The purest pretension. A certain artifice. A failure or refusal to cohere. Chewy words. Insistent and mysterious italics. Eccentric punctuation. Deliberately awkward punctuation. Obvious awkwardnesses. Deliberate infelicities. Peculiar phrases. Slightly confusing phrases. Sudden obscurity. That is a list, more or less verbatim, of some of the unlikely – or not so unlikely – qualities and features that the Irish-born critic and essayist Brian Dillon prizes in writing, or as he often prefers to say, ‘loves’ in or ‘wants from’ it. Dillon also likes lists themselves, and is always making lists of things he likes. A meticulous, vigilant, in many ways immaculate stylist, he copies out stylish passages, sentences and phrases he comes across in his reading, and keeps a list of ‘words to be looked up, words to be used, words merely to be admired’.
Dillon is fond, too, of the outgoing and disorientating opener. His books often begin with a flourish that plants the reader a touch mystified in medias res, a dramatic overture that inducts you to his theme by instantiating it. Consider the openings of his last three books. Essayism (2017) leads with a list of topics of famous essays (without identifying it as such): ‘On the death of a moth, humiliation, the Hoover Dam and how to write; an inventory of objects on the author’s desk, and an account of wearing spectacles…’. The first sentence of Suppose a Sentence (2020) is a long, intermittently unintelligible one, announcing the subject of sentences through a formal display of their possibilities: ‘Or maybe a short sentence after all, a fragment in fact, a simple cry, of pain or pleasure, or succession of same….so exacting in the concentration it demands in turn, that – what? – here already the sentence swerves, and although you are sure you’ve caught the sense the shape has begun to elude you…’. The opening gambit of Dillon’s new book, Affinities, is more subtly bracing, as though a response to an omitted interviewer’s question: ‘I found myself frequently using the word affinity, and wondered what I meant by it.’
Essayism, Suppose a Sentence and Affinities constitute a loose triptych: collections of critical essays – about essays (and essayists), sentences and images, respectively – spliced with passages of memoir (in roughly diminishing quantities). Essayism, the shortest but most substantial and absorbing of the three books – the least like a collection – is a personal meditation on writing and depression composed of essays on the essay form, familiar essay topics (‘consolation’) and essay-adjacent themes such as ‘style’, ‘aphorisms’ and ‘sentences’. The latter is the subject of the sequel or spin-off, Suppose a Sentence, a collection of twenty-seven essays, each closely analysing a single sentence drawn from Dillon’s back-of-the-notebook treasury – some by essayists familiar from Essayism (Thomas Browne, Woolf, Hardwick, Didion, Sontag). The latest collection Affinities is closer to an annotated album: it contains essays of biographical criticism inspired by a single image – mostly photographs, some famous (by Julia Margaret Cameron, Diane Arbus, William Eggleston), but also photomontages (by Hannah Höch, Dora Maar, John Stezaker) and TV stills (from a 1975 version of Beckett’s Not I, a 1981 adaptation of Brideshead Revisited, Dennis Potter’s final interview in 1994). The book concludes – or rather breaks off – with ‘a partial list’, to rhyme with the one that kicked off Essayism, of images that ‘do not appear in this book, but will not leave the mind’ (an Edwardian postcard, a Bowie music video from 1979, a polaroid taken by Tarkovsky etc).
Many of Dillon’s books are lists of a kind – compilations of discrete items – even those that seem more continuous or conventionally themed, since he is exclusively a writer of ‘pieces’ whose long-form projects, he notes in Essayism, ‘must also conform to the serial production of chunks or gobbets’. His debut, In the Dark Room (2005), a memoir about the death of his parents (his mother died of a rare autoimmune disease the summer he turned 16, his father of a heart attack five years later), is constructed from reflections on family heirlooms, photographs and other relics. Tormented Hope (2009) is ‘a history of hypochondriacs’ told through miniature biographies of nine health-anxious writers and artists (Proust, Darwin, Warhol etc). These illustrious neurotics were chosen ‘according to no exact criteria’ except their stories seeming ‘compelling’ and ‘capacious’, which is to say amenable: Dillon found himself wanting and able to write about them. This principle of selection is more brazen in his three recent books, which are about things with which Dillon happened to feel an eloquent ‘affinity’. The word recurs across all three volumes, each of which is overtly propelled by passionate fixation.
The insistence on rapture can sometimes seem an alibi for a more systematic kind of coherence, as well as a little at odds with the ‘contingent and occasional’ way Dillon works. A steadily occupied freelancer, he is entirely spurred by external demand: he confessed in an earlier collection titled Objects in this Mirror (2014) that he has ‘never written a word without the occasion of a periodical deadline or publisher’s schedule’. Dillon the obsessive inspector of indelible snapshots and lapidary sentences is somehow incongruous with Dillon the indiscriminate essayist ‘addicted’ to ‘profusion’, for whom writing is primarily a means of keeping himself occupied, in several senses. Writing is a technique for driving away anxiety and depression ‘with words – words about any subject at all’, he explains in Essayism, and it’s a job, a livelihood: ‘I have wanted from writing only to make a living…I’ll fill the allotted space on a page, move on to the next commission.’
Making a living from writing (and from teaching writing, latterly at Queen Mary in London) was what Dillon turned to in his late twenties in lieu of becoming an academic, a plan he aborted around the turn of the millennium, after, not uniquely, postgraduate study had left him disillusioned with scholarship, depressed and impoverished. As an English and Philosophy student – first in his home city at University College Dublin, then moving to Trinity for his PhD (on the ‘concept of time in twentieth-century literary criticism’), later following his supervisor to the University of Kent – Dillon had been into ‘high Theory’ (especially deconstruction), whose exponents he had first learned of in the pages of magazines like the NME as a teenager in the 1980s, when the music press was enjoying a heyday of spirited intellectualism. He was taken with Derrida, Foucault, Baudrillard, also Benjamin, Sontag, Agamben. Towering above all these was Roland Barthes, who Dillon at some point realized, or decided, ‘was not really a scholar or a theorist, he was a writer’ – ‘my writer’.
The distinction for Dillon has everything to do with ‘style’. Whereas scholarship demanded ‘a strange indifference’ to style, becoming a writer meant being openly devoted to it. Barthes was not so much an intellectual as a literary model, and a lodestar authorizing Dillon’s new vocation: he started out publishing short (300-word) book reviews for Time Out, gradually extending in length, form and field (photography, then contemporary art). The ‘patron saint of my sentences’, Barthes is the writer, Dillon claims in Suppose a Sentence, without whose ‘prose pyrotechnics…I would never have written a word’. Especially influential was the later Barthes (following his ‘subjective turn’) of Roland Barthes, A Lover’s Discourse and most important of all, Camera Lucida, the inspiration for In the Dark Room, Dillon’s own record of grappling with the loss of a parent through studying photographs.
Although Dillon periodically worries that, as he observes in Affinities, ‘nothing I write pursues an argument or is built to convince’, he more often insists on the priority of ‘style’ or ‘sound’ over one of its customary antitheses (thought, sense, opinion, argument). ‘Frequently the style comes first’, he reflected in Objects in this Mirror: ‘many of the essays in this book were written because I wanted to see how one might write about their subjects, not what I thought of them.’ ‘Incapable’ of mounting arguments, Dillon conceives of writing, he notes in Essayism, as selection from ‘a repertoire of stylistic choices’, and sometimes thinks that what he loves about other essayists is ‘nothing but style’.
Alongside uncontentious things like ‘polish’ and ‘precision’, stylishness for Dillon – the quality that destines a bit of prose for one of his lists – entails a disfiguring measure of ‘raggedness’, ‘extravagance’, ‘rupture’, ‘surprise’, ‘hazard or adventure’. He wants his rigour ‘somehow botched’, his poise ‘ruined’, just as he wants his ‘awkwardnesses’ ‘deliberate’ and ‘obvious’ (like, we are to realize, that deliberately and obviously awkward word ‘awkwardnesses’ itself). His taste in writers, as displayed in Essayism and Suppose a Sentence, is by no means unorthodox (it is even conventional among writers: ‘writers’ writers’) yet he tends to be seduced by lavish or knotty or inscrutable passages that ‘embarrass’ or ‘flummox’ or otherwise arrest him. He enjoys being ‘snagged by the sound of the prose’, is drawn to writers ‘drunk on the almost erotic possibilities of their sentences’ and relishes ‘a turn of phrase that will not easily give up its sense’.
Eloquence for Dillon inheres in the discreetly weird. ‘Well-written’, he observes at one point in Essayism, ‘means: quite oddly written, but subtly so.’ One of the things Dillon loves about Barthes’s writing, he explains in Suppose a Sentence, is his ‘casting certain captivating details in the most particular language he can find’. ‘The most particular’ is indeed the mot juste for Dillon’s philosophy of style. Subtly equivocal, to seek out ‘the most particular language’ – the close relation ‘peculiar’ is in earshot – suggests one is not satisfied with the merely apt word, but is determined to unearth the perfectly bespoke one, as though there were one right word – a technical term – for everything.
Yet, pursued too fastidiously, the search for the most particular can reveal a weakness for the oversubtle or gratuitously recondite. Moreover, cultivating a preference for the striking word over the serviceable one can stoke a conflict of interest latent in criticism – between your own words and those of your subject, ‘oblique self-involvement and utter commitment to the things themselves’ (a combination Dillon discerns in his favourite sentences). Are you foremost a critic or a writer? Dillon, more interested in how he writes than what he thinks about his subjects, is certainly the second. Given words are referential and using them accurately and beautifully is supposed to clarify the things they refer to, attention to style and a commitment to ‘the things themselves’ ought not to be competing priorities, just as perceptive critics ought to make for dexterous writers. Probably all writers read as writers – as practitioners covetously scouring for cool moves. But close reading may breed an excess of self-awareness or knowingness. Can you know too well which effects you like and wish to reproduce? Must every one of your own sentences be a candidate for inclusion in Suppose a Sentence, built – we might say fortified – to bear the scrutiny bestowed on the specimens in that book?
Dillon’s commendable (if itself conventional) aversion to cliché can sometimes seem too scrupulous, in danger of issuing in a fetish for the alternative (the peculiar getting the better of the particular). Hardwick, Dillon writes in Essayism, was ‘a writer of elegant, incising, strangely pitched essays’. In an essay on Beckett’s Not I in Affinities he once again estranges the familiar adjective: ‘In the theatre, the play is an immersing experience’. These are interesting, in some ways effective twists, the present participle recalling the literal meaning of the adjective, faded by use (‘immersing’ is immersive, ‘incising’ cutting). Such words choices, however, risk irritation: you can be too aware of them – the variation a grating reminder of the more obvious word that has been refused; and you may not be convinced that the semantic difference between ‘incising’ and ‘incisive’ justifies the obtrusion. Has meaning been refined or is this a gimmick?
Imitation of what you admire is natural and unavoidable, according to Strunk and White’s classic guide Elements of Style, but the development of a true, which is to say, your own, style is inadvertent; it emerges almost despite yourself. ‘A careful and honest writer does not need to worry about style. As he becomes proficient in the use of the language, his style will emerge, because he himself will emerge’. Notwithstanding the rather marked difference in taste – instead of artifice, obscurity, extravagance and oddity, Strunk and White promote ‘plainness, simplicity, orderliness, sincerity’ – Dillon similarly defines style in Suppose a Sentence as ‘verifiable presence on the page’, and later explains his attraction to the late, ‘subjective’ Barthes as his seeming ‘more present on the page, body and soul, vulnerable’. ‘What exactly does one learn from Camera Lucida?’, Dillon asks in Essayism. Not, he concludes, primarily ‘ideas about photography’, but ‘vulnerability’. ‘It’s that vulnerability’ that he values in ‘most or even all of the essayists I admire’. Yet the paradox, Strunk and White explain, is that one does not achieve such presence by asserting it but by withdrawing through unselfconscious absorption in style’s traditional opposites: ‘Write in a way that draws attention to the sense and substance of the writing, rather than the mood and temper of the author… to achieve style, begin by affecting none – that is, place yourself in the background.’
Dillon is alert to the irony that a writer as self-aware and tightly controlled as he is should so value ‘vulnerability’. ‘The problem essentially is this: I want control, and I want to let go, but neither in itself is art, and how on earth do you find a way between, a way to direct all of this ecstasy and ache?’, he asks in Essayism. Perhaps it is hard not to suspect that a writer so attuned to stylistic choices is deploying techniques of vulnerability rather than truly betraying themselves, but the problem seems partly that Dillon’s answer, his way of having it both ways, is often to let go too deliberately by courting embarrassment – here using a mawkish lyrical flight (‘ecstasy and ache’), elsewhere through an intentionally cringey effusiveness. Gushes often arrive with an effort to conjure some spontaneity, dramatizing hitting on, or resolving to indulge in, the rapturous word (‘…I admire – no, love’; ‘How to say, because this must be the word, what I love there?’; ‘All of them have recently – what is the word? – Impinged’; ‘This sentence – how else to say it? – embarrasses me’), or establishing a certain immediacy (‘I just looked, and…’; ‘I have just noticed…’; ‘I have just placed on my desk…’). This may reveal some intellectual anxiety about the consequences of leaving the terrain of scholarship for the exposed plains of stylish writing. The essayist is thrown back on themselves, anxious to make a lively display of their attentiveness and enthusiasm (what else have they got?).
On other occasions when Dillon appears to let himself go – imposing on himself a flash of extravagance or burst of experimentation – the results can seem contrived, almost pedagogical exercises: ‘The deliciously dismal effect of all this unceasing decease is partly a matter of Donne’s prose style’. Sleepless Nights is ‘a half-essay to which I’ve gone back sometimes daily, in search of the echt and elegantly energizing Hardwick edge.’ Or on Barthes’s odd punctuation: ‘I hoped to emulate his use of colons: they seem to function so frequently like semicolons or dashes: they make something happen:…’. Dillon’s overtures can create a similar impression, as though cordoning off the formal adventurousness (even getting it over with), and as though performed, brief flights from his own voice. Mimesis may seem harmlessly playful, but illustrating stylistic manoeuvres – alliteration, improvisations with punctuation and typography – can also make style seem a shallow thing, reducing what Strunk and White term the ‘high mysteries’ of a compelling manner to a glib bunch of mannerisms. Some kinds of artistry install 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.
Dillon makes much of wayward punctuation and idiosyncratic grammar – admiring, in Suppose a Sentence for example, Claire-Louise Bennett’s ‘ability to forego commas when it suits her’. Calling it an ‘ability’ seems a bit of a stretch, just as it does to suggest in Objects in this Mirror that Barthes’s style ‘seemed to reside mainly in his punctuation’. Such local quirks are part of but surely not the heart of what makes Barthes a vivid presence in Camera Lucida, which must have more to do with his antic and systematically self-involved persona: ‘So I resolved to start my inquiry with no more than a few photographs, the ones I was sure existed for me’; ‘So I decided to take myself as mediator for all Photography’; ‘I was glancing through an illustrated magazine. A photograph made me pause…Did this photograph please me? Interest me? Intrigue me? Not even. Simply, it existed (for me).’ The value of Camera Lucida inheres not only in Barthes’s style – let alone in his liberal use of colons – but also in his insights (about photographs, about death, about their relationship). One can insist that style is not ornamental as long as one remembers that it is also instrumental, the end being communication. The interest of a writer is not just how they use colons but why they use them, not just how they use language but how they are using it – using it to express what they mean. One suspects that what makes Barthes ‘vulnerable’ in his final book is not direct confession or displays of weakness. ‘Vulnerability’ may rather be a way of describing the compelling intimacy a reader can feel with a text when convinced of the writer’s urgent, unguarded desire to communicate something candidly, evident in the distinctive means to which they resorted to do so.
Of his apprenticeship reviewing for Time Out, Dillon says he learned ‘how to maximize style…in a piece of writing that would end up, on the printed page, about the size of a bus ticket’. He admires the ‘compact soundscape’, the ‘teeming’ essay and the striking detail – what Barthes called the punctum (the ‘unexpected flash’ that makes him love a photograph, ‘that shoots out of it like an arrow, and pierces me’). Barthes contrasted this with the studium, the humdrum ‘field of cultural interest’ (‘of the order of liking, not of loving’). Yet Dillon’s prose is often at its most convincing, perceptive and casually alluring when he relaxes into the studium of relatively straightforward autobiography. Perhaps, then, the sensitive technician botches their rigour not by striving to be embarrassing or awkward, but by being prepared to miss some opportunities, to default to the good-enough word, allowing themselves some conformity in their impatience to communicate, trusting that the unexpected flash will arrive, or sometimes won’t.
This might involve allowing style its mystery, and its way of running beyond intention. After all, ask Strunk and White, ‘Who can confidently say what ignites a certain combination of words, causing them to explode in the mind?’ Or why an undistinguished phrase ‘for some reason that we can’t readily put our finger on, is marked for oblivion’? We go after the punctum, the ‘captivating detail’ rendered in ‘the most particular language’, because it seems to promise, like those offcuts listed at the end of Affinities, to refuse to ‘leave the mind’. Style too, for Dillon, is a bid for permanence, ‘a contention with the void, an attitude or alignment plucked from chaos and nullity’, as he puts it in Essayism. (‘One function of style’, Sontag ventured in her famous 1965 essay on the subject, is ‘to preserve the works of the mind against oblivion.’) 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.
Read on: Lola Seaton ‘True Fictions’, NLR 122.