I am sitting opposite a gentleman on the train of the most astonishing ugliness. The poor chap really is quite an eyeful, although when I analyse each feature in turn, there is little that should make his face any less attractive than many around it. His eyes are perhaps too close together, but they have long thick lashes. His nose, taken in isolation, is normal. His lips are rather full, voluptuous even. His chin is pointed but without jowls. Somehow, though, when everything is put together, it’s a face only a mother could love.
Other faces around me could be classed as beautiful or at least pretty, although they have almost no really distinguishing features, and it is perhaps that in itself which allows them to be easy on the eye.
I am drawn to wonder whether the same might be true of writing. Could a style too full of features, too rammed with metaphor and embellishment and structure be uglier than a spare style? My instinct screams ‘Yes!’, but it’s not always as simple as that.
Take, for example, Hemingway. Short, clipped sentences, very masculine. No messing about. As a writer, I find his style hard to swallow at first, it’s so dislocated and brusque, but after a while you do find your way into the rhythm of it. Is it beautiful? Many would think so. It certainly has a degree of crisp minimalism about it, which nonetheless allows him to convey some of the rawest and most intense of emotions.
Jane Austen, on the other hand, or Oscar Wilde, who I am reading at the moment, are more at the flowery end of things. Frankly, at Oscar’s trial for the crime of homosexuality, they just needed to read the first couple of pages of ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’ aloud. It’s pretty camp stuff. Delightfully so. Austen, of course, conceals a sharp and observant wit amidst the fold of her prose.
John Wyndham, on the third and confusing middle hand, is quite another kettle of apples. His style is neither clipped, nor flowery. In fact, it is deceptively simple, and for that I admire him enormously. He manages to convey some pretty complex stories without burying them in language. He is, perhaps, the equivalent of those pretty people I see around me – nothing really distinctive, but that allows the story to shine through without the distraction of style to overcome. Perhaps it sounds like his writing is bland, but instead I find that it is cleverly invisible: it allows the story to unfold in your head without the need for translation.
The chap sitting opposite me looks up, and I can see that fortune has been even crueller, and given him slightly crossed eyes as well. If I was going to be terribly patronising, I’d say that no doubt he has a beautiful soul. He may well do. But his exterior – the equivalent of his style – may reduce the chance of the beauty of that soul being revealed. In the same way, a writer who wraps up their subject matter in too much language may conceal the beauty of their story.
By contrast, I can think of a few authors who manage to write stuff of little substance, but who do it so gorgeously that you don’t really mind. There is certainly a whole squadron of people who you could point to who have a style which negates the need for any depth of personality or perspective. Being lovely is sometimes enough.
What do you think? Can you have style as a writer without substance? Or too much style? Love to hear your thoughts.