While browsing the subreddit for fantasy writers, I came across a brief discussion detailing the value of content over style, and it reminded me of an Ursula K Le Guin essay called From Elfland to Poughkeepsie, published in 1973. Here, Le Guin makes a point which all writers, especially fantasists, should be familiar with: style and content are not mutually exclusive.
Most of the rallies against style are incited, I’m guessing, by misconception – notions that style refers to a veil, facade, or mode of adornment. Le Guin writes, “Style is the book. If you remove the style all you have is the synopsis of the plot.”
In the same vein, Gore Vidal famously said, “Style is knowing who you are, what you want to say, and not giving a damn.”
When I was a bit younger, and significantly more naive, I wrote Neil Gaiman an email. I asked how I could possibly ever find my own writing voice, and how I could give up the habit of imitation. To my astonishment, he wrote a blog post in response.
Gaiman said, “Style is what you get wrong, that makes what you do sound like you. Style is what you can’t help doing. Style is what you’re left with.”
These words left a deep impression on me. And since, any time I hear, “story is more important than style” I get confused, and probably too defensive.
What you read is what you get. A writer’s style is a book’s substance. Intentions don’t matter to readers (unless you’re an English major) what matters is what’s on the page. After all, writers don’t get second chances.
And this fact is even more salient for fantasists. Le Guin writes, “In fantasy there is nothing but the writer’s vision of the world.” In fantasy, there are few crutches from reality to lean on – few reference points besides the common tropes and cliches. In fantasy, where every act of writing is an act of creation, posits Le Guin, all we get is the writer. All we get is style.
One thought on “STYLE & FANTASY”
A very perceptive post. It’s good to be reminded from time to time that even the attempt to eschew stylized prose is, itself, a style. Like wearing t-shirts and jeans in an effort to escape the world of fashion. Thanks!