Monday, March 12, 2018

AWP Presentation: Notes on Literary Style in Fiction

UPDATE: The full and corrected version of this essay is now up at LitHub, as "Elements of Literary Style." I'm keeping the introduction here, with one quote. Please check out the full version at LitHub, and many thanks again to Christian Kiefer, and to Jonny Diamond at LitHub, for agreeing to run the piece.


Yesterday I mentioned that I would post my remarks for the AWP 2018 panel "Profundity as Purpose: Thoughts on Sentences, Vocabulary and Style," organized by writer and critic Christian Kiefer. Other panelists included Coffee House Press editor Caroline Casey; acclaimed writers Kim O'Neill and Christine Schutt. I should note that I slightly modified the introduction below when I read it aloud, and also read only a portion of the full set of notes, to which I added a few quotations, by panelists O'Neill and Schutt, based on their remarks and readings. Many thanks to Christian, Caroline, Kim, Christine, and everyone who attended the panel, which was held at 9 am on Saturday, and drew a full house. Many thanks to Christian and my fellow panelists, and to all who attended the event!

(I should also note that at the panel Caroline and I offered the name of some living authors whose styles exemplified what Christian, others on the panel, and I were talking about--ourselves included--but I decided not to list them here, because there are so many great fiction writers, and I do mention but a few of the many I admire and regularly read with enthusiasm in my notes. I encourage J's Theater readers to add names of distinctive living fiction stylists they admire in the comments, if you'd like, and I'll aim to post them at some point soon if there are more than a handful.)

Lastly, I also want to note another highlight of this year's AWP, which was attending the Jack Jones Literary Arts' welcome event at the Columbia Cafe in Tampa! Many thanks to Kima Jones and Allison Conner, and it was so much fun to meet everyone on Jack Jones' roster--which includes yours truly--and its fans!



I want to begin by thanking Christian for organizing this panel, and thank all of my fellow panelists for their thoughts on this topic, I initially thought I would write a short essay, but instead I decided to draft a series of provisional notes on the topic of literary style in fiction, interlaced with quotations on the topic by various writers of note. (You can find a number of these quotes online, as well as on the website "Some Literary Criticism Quotes," which is where I culled them.) Unless otherwise noted, however, the comments and thoughts are mine.

Two quotes:

Is there an ethics of style? How might we talk about it? What happens when we consider how one template for now-dominant literary styles, emphasizing craft and de-emphasizing politics, that are taught in many—most?—MFA and undergraduate programs, may have their possible origins in the US government-funded approaches instituted at Iowa and Stanford, as Eric Bennett argues us in his 2015 scholarly study Workshops of Empire: Stegner, Engle and American Creative Writing During the Cold War (University of Iowa Press)? Even setting this particular history to the side, as usually occurs in most creative writing programs, doesn’t every artistic act require some level of ethical inquiry? Are there styles and stylistic approaches we might label more ethical or less, and if so, why? Or might another way to speak of the ethics of style be to raise questions not just of historicity and genealogy, but also of the truth(fulness) of representations in relation to a given narrative? What role or roles do the larger social, political, economic, and cultural contexts hold in this line of questioning?


“In order to find his voice he must first have mastered style”

–A. Alvarez, The Writer’s Voice


Prose (fiction) should not be musical; this is the province of poetry. (“Poetry is music set to words” –Dennis O’Driscoll.) This is another dictum I have always worked under, and to some degree, because of my inner sensibility, against. Yet so much of the most memorable prose, not just poetry, appears to aspire to, as the old phrase goes, and often achieves the condition of music. What lines in prose fiction do you most readily recall? Even the ideas and statements that engrave themselves on your consciousness do so not just because of their aptness and timeliness, but because of how they were written, how they unfold, almost like lyrics or lyric, as prose.

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