Raymond Chandler wrote:
“The most durable thing in writing is style, and style is the most valuable investment a writer can make with his time. It pays off slowly, your agent will sneer at it, your publisher will misunderstand it, and it will take people you have never heard of to convince them by slow degrees that the writer who puts his individual mark on the way he writes will always pay off.”
I came across that quote this week and have been brooding over it ever since, as I (you’re going to get sick of hearing this) struggle with my third novel.
I thought it was worth posting about, so that you all can explain it to me.
In fact, what I really wanted to do was just post that quote and type “Discuss” below it and let you all go to town, but that’s probably some kind of cheating, so I’ll try to turn my inchoate brooding into a coherent post.
I’m sure you all read as much as I do and probably discard at least as many books after the first few chapters as I do. I will sometimes skim a badly written book for story, but far too many books these days are written far too quickly, and don’t even approach a level of basic good writing, let alone a distinct style. I know we’re all trying to make a living here, and it takes a lot more time to write a book with style, and it’s a lot harder, but I have no patience with writers who don’t go that extra mile (or continent). So I’m stuck – if I won’t READ a book without style, then I can’t really write one without it, either.
So these are some of the things I’m wondering.
(And for the purposes of this discussion I’m going to confine my examples mainly to the mystery/suspense genre, because yeah, Joyce has a distinct and groundbreaking style, but I never even seriously tried to get through FINNEGAN’S WAKE)
1. First of all, when you think of writers who have a distinctive, landmark STYLE – who of your favorite writers, especially those who influence you, would that Chandler quote apply to?
2. And what’s the difference between a distinctive, landmark style and just plain great writing?
3. And what’s the difference between a distinctive landmark style and a specific writing device or gimmick that you use to tell a certain story?
I’ll take a stab at my own questions, to get the ball rolling.
(1) I’m not a hardboiled writer so, though I appreciate Chandler and Hammett and Spillane and I understand how that quote applies to them, I’m not interested in writing that way.
But I do know that I’ve been influenced by the Gothic, sensual, and I would say uniquely feminine styles of Mary Shelley, Sheridan Le Fanu, Bram Stoker, the Brontes.
Ray Bradbury is a stylist who just does it for me – again, emphasis on the sensual and fantastical.
Anne Rice – ditto. I think the lush eroticism of her prose and the fantastical nature of her subject matter takes her (at her best) beyond simply great writing to great style.
(2). Now, this is something I’m also wondering: are stylists different from just plain brilliant writers?
Stephen King is a brilliant writer. No one can hook me into a story and keep me riveted and engaged the way he can. But I’m not sure in his case I’d call it style… I think he’s a phenomenal, addictively wonderful storyteller. And he’s written some stylishly interesting books, like CARRIE – but I think the style of that book was more a device to tell that particular story than a groundbreaking style that defined him as a author.
Ayn Rand is another addictively brilliant storyteller, for me – but I don’t think she created a new style with her books.
Larry McMurtry, whose stupefyingly wonderful LONESOME DOVE I am now reading for the first time (thanks, G.! ) – is another phenomenal storyteller – but I don’t think he’s creating a new style.
And I don’t think the stylists I’ve mentioned are any more brilliant than the storytellers – I’m just trying to distinguish style from general writing brilliance. In fact, most of the authors who have most influenced me in my particular genre – like King and Ira Levin and F. Paul Wilson – are more what I would define as brilliant storytellers. But actually, now that I think about it, maybe Levin’s subtle irony and satire make him more of a stylist.
(3) Now, to my third question – style vs. a storytelling device. I’m also reading THE BOOK THIEF, by Markus Zusak – there’s a very interesting device there in that the book is narrated by Death. Very stylish, because of the unique POV Death has. But it’s a device for this particular story… we’ll have to wait and see if it turns out to be Zusak’s patented style.
The great Barbara Kingsolver I think is a stylist but her POISONWOOD BIBLE is more a great example of a literary device: a single story told by six sisters (if I’m remembering correctly, not good with math) all in very unique first person voice.
Another example of a literary device would be the one in Christie’s THE MURDER OF ROGER ACKROYD… (you know!). I’m thinking that’s not style, it’s a storytelling device that makes that a standout book (though Christie hit that standout mark pretty regularly).
And while we’re on the subject of style, I’m also on a Ken Bruen tear – my new literary crush. Oh, all right, I also have a crush on Ken. But enthralled as I am, I’m certainly not the first one to call him a unique stylist, as well as just a brilliant writer, and I think it’s because his Jack Taylor character and his stories so completely reflect Ken, who is even more poetic than the average insanely poetic Irish – poet. Amelia Barr said about writing – "I press my soul upon the white paper." Ken does that with such devastating honesty that it becomes its own style.
And that – we all have the capability of doing. If we take the time and trouble to get our unique souls onto the page, it becomes style.
So… examples, anyone? And who do you think are our new stylists?
– Alex (Obviously desperately seeking procrastination suggestions…)