Is Style Everything?

What does it – in literature – mean to have style or not to have it? Can it be taught and learned or is it a matter for the muses?

Everybody speaks English. All three words in this short sentence are problematic. English, because the language used by educated native speakers is quite different from the global lingua franca tourists, academics, and, increasingly, littérateurs with global ambitions have recourse to. Speak, because it unduly emphasizes this specific skill over the equally important ones of reading, writing, and listening comprehension. And most importantly, everybody, because in fact, out of the total world population of approximately 7.5 billion people, only about 350 million are native speakers of English and a very rough and disputable estimate of one billion are proficient non-native users. Which means that when we say everybody speaks English, we take 1.35 billion for the total of 7.5 billion. We exclude more than five and a half people for every person we include in our use of everybody.

Why am I telling you this? First of all, I am not only a writer but also an English teacher, and I am a lot more sure of my competence in matters English than in matters literary. I have a diploma that certifies my qualification to teach English. Writers' diplomas are not handed out by creative writing instructors or journalists and academics, or booksellers and readers, or even fellow writers. They are bestowed on writers long after their death, by posterity. And half of the time, posterity errs, forgetting the best and celebrating the mediocre, absorbed in its own trifles like Jake Balokowsky in Philip Larkin's poem Posterity. Second, while I am going to argue that there are no rules of good writing, if I had to name one rule of good writing, it would be two things: precision and clarity. By precision I mean something quite different from pedantry, which is the misuse of precision where it makes no sense. Pedantry is precision for the sake of precision, it is precision used imprecisely, anti-precisely, stupidly. So, when I suggested that in fact not everybody spoke English, was I being precise or pedantic? Third, my thesis (in the Anglophone world you are supposed to come up with a thesis when you write an essay, whereas the Teutonic tradition, in which I have my primary roots, tends to scoff at theses) is that, in a quite peculiar way, style is indeed everything.

We know the quality of a writer by their style. When we say that style is everything, we mean that all writing is pervaded by its style and that style is omnipresent. Without its themes and ideas, a novel, for example, would be empty and shallow, without a plot and structure that create suspense it would be boring, without its characters it would lack emotional depth. But these are more technical aspects, and almost exterior to the quality of the writing itself, which we call style. Other than plot, structure, characters, and setting, style is not an isolated feature but all-pervasive, and in this sense it is, kind of, everything.

When we say someone has no style, we cannot mean this literally. What no style signifies is the absence of a coherently executed aesthetic principle, a lack of recognizable order. So no style is a type of bad style. Other types of bad style I can think of are the style that tries to come across as more than it really is, or more than the content it conveys allows it to be, for example the pretend-sophisticated, the pretend-learned, or the pretend-cool style. All these styles, which attempt to pass for something that they really are not, could be grouped together as "vulgar styles", for pretending to be something that one is not is the very definition of vulgarity, whereas the use of lower-class language or of words which are taboo in polite society is not stylistically vulgar, only perhaps vulgar in a social sense. Another type of bad style is stereotypical style, that is to say style which uses clichés in form and content.

Good style is a lot harder to spot and describe than bad style. In my opinion, good style is the result of a writer's trajectory and the manifestation of their sensitivity, intelligence, and taste. All the past experiences, all the aesthetic decisions a writer has made during their lifetime, are present in their style. We should always be aware that while style is a highly individual and personal thing, it is nevertheless shaped by the social and economic conditions in which the writer exists. Style is often an affirmation and celebration of these conditions (Le goût est amor fati, as Pierre Bourdieu says), and no doubt sometimes an expression of resistance to or despair at them.

Language is a collective, communal endeavour, its history is the history of a group of people, the history of its literature is a collective's history, the literature of any given time and place is a social phenomenon. So when we, in our Western tradition, celebrate the individual, individualistic writer and their aura, we affirm the autonomy of the individual. And we also affirm the autonomy of writing, which is much more than just autonomy of the literary field in society. Literature is not only a social (or a biological or a historical or a psychological) phenomenon. First and foremost, it is a literary phenomenon.

How can style be taught if it is such an essentially private, individual affair? And should it be taught? The best and probably the only way to become a good stylist is by reading and rereading and rerereading the great examples of literary history. Being taught face-to-face by a great writer will not make you a better writer. I am not saying that creative writing classes are a waste of time. In the case of screenwriting, they are probably necessary, because screenwriters collaborate with a lot of other people with whom they need to coordinate. And even for novelists, who address their audience directly, via a piece of paper or a screen, they are a good thing not only because they put the butter on the bread of many of them. But if you teach literary style, it is either a crime or an act of idiocy to teach your own style or, as I have been told some institutions do, a "house style". All you can do is encourage and guide your students to develop their own styles, although I do not think a real writer needs that kind of encouragement and guidance. Your students can only follow you by following themselves, just like you, as an artist, as a writer, as a filmmaker, have always followed yourself.

The tricks of the trade which creative writing classes and similar institutions teach are not aesthetic or literary tricks, but social tricks: who to be friendly with, which contacts to seek and which to avoid, what to wear and eat and drink and say and think. Generally, advocating too many rules and following rules inflexibly is a sign of insecurity and betrays a lack of judgment.

Joseph Brodsky liked to tell the story of the magic cloth, which he had heard from his fellow poet in Leningrad, Evgeniy Reyn. If you put the magic cloth on a poem and then remove it, all the adjectives in that poem are gone. If there are many blank spots now, it is not a good poem. Ideally, there should be no blank spots, or almost no blank spots at all. This may be sound advice for some poets and for some poems, and indeed there is a type of ornate adjectival style which is rightly loathed by most readers. But then again there are lots of poets who wrote excellent poems with lots of adjectives in them. One of them is Joseph Brodsky.

A writer's work is to negotiate content and form as best they can, and to which of the two they give primacy is an intricate psychological matter of little literary relevance. Choice of content is the first act of form in literary creation, and it has been well known since the days of Aristotle that the two are inseparable. Negotiating form and content: that is my definition of style. A successful negotiation results in good style. It unites the just, the good, and the beautiful (and for the sake of Plato and the Platonists we may add the true). In a very practical, non-Platonic way, style achieves a unity of the ethic and the aesthetic. And in that sense it is everything.