Tuesday, July 19, 2011

On Style in Fiction, with apologies to W. Somerset Maugham

Recently I've been seeing this quote floating around, attributed to W. Somerset Maugham: "The best style is the style you don't notice."
And we all go, "Yeah, very deep, man." I said it at first, too. But then I really considered it, and my blood began to seethe.

No! A thousand times, no! The invisible style is the style of the mediocre. If I consider my twenty favorite authors, I consider twenty distinctive styles. Rip a page from the center of a novel by Ursula K LeGuin, by Kurt Vonnegut, by Vladimir Nabokov, by Jeanette Winterson, by Frank Cottrell Boyce, by Anthony Burgess---I would have a fair shot at figuring out who wrote that page, based on the prose style. And while I read these authors, I luxuriate in their unique sounds and textures, celebrating their choice of words, turns of phrase, sources of allusion.

How could it be otherwise? With experience, we expect to be able to tell Van Gogh from Cezanne, Liszt from Chopin, Led Zeppelin from Pink Floyd. Should prose fiction not be just as distinctive at its highest level? Recognizable style is a mark of greatness.


  1. You've got a good point. No wait - a great point here.

    I think many of us are afraid to write with a style that stands out.

    (At least when it comes to fashion, I don't like to stand out. Give me cotton or give me death).

    I'm very glad, for personal and practical reasons, that many authors of the past have had a distinct style.

    Personally - it makes a great literary canon and there's always something interesting and dynamic to read.

    Practically - when I took my Literature Content Praxis II exams...taking an excerpt out of a book and asking me to name the author was EXACTLY what I had to do. I scored very high -- thanks to many authors leaving their signature in their prose, so to speak.

  2. I agree that most writers do (and should!) have their own style of writing. What bothers me more than "invisible style" is gimmick masquerading as style. Style is great if it's natural, but you can tell if someone's putting it on, either to try to be different or to be the next Hemingway (or whomever). I'll take a cardboard cutout over a fake if I have to, but I'd really rather have the real thing.

  3. I agree. Style is not, as some imply, merely a sauce that one pours over writing to spice it up, but is inherit in every molecule of the writing. What we call "style" is just the way that particular artist sees the world. I run across this argument a lot in the world of film. Some say directors should direct so that you don't realize anyone's directing. Huh?! Nonsense. I'm glad that an Altman film, or a Kubrick film, or a Scorsese film is instantly recognizable.

  4. Oops! I meant "inherent," not "inherit."

  5. Excellent post and comments here! I couldn't agree more.

  6. I love being able to pick up a book by an author I love an knowing the style I'm going to get. I think that's what makes people return time and time again.

  7. Hmmm such interesting thoughts! I agree with you - a distinctive style is a wonderful thing for a writer to have. But perhaps the meaning of the quote is that it should evolve organically rather than be an affectation? I'm not sure. But this a great point to mull over. Thanks for such a thought provoking post!

  8. I'm wondering if there's a difference between 'style' and 'voice'. All these writers have what I'd call a strong voice, but the style of that voice, i.e. how they do what they do, is hidden. Perhaps that is what Maugham meant? As DV Swain says - 'Art conceals Art.'

  9. I completely agree. Maybe a better quote would've been "The best style is a style you do notice (but it doesn't get in the way of the storytelling)."

    An author's voice and style should stand out and be memorable, but a story can't be just about style; it needs a strong plot and characters and great pacing, etc. I'm guessing that might be what the quote was trying to get at: that when all these elements come together perfectly, the reader is so pulled into the story that they don't stop to notice a well-crafted sentence or image.

    But honestly, I've never thought the two were mutually exclusive. I love it when I can recognize an author's style, and I've been pulled into a book just as much by the author's voice as I have been by the plot.

  10. I like to apply a similar heuristic to stuff like user interface design and typesetting, but it falls down for the main event. The best style for the layout of a novel, for example, is one that is unnoticeable; but the same does not go for the writing itself nor the cover. The best style for engineering and mixing the recording of Jimmy Page's guitar solo should be unnoticable, but the solo itself should be unmistakable.