Last month, in purple passages lauding ‘a master stylist, whose use of punctuation was an art form in itself’, whose literary career was powered by a ‘supercharged prose, all heft and twang’, the usually characterless British broadsheets succumbed to the charms of ‘style’. Journalistic prose gave way to overwriting, as if the subject – the death of Martin Amis – provided a pretext for some formal indulgence, the effusion of pent-up lyricism. If opinions differed as to the quality of his books or the value of his political interventions, all could agree that Amis’s sentences were ‘dazzling’. In these eulogies, style was invariably interpreted as a kind of personal touch, a reflection of the writer’s singular identity: ‘The style was the man’, Sebastian Faulks told The Times. Yet such unanimity created the impression that style was also more than this – something supra-personal, perhaps a class-bound argot, expressed in the shared valediction for Amis’s verbal gifts.
In his obituary for Sidecar, Thomas Meaney added a critical note to the chorus of praise. Amis ‘occasionally succumbed to the literary equivalent of quantitative easing – inflating his sentences with adjectives as if to ward off the collapse of the books that housed them’. The dichotomy, between Amis’s ‘high-flown English’ and its opposite, is a long-standing one. Here the image of inflationary adjectives presumes some ‘real economy’ of plain style, in which parts of speech can find their ‘natural rate’. Judgements about style are often structured around these two dependent poles: at one end, the flowery, the overwritten, the self-reflexive or even autotelic; and at the other, the plain, the clear, the concise and the communicative. Does this distinction, seemingly embedded in our common sense, withstand scrutiny?
The essayist Brian Dillon defines style as ‘verifiable presence on the page’, an authenticating imprint of the writer’s ‘body and soul’. This broad conception is shared with William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White, authors of the influential writing manual The Elements of Style (1918). Yet they describe its realization in antithetical terms. While Dillon is a champion of deliberate stylization, Strunk and White prescribe a method that’s supposedly less self-conscious:
Write in a way that draws the reader’s attention to the sense and substance of the writing, rather than to the mood and temper of the author. If the writing is solid and good, the mood and temper of the writer will eventually be revealed and not at the expense of the work…to achieve style, begin by affecting none – that is, place yourself in the background. A careful and honest writer does not need to worry about style. As you become proficient in the use of language, your style will emerge, because you yourself will emerge, and when this happens you will find it increasingly easy to break through the barriers that separate you from other minds, other hearts – which is, of course, the purpose of writing, as well as its principal reward.
Throughout The Elements of Style, plain, ‘honest’ language is juxtaposed to its reflexive counterpart. But the opposition is an ambiguous one. The authoritative, naturalizing prose of this passage enacts the conception of style as something that can simply ‘emerge’ in the act of expression, breaking through external ‘barriers’. Strunk and White’s syntax – the parallelism of ‘will emerge’ in successive clauses – conveys the ease and fluency of this process, by which the writer’s style, and inseparably, their ‘self’, shines through. Paradoxically, though, for one’s style to organically emerge, one must first ‘affect’ a neutral non-style.
In ‘Caedmon’s Dream: On the Politics of Style’, Richard Seymour argues that since total clarity is impossible, writing as if it were is ‘an affectation – just one literary style among others. It is a form of literary naturalism, which does as much to disguise its materials and artifice as possible’. The same goes for Strunk and White’s advice: if an unselfconscious style requires ‘affecting none’, it is as much a conscious effect as contrived stylization. The very presence of such advice – to ‘write in a way that comes naturally’ – in a style manual full of prescriptions and prohibitions embodies the contradiction. Like Dillon, Strunk and White are conscious of the literary effects they want to produce; they simply prefer different effects. The performative contradictions in The Elements of Style – including the ‘egregious flouting of its own rules’ noted by the linguist Geoffrey Pullum – are at the heart of a ‘plain style’ whose plainness contrives to obscure its own artifice.
In her examination of Dillon’s oeuvre, Lola Seaton identifies a taste for ‘artifice, obscurity, extravagance and oddity’ that contrasts with the staid precepts of Strunk and White. This leads her to reflect on a broader tension in critical writing, between ‘striking’ and ‘serviceable’ language: sentences that reflect the writer’s personality and those that faithfully represent the subject. Dillon tends to opt for the first, with a singular style marked by studied ‘gushes’ and ‘lyrical flights’. Yet this procedure can undermine itself by creating ‘a distance between the writer and their prose, showing the latter not to bear the imprint of their “body and soul”, but to be a sequence of choreographed gestures’. For that reason, Seaton suggests writers should be willing to ‘default to the good-enough word’ over the most imaginative one. The pole of plain style seems to exert a pull in her concluding sentences:
Accepting we don’t always know why some writing works on us and seems bound to last, nor why people like our own style (or why they don’t), means reconciling ourselves to the fact that even our best-laid sentences may well finish up like bus tickets, swallowed by time. That might limber us up to betray ourselves better, availing ourselves of language’s embarrassment of riches, including vanilla words, slack syntax and proper grammar – small tributes to the fact that style is not only a field of choice, but that the language is also using you.
Yet Seaton is not reading these generic linguistic features (‘vanilla words, slack syntax and proper grammar’) as signs of a style ‘that comes naturally’, in Strunk and White’s phrase. Instead, they are ‘small tributes’ to how language shapes us as much as we shape language: to the limits of authorial control and expressive autonomy. This notion points beyond the usual plain/florid dichotomy. What if style not only reveals ‘the self’, but circumscribes it?
Even as Strunk and White describe the writer’s self-emergence, they convey something significant about the social dimension of style, its strange impersonality or ‘way of running beyond intention’, as Seaton puts it. With their description of the almost automatic workings of style, prior to ‘the mood and temper of the author’, they register its supra-individual power, while simultaneously striving to contain it within tendentious rules. Dillon is similarly aware that his style depends on that of other authors, not least the ‘prose pyrotechnics’ of Barthes. A curator of ‘striking’ language, Dillon keeps a personal collection of ‘stylish passages, sentences and phrases’ to inform his own writing. Style thereby becomes a ‘repertoire’, a set of decontextualized aesthetic ‘choices’: the logic of postmodern pastiche described by Jameson. What critical framework can capture this dialectic, whereby literary language is inflected by both the personal and the social?
The limits of the personal in literature are elaborated in Eliot’s ‘impersonal theory of poetry’, often read as a reaction against the expressive subjects of Romanticism. For Eliot, writing ‘is not a turning loose of emotion’ but a process of ‘surrendering . . . to the work to be done’. Strunk and White would no doubt agree. But whereas for them, ‘the mood and temper of the writer will eventually be revealed’, for Eliot the poet’s ‘depersonalization’ is a form of ‘continual self-sacrifice’. Poets put themselves in the service of ‘a particular medium . . . in which impressions and experiences combine in peculiar and unexpected ways’. These final adjectives point to the limits of authorial intention, limits Eliot ascribes not to the writer’s unconscious self-disclosure – even when the emotions in a poem derive from personal experience, Eliot argues, the ‘new combinations’ they form in the artwork exceed any individual consciousness – but to the alchemical properties of the medium itself.
For Eliot this medium is not only language, with its ‘peculiar and unexpected’ associations, but what he calls ‘tradition’ – ‘a living whole of all the poetry that has ever been written’. Eliot is arguing against an atomizing view of art, the tendency to value only ‘what is individual’ in contemporary poetry, as if it will reveal ‘the peculiar essence of the man’. True artistic novelty, he claims, derives meaning from its dialectical relationship to the history of the form, which both gives rise to ‘the new work’ and is retroactively transformed by it. Tradition is at once ‘a field of choice’, to return to Seaton’s terms, and a force field in which writers must operate. Poetic language is not an individual’s voice, but a medium through which – as Eliot writes – ‘dead poets . . . assert their immortality’.
It is easy to argue that Eliot’s ‘impersonal theory’ is all too personal. Yet it can nonetheless serve as an antidote both to the bourgeois commonplace that ‘the style is the man’ and the atomizing, postmodern premises of much contemporary criticism. If style is to be more than a set of fetishized ‘quirks’ or a matter of personal taste, it must be understood in relation to a larger formal history of styles, conceived not as a discontinuous collection but ‘a living whole’.
What does this mean for the practice of criticism? Though its conception of culture differs from Eliot’s, the tradition Jameson describes in Marxism and Form (1971) posits just such a ‘historical continuum’ of cultural forms. Style, on this reading, is not simply a ‘bunch of mannerisms’ (Seaton) nor a ‘war against cliché’ (Amis), but a diachronic process. Jameson begins by acknowledging that the prose of the theorists he discusses is generally thought to be ‘obscure and cumbersome, indigestible, abstract . . . it does not conform to the canons of clear and fluid journalistic writing taught in the schools’. He goes on to critique plain style and defend Adorno; but here the plain/florid dichotomy is posed not as a matter of taste but as a historical problem:
. . . what if those ideals of clarity and simplicity have come to serve a very different ideological purpose, in our present context, from the one Descartes had in mind? What if, in this period of the overproduction of printed matter and the proliferation of methods of quick reading, they were intended to speed the reader across a sentence in such a way that he can salute a readymade idea effortlessly in passing, without suspecting that real thought demands a descent into the materiality of language and a consent to time itself in the form of the sentence? In the language of Adorno – perhaps the finest dialectical intelligence, the finest stylist, of them all – density is itself a conduct of intransigence: the bristling mass of abstractions and cross-references is precisely intended to be read in situation, against the cheap facility of what surrounds it, as a warning to the reader of the price he has to pay for genuine thinking.
Jameson’s own style of course must ‘be read in situation’. It strives to evoke the ‘formal pleasure’ of ‘dialectical sentences’, both as mimesis of Adorno’s style and an equivalent refusal of journalistic clarity. The periodizing clauses (‘in our present context’, ‘in this period’), although subordinate, are the pivots on which the first two sentences turn – from ‘our’ time to the time of Descartes and swiftly back, from the style to the ‘situation’ against which it must be read. The long second sentence ‘demands’ that the reader ‘consent’ to its duration, during which we become aware of the time of reading – of sentences themselves as units of time, and of reading itself as something that varies over (historical) time. The form of this sentence thus counteracts the situation it describes, as if to interpellate a slower, more engaged kind of reader.
The form of the final sentence, on the other hand, is at one with its content. Adorno’s style is abstracted into a vivid figure of a ‘bristling mass’ against a ground of glib text, a stylized impression of style as sheer differentiation. Something of Adorno himself, his supposed personality, is captured in Jameson’s reference to ‘the finest stylist’. Yet the individuality of Adorno’s style is not the expression of a discrete, autonomous subject, but the friction of a ‘situation’ that denies subjectivity. This situation is not an external historical fact, but a limit immanent to Adorno’s ‘particular medium’ at its particular historical moment. As in Eliot’s essay, the medium has ‘unexpected’ effects. The debased language that ‘surrounds’ Adorno’s, by pushing him towards obscurity and abstraction, leaves a negative impression on the style that attempts to negate it.
Of course, the ‘cheap facility’ of text has assumed new forms since Jameson’s book (let alone Adorno’s time), while the currency of modernist style may itself have been cheapened. Seymour suggests that ‘the digital reorganisation of capitalism may be the biggest transformation of writing in its history’. To pose the dichotomy as a historical problem, in our own period, would mean asking how the tradition of plain style might still be inscribed in ‘the new digital order’, and how it might be rewritten.
Read on: Francis Mulhern, ‘Caution, Metaphors At Work’, NLR 127.