Saturday, May 4, 2013

Style Again

Last time I kind of had to leave without finishing my thoughts, but then here they are now. I have always been kind of curious where style ends and bad writing begins. I am all for someone working more in their own voice than in a copy of someone else's voice, but I suppose the main thing for me is when rules are broken it should be purposeful and have something to do with the context. Writers who break the same rules routinely, regardless of context, irritate me, and, as I said previously, I think some of the main offenders have been discussed in that excellent "A Reader's Manifesto."

One of the things that bothers me sometimes, too, though, is when the content of a story or novel is considered part of the writer's style and so ridiculous things are somehow forgiven (I hope they are not believed, but I suppose for some reason readers are just suspending disbelief completely). I know some things are not style, and there is a distinction to be made between, say, someone writing in the magic realist mode and someone attempting to write in the realist mode and failing.

The best example I can think of is this bit I heard at a reading about 10 years ago or maybe a bit more. A Canadian novelist was reading from a recent book written about someone in Toronto researching her lineage in a library. At one point the character pressed her ear to the pages of an open old phone book and hears the voices of the past. Now I cannot remember if it was described as a person "imagining" she heard the voices or whether it was presented as her actually hearing the voices, but it doesn't matter. What does matter is the physical act was presented as real, and here is the problem: Are we meant to believe a character would do this, whether she expects to hear something or not?

I mean, would a person in real life do this? Of course this is often an overused question in workshops, but it's worth answering because it gets to the main problem with writing like this. Are even the actions of the characters meant to be stylistic versions of their emotional truth or are we allowed to take the actual actions as real? So are we supposed to believe a real character would take part in this metaphorical action, or are we supposed to believe that her actions are not real?

I didn't read the book because the reading turned me off, so maybe in the end something is revealed that would make us reread actions such as these, but simply by the reading, the Q and A afterwards, etc. it seemed that no, this was real, honest writing. And the reverence with which it was recieved was really hard to take. There is a sense, when a "literary" writer does something like this, that it must be good because it's unusual.

Okay, here is a clarification. It is unusual in real life, because it is stupid. It is not actually unusual in so-called "poetic" fiction. In fact, it is a cliche. How many well-meaning heroines have we read who have an epiphany by hearing objects speak, or the wind, or whatever?

I think the problem comes from the same thing that happens in a lot of horrible poetry. The poet declares himself a poet and since he is a poet, whatever he writes is poetry. Then we get these people who simply walk around and describe things, and, since their sensibility is more refined than the average person, they are blowing our minds.

So here we get a poet as a heroine in a novel. This wacky character, so in tune with the world around her compared to the great unwashed, actually would do this thing that most of us would reject as incredibly silly, and she would do it with such earnestness that it's would simply be mean to object.

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