Thursday, May 29, 2014

Savoring Great Style

I'm a sucker for lots of things—a well made martini, acceleration, Chopin's polonaises, wool socks, and courage in the face of humiliation, to name a few.

But my utmost passion is for great style in writing. Style, like quality, cannot come out of haste, and it can't come out of exploitation. (I think I'll write about exploitation next week.)

Great style comes from:
1) Brains;
2) Generosity; and
3) An unsentimentally artistic heart.

I've been rereading some favorite books in preparation for a workshop I'll be doing later this year (the Lambda retreat) and have been feeling just joyous while slowly devouring them, making notes and savoring the style.

Two such books are pictured,

along with some scribbles and a breakfast bowl of veggies and quinoa. (Yeah, I hold back on the martinis until Friday nights…) Plus a page-a-day calendar I use as a book prop and thus don't turn the pages as regularly as some tight-panted fanatic would. Plus I see a crumpled receipt and an outdoor thermometer that just got a new battery and needs to be stuck on the window again. Plus my old silver Parker ballpoint, fitted with a gel cartridge. (FYI: The ink in those is totally water-soluble. My massage therapist accidentally left a check I'd written her with that pen in her pants pocket, which went through the wash, and the check came out completely intact, and completely blank. I reused it the next time I saw her.)

How to define great style, how to communicate it? To me, great style defines itself as a passage that serves more than one purpose. That's a blunt definition, and imperfect, but here are a few examples from those books on the table in front of me.

From page 1 of Dashiell Hammett's The Maltese Falcon:

She finished shutting the door behind her, leaned against it, and said, "There's a girl wants to see you. Her name's Wonderly."

In general, Hammett's prose is pretty workmanlike, and some passages in this book are even pedestrian, but he knows what he's doing. That passage tells us three things:

1) Spade's secretary knows enough to keep a barrier between the stranger in the outer office and Spade in the inner;
2) Her diction is working-class, leading us to guess she's street-smart enough to serve her boss well—under a variety of conditions; and of course the obvious,
3) Spade has a possible new client.

That simple passage embodies economy and style in just about equal measure.

Still prettier is this one, the first sentence of Chapter 10:

Beginning day had reduced night to a thin smokiness when Spade sat up.

We learn that Spade is still in bed, and from the last sentence of the prior chapter we know exactly with whom, and we learn a new way to visualize dawn breaking over San Francisco.

If Patricia Highsmith's ghost were to enter this room, I would bow down before it.

From Chapter 1 of The Talented Mr. Ripley:

Maybe Richard was in some kind of jam. Maybe Mr. Greenleaf wanted help, or advice. Tom knew just what to say to a father like Mr. Greenleaf.

Very simple words, but the key is the last of the three sentences. We learn that Tom feels in control of the situation ('Tom knew just what to say'), and we learn that he's able—or feels capable of—sizing up a stranger based on a very few clues ('to a father like Mr. Greenleaf.'). Based on this, we might also conclude that Tom has a fairly high opinion of himself, and that he is perhaps a rather cunning young man.

One more, from Chapter 4:

Tom's friend Cleo, upon hearing that he's being dispatched to Europe to bring back Dickie Greenleaf, exclaims,

"How too, too marvellous! It's just like out of Shakespeare or something!"

That's just what Tom thought, too. That was just what he had needed someone to say.

We learn that Tom, in spite of all his inner bravado, is deeply insecure. And we see something of his shallowness. A subtle way to show us! Highsmith doesn't write, "Tom was an insecure, shallow young man." She lets the character reveal himself to us little by little.

This was going to be a super-short post, but I could write a whole book on just this one thing. Great style is something casual readers miss. To get the full experience of terrific fiction, you have to read with as much patience and trust as the author has invested in the writing. The rewards are infinite.

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