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Some thoughts on literary style – 2

Many years ago, shortly after my career as an academic began, one of my undergraduate students asked me “What is literary style? And in particular, what is ‘good’style?”

The other students responded with laughter, which reminded me of two incidents from my own undergraduate days: once when my genuine but apparently naive question was greeted with contempt by both teacher and classmates, meaning it was a couple of years before I dared ask another, and the second, when the laughter was silenced by a rather more sympathetic tutor, who went on to say “Actually, that’s a very interesting and perceptive question…”

And so, only a few seconds after my instinctive reaction, which was an aversion to making my student feel uncomfortable, it occurred to me that, although I had studied both English and French literature at school and at university, this was actually a question which none of my teachers had ever thought fit even to ask, let alone answer! The result was that I commended the student for asking that question, said it was a very interesting and complex topic, and promised to answer the question in the course of the following week’s lecture. (Thus buying time, but also making me think about it properly!)

I have to say straight away that my ultimate answer, to which I still subscribe forty or so years later, was much more influenced by my French rather than by English literary background, for I made an immediate distinction between style and substance, and my working definition of style was “the means which the writer uses to convey the substance of what he is writing, in order to create whatever response he wishes to evoke”.

At this point it is wise to make a slight digression and consider the relative positions of author and reader. Some writers may wish to put themselves in a God-like position and dictate what the reader’s response should be. Others may be willing to allow, or even encourage, a little more latitude, inviting the reader to enter into a partnership and participate rather more actively. But ultimately the result is the same: style is the author’s way of achieving his purpose, whether that purpose is the creation of an atmosphere, the acceptance of an unlikely situation, or even evoking admiration of a character whose morals and motives the reader – and quite possibly also the author – would normally consider objectionable.

Is the writer then trying to pull the wool over the reader’s eyes? Essentially yes, although this is not necessarily a bad thing, especially if it makes the reader think “How the hell did I come to like a detestable character like this?” (Fiction, after all is a synonym of lie, which is why writers of fiction have at various times and in various cultures been regarded as suspicious, immoral creatures…)

But, as with any conjuring trick, the magic disappears the moment the audience becomes aware of the means by which they have been deceived; or, to change the metaphor, when the audience can see the strings by which a puppet is being manipulated.

Using this analogy, one is led (Sorry, perhaps I mean I am led!) to a position where the ultimate definition of bad style is “a way of writing which allows the reader to see too clearly the means by which he is being hoodwinked”, and from that it is only a short step to assert that if you become more aware of the way something is being said than the sense of what is being said, that, by definition, is “bad style”, for ultimately the author’s object must be to lead you to the end without allowing you to see the means.

Whether that is always a tenable position will be the subject of the next article in this series.

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About Tony Whelpton

I am an English novelist, and not one of the youngest you'll find around, although I'm both physically and mentally a lot younger than my Birth Certificate shows, and I live in Cheltenham, in the Cotswolds, a beautiful area of the South-West of England. In an earlier existence which seems to be a lifetime ago, I taught French in a university, and for many years I wrote books  designed to help people who were trying to learn French - many published through a company called TD Publications which I founded myself. I closed that business in 2008 when I was 75, thinking that it was time to retire and lead a quiet life. But then I started writing fiction and suddenly realised that this is what I should have started doing long ago, and here I am, six years later, with three successful novels to my name and still actively writing! The first, Before the Swallow Dares, was published in 2012, the second, The Heat of the Kitchen, came out in 2013, and they were followed by the most recent, Billy's War, in 2014. If you didn't believe what was said above about being younger than my years, three novels in just over two years ought to convince you!

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