The Screenplay-novel Manifestos

Less is more vivid

Monday, April 17, 2006

On style and the canon versus style and the cannon-fodder

James Wood has written on the modern literary style, using Flaubert both as his focus and his starting point. Wood argues that Flaubert was the first writer to self-consciously worry about style and pour great quantities of creative energy into developing a style specifically his own.

I think probably every serious writer prides him or herself on their style. Style, in the mind of the contemporary person of letters, is an inevitable offshoot of competence; to "write well" is itself a stylistic achievement. And then to write vividly and grippingly is an achievement beyond this.

The question of literary style is also of interest critically -- that is, for external critics as well as the critic within each writer himself; style is necessary, but too much style is simply off-putting. People who take writing seriously know that there always has to be a balance between simplicity of form and originality of language.

(Obviously, since I've devoted this site to a novel written in the form of a screenplay, my tendency on this project is to keep the style simple. But even in a case like this, I find myself fretting over word choice, since the screenplay-novel -- being a novel -- has to operate both as a guide to some "movie" -- a movie that only exists in the mind of the reader -- and also as a literary work.)

I'd like to riff on Wood's argument, however. Instead of taking issue with it (was Flaubert really the first? really? (-- but then, Wood is not talking about all style, he's talking about modern style)), I'd like to ask why it is the examples of great stylists that are used in
critical essays are so often what could be termed the Canonical Usual Suspects: Flaubert leads to Beckett leads to Bellow leads to Updike ... it's a logical enough set of examples, but it's also a -- well, it's a predictable set. Always, when it comes to the form of academically respectable yet accessible criticism that Wood specializes in, the same big names. And always, no matter how contemporary the critic tries to be, a list of writers who really were in their heyday in the mid-20th Century. It must get tiresome for genuinely contemporary writers. (It must also get tiresome for writers in Australia, New Zealand, Canada, India, Kenya, etc., since these are countries that produce original novels in English, yet are almost always left out of the group of big name examples.)

And so a discussion about style inevitably becomes a discussion of the canon and how it is formed. As the vast majority of writers find out, the canon is a neo-conservative's dream: it, more than any other sphere of human endeavor, is ruled by an "invisible hand"; we must leave aside logical notions of what constitutes artistic achievement and accept the harsh truth that only a few -- a digestibly small few -- can ever be called to join the group of literary immortals. How many novels can a person read in one life-time? The size of the canon is necessarily small. Its nature is necessarily selective.

But what does that make all the writers who are nevertheless good? Are they just to be forgotten -- cannon-fodder upon the fields of culture? Not quite. There are of course canons within canons: feminist canons, immigrant-writer canons,
gay canons, nationalist canons, satirical canons. So writers who have gotten to a certain point in their career and realized they will never be a big name can nevertheless console themselves with the thought that they will be remembered by a particular audience. And later, in posterity, who knows? The canon often is kindest to the dead.

But still ... the question of justice won't go away. Is it fair that certain writers are effectively forgotten? Or rather, since the fairness argument won't gain much traction at that level of the literary world where the most powerful people reside, is it good for writing that we tend to use the same rather tired examples when we talk about things like style? Isn't it time that the canon was revisited? Shouldn't influential critics like Wood be digging a little deeper for interesting examples?

Hat-tip to Maud Newton


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