Monday, May 23, 2011


How on earth would a writer go about obtaining a style? If you set out to change your style, or to improve upon it, would such a thing be possible?

After reading a few classic essays on the topic, I concluded that it is a decidedly difficult question.

I would say my maternal grandmother, by all accounts, had great style. When out with her in public, she would be given a nod; in restaurants, a drink would be sent to our table, or a bottle of champagne and this went on well into her eighties. If we stayed in hotels, there would be a knock on the door and a gift would arrive from someone she met the day before. It was not that she spent a great deal, or was given to flashy looks. On the contrary, she dressed in black and white prints; she chose her garments simply and with great care. Her costume, inevitably would be topped off with powerful millinery, and as a young child, she often gave me the advice to go out and get a new hat if a frown were to appear on my five year old face. We know it when we see it, but where does it come from?

Translated to the literary world, the same phenomenon is true. It jumps right out at us, is distinctive and recognizable. In some cases, it may be ground breaking. In others, it has the ability to transport the reader to any place, or mood the author envisions. It is what agents and editors spot too, and so we must conclude that it does matter; it matters very much indeed.

This month our book club discussed The Sun Also Rises, by Ernest Hemingway. Much of the conversation became devoted to his style. Would it be read a hundred years from now? The answer came without hesitation. It was a resounding yes. His style transformed fiction and became part of the American stamp. We discussed his spare prose, his ability to depict a scene that would linger in the memory. Reading it for the fourth time this month, I found there was much more to discover. I was in my salad days, green in judgment, and thought of myself as part of a lost generation during earlier encounters. In high school, I was captivated by the concept of freedom. To be adrift, released from conventional society- oh what a worthy goal that seemed to my teenage self. Then later, after seeing the charm of my attempt at a bohemian existence begin to fade and take on a rather tawdry cast, I too, had to agree that yes, the sun does also rise and concluded that a change was in order. Then to read the book again in the settled, thick of family life, I thought of how silly I had been to dream of whiling away the hours in a coffee house with others all up to no good; has that lifestyle ever produced great art? Now, at this more mature reading, it had a feel of nostalgia as well as allowing me to realize that the strides made in the last century were worth it. The world changes: style remains.

Once, a guest in my living room said, “What kind of style is this?”

“Its just my house,” I replied.

Never given to going out and trying to have a style, it seems more preferable to look at the directions in which I am drawn. Given to comfort everywhere, home, food, dress and books, my style may be best likened to a favorite, worn armchair, placed by a fire, well lit and furnished with an ottoman. At the end of the day, it has to be mine and it has to possess a certain ease. If it is to change or improve, it would not be conscious, just examined, and sculpted to suit me.

From The Sun Also Rises, p.228.

“ I got up and went to the balcony and looked out at the dancing in the square. The world was not wheeling anymore. It was just very clear and bright, and inclined to blur at the edges. I washed, brushed my hair. I looked strange to myself in the glass, and went down to the dining room.”


Jennifer Rova said...

Thanks for the thought provoking post. It made me think. I tend to believe my style is what I write off the top of my head. To write in another way takes me so long with many rewrites. Fun to try occasionally but I keep trying to improve "my" style. It is fun to others and appreciate and wonder: how did he do that!

Jan Cline said...

I often wonder if style is something you just have or if you can purposefully develop it. I think my style has changed a bit as I grow in my craft. It's hard to maintain your style when editors are involved too, I think. You have to know how to make MS changes without losing your voice or style.
Good post..The Sun Also Rises is one of my favorites of old Hem.