2Nov

Getting Used To Style

A fascinating extract from this interview with David Anthony Durham.

I’ll never forget an early review of my first novel, Gabriel’s Story, in the San Francisco Chronicle. The reviewer found the language of the first part strange, convoluted and a bit hard to figure out. But then he wrote that by the second part the language had started to work to “greater effect”, and by the end he loved the book! He seems to have walked away thinking that the first part wasn’t as good as the following three parts. But I’d argue that the writing was consistent. What changed was that it took him that first part to get into the rhythm of my writing. After he did, everything got smoother and smoother for him.

Now, if I’d started the book with simpler language he might have been happier from the start, but if I’d done that I wouldn’t have been using the language that he’d learned to love by the end. I think that’s often the case with good literary fiction. (And I do mean the “good” stuff; I’m not saying that all literary fiction is.) Hopefully, it holds you from the start, but in a great many ways full appreciation of it comes gradually.

I can’t really improve on what is said there.

When people read a novel, and say that the “writing improved” or the “second half was better written”, do they mean that they themselves had become used to the different style involved? I wonder how self-aware many readers (myself included) really are when they give their opinions?

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About Mark Newton

Born in 1981, live in the UK. I write about strange things.

4 comments

  1. It’s an interesting question, isn’t it? There are certainly writers you need to learn how to read because they defeat your expectations in some way, and I think that’s true no matter how much or how widely you read; because what you’re learning is to appreciate an individual perspective. Kelly Link’s, say. And among sf/fantasy readers, who pay so much attention to learning the *world* they’re reading, it may indeed be a neglected aspect of fiction.

    Of course, I don’t think it’s true for every book by every writer. But if you can’t point to a concrete reason why the first third is weaker then the rest, it might be true for the book you’ve just read.

  2. A writer this certainly might apply to is Joseph Conrad, one of the greatest stylists in English Literature (all the more remarkable when you remember that, like another great stylist, Nabokov, he wasn’t English). That point about focus on learning the world in a fantasy novel is well put, Niall. What we tend to forget (and this is why I am so manic against the prevalent mania for ‘clear pane of glass prose’) is that literature is *like* life, but it *isn’t* life, it is a world made up of words. And that world has meaning through those words, inhabits its own laws which are malleable and there to be broken and played with. And very often, a word or a phrase or a sentence drawing attention to itself *enhances* the meaning of that world, not dimishes it. the mania for clear pane of glass prose bleaches all colour and vibrancy out of those words.

    When somebody says: this phrase/sentence draws too much attention to itself, gets in the way of the story, very often that is bloody nonsense. Falling into line with that slavishly will destroy all flair and colour in fiction. As if all that a collection of words on a page consists of is a faceless machine to drive a story. Maybe that is why Dan Brown is so popular.

    Give me Joyce’s description of the night sky in Ulysses as: ‘the heaventree of stars hung with humid night blue fruit’ any day over Brown’s entire output. There is a whole world that opens out to you in that single phrase.

    And give me Chandler over Dan Brown any day!

    – I was still staring at the hot black eyes when a door opened far back under the stairs. It wasn’t the butler coming back. It was a girl.

    She was twenty or so, small and delicately put together, but she looked durable. She wore pale blue slacks and they looked well on her. She walked as if she were floating. Her hair was a fine tawny wave cut much shorter than the current fashion of pageboy tresses curled in at the bottom. Her eyes were slate-gray, and had almost no expression when they looked at me. She came over near me and smiled with her mouth and she had little sharp predatory teeth, as white as fresh orange pith and as shiny as porcelain. They glistened between her thin too taut lips. Her face lacked color and didn’t look too healthy.

    “Tall, aren’t you?” she said.

    “I didn’t mean to be.”

    You would be lucky to get that second para past a lot of editors today. Shame, because you know that girl after that. ‘she had little sharp predatory teeth, as white as fresh orange pith and as shiny as porcelain’. At once doll-like and dangerous, Lolita-like. And what a brilliant simile. But people don’t *think* like that in real life, the objection might come. But this isn’t real life, this is literature, which is *like* life and in the literature world people *do* think like that.

    And there is detail there which has a cumulative effect, something C.S. Lewis wrote about, things we might not consciously take in but sub-consciously we do and they have a cumulative effect upon our reading experience, enhances the *reality* of the world it inhabits and creates. The writer puts it there for that purpose. That’s art.

  3. I suppose I develop my own views as to whether a book is well/pleasingly written or not from snapshots, instances that got my attention and stuck in my mind, rather than being able to make much of a broader judgement.

    In connection with Nick’s comment I think I form my opinions of what I’m reading in quite a subtle, subconscious way. In general, unless the style throughout is pretty radical, I only take notice at times when something’s really right or really wrong but the overall texture of a book’s language is a slow drip of which I’m only vaguely aware.

    BTW An example that occured to me recently of a book that begins with more ‘intricate’, chewy writing than it goes on with, at least for a stretch, is Perdido Street Station. I lent it to somebody and they told me that they’d begun and that they thought it was “poetic” and it struck me that when I think of the book, it is the prologue that comes to mind first and characterises it, richly descriptive and a sumptuous slice of language: “Veldt to scrub to fields to farms to these first tumbling houses…” It might draw some in, it might put others off. I guess that’s always the gamble.