benedetto Croce is advanced as a spokesman for the first, holding that “how a thing is expressed is indistinguishable from the expression. . . .” Cicero and “Longinus” represent the second view; for them style appears but seldom, but when it does it deserves praise. The “neutral concept” is that “everything has style, though one may contrast various styles and find this good and that bad.”[2]

My own is a neutral conception of style. Gerhardie and Oakeshott, quoted above, are affirmative: a style is a good thing to have. (To rephrase from my point of view: a good style is a good thing to have.) Style is the trace of mind, or what the Jews call sekhel, implying native shrewdness in addition to intelligence. What logic is to reasoning so style is to writing. It is where a man takes hold of a subject, how he turns it over, when he pauses and when he hurries on. A return to style from the fumbling of identity would also make it possible to distinguish a man’s thought from what he is saying. For style, as I would define it, is the stance and tempo of a mind.

[1] Michael Oakeshott, “Learning and Teaching,” in The Voice of Liberal Learning, ed. Timothy Fuller (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989), p. 56.

[2] J. V. Cunningham, “The Problem of Style,” in Collected Essays (Chicago: Swallow Press, 1976), pp. 251–52.


Kevin said...

Style is the most important part of literature. And I agree with Gerhardie definition but I also see it in a neutral light. Everyone has style and it can be good or bad. Though I don't think it is something that can really be taught or worked on. An author can just read and write and develop through time. It isn't something that can be intentionally changed. And I think because of that it is often overlooked.

Rosin said...

An optimally effective style is not easy to articulate, although it's not hard for a good reader to sense. Identity may have supplanted it, in part, because it's so easy to articulate, and our culture seems to have an addiction to ease.

While it would be shameful were identity to be ignored, it seems even more shameful were it to overshadow everything that is more nuanced and less readily articulatable.

D. G. Myers said...

Unless the author’s racial or ethnic identity is demonstrably relevant, why should it not be ignored?

Rosin said...

We should consider if it's relevant, which means not ignoring it. If it turns out not to be relevant -- as it sometimes is (although I haven't considered the extent to which that's so) -- it should be ignored. But to ignore it without consideration of its relevance strikes me as unfortunate.

How often do you think it's relevant? Would you say "never" because we should only be mindful of what happens within the text and forget the author? I can accept that, if that's what you're saying. I'm still trying to figure out the extent to which this concept is workable, especially insofar as is pertains to the teaching of literature to young people.