On Writing: The Matter of Words

On the Huffington Post, Michael Conniff articulates something I have thought about for years. His article on Stephen King examines how King emphasizes storytelling over style in his execution of narratives even though his writing advice advocates for style as the magic of story.

This is the general attitude of genre writing. The assumption I have seen among the general genre community of writers is that “story” and “style” can be divorced. However, when words (and hence their styling) are the medium of the storytelling, then how is this possible? I often hear, “I am not a writer; I am a storyteller,” “Writing pretty sentences is easy; writing a plot is tough.” I’ve heard those giving writing advice insult literary fiction on the grounds of the genre being plotless and more concerned with style than substance. However, one most be careful not to confuse plot with narrative. A narrative can be the plot, but the narrative can also be the character. That is usually how genre and literary works differ. For literary fiction, the story is the character, and sometimes the plot is diffused for deeper exploration of this principle.

First, I would argue that “good writing” depends on what you are penning. A lyrical examination of human grief does not necessitate the same style as a car chase. A contemporary novel centered around two fifteen-year-olds falling in love will not employ the same language as the story of a fifty-year-old woman coming to terms with her husband’s death. Lyrical writing is often the stereotype of “pretty writing,” but it’s a tool. There is a time to employ it, and a time not to. It can be expressive in one story but antiquated in another.

The key point Conniff makes that hits on the question I have had for years is why there exists a double attitude towards the importance of words. Every writer talks about a love for language bringing them to writing and lists well-written classics as influences; yet, in practical application to their own writing and talking about their contemporaries, they all of a sudden attack style. If you love words, if you love language, then you should not only love them for how they serve you in developing fame and fortune as a creator of books, you should also love the labor of crafting them into something emotionally resonant.

Conniff even expresses my own ideas in comparing the phenomenon to other mediums. Martin Scorsese is a legendary director because of his regard for the image. Whether it’s movies, fine art, or comic books, the visual reigns supreme. The picture is the story; the story is the picture. You cannot be an acclaimed director because you told a good story with serviceable direction. Just filming people doing stuff is not an art. A good comic book script with poor art is not a good comic book. It is a comic book that did not live up to its potential.

Good prose is never an exercise of style over substance. I don’t know why genre writings argue this. Virginia Woolf, Nabokov, and Joyce are master stylists who have captured generations of readers after their deaths because of how they marry style and substance. The textual prosody where the words take on the rhythms of characters creates the story. Sentences that strives for poetic rhythms and sounds while not saying anything substantial are called flowery.

I thought all of this could be taken for granted as common knowledge. It’s nothing new. Still, it does keep coming up, usually in the literary versus genre debate. Personally, I think intellectual insecurity underlies the entire literary community. Writers and readers who participate most loudly in the debate usually want validation as artists and intellects, recognition as people who are good at their craft and deserve the attention of readers or do not want to be judged for what they read. Writers and readers who attack genre fiction often seem perturbed by the genre writer’s fame, large readership, and significant income. Writers and readers who attack literary fiction often desire the literary’s respect as an artist.

Entertainment is subjective. Still, in our society, entertainment is codified as signifiers of fun: lots of action and one-liners. At worst, action becomes a stand-in for plot, one-liners for character development. Literary fiction is often accused of being boring. Genre fiction is often accused of being simplistic.

Entertainment means engagement, and different aesthetics engage different people. How are we as an educated society at the leading edge of history, where we can look back on Charles Dickens, Clarice Lispector, Julio Cortazar and a generation of other novelists from the Victorian era through modernism through postmodernism to today, still in need of arguing about what a story can be? It can be anything. I can be anything to anyone. Blockbusters work for some. Others prefer quiet slice-of-life narratives. Most of us want different things at different times. However, in the end, it is the language that grabs a reader. When we love a passage, we highlight it, we mark it, we quote it on social media, we live our lives with those memorable words harmonizing with our spirit.

If you use words to tell a story, you are a writer. If you love language enough to take up its crafting into stories, then you should be willing to learn grammar and to focus on how you use words to conjure worlds. Every element of craft has its purpose.  Saying that style is not significant is throwing away the element of creation that separates writers from every other storyteller. Writers are the words they string together to create the spell that is story.

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