The OF Blog: Gene Wolfe on some contemporary styles

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Gene Wolfe on some contemporary styles

From the recent Clarkesworld Magazine review:

Style and voice seem crucial to a short story but are easily turned into abstractions.

Style has become a bucket of worms, thanks to the deteriorating standards of the public schools. The chief style I see in student stories is American Illiterate. It shows up in published stories sometimes too. "Should an enemy warrior cross that line, kill them!" Well, that's okay if the order-giver is an illiterate. Unfortunately, the illiterate is just about always the author. Other than that, the style should suit the story. Imagine The Wings of the Dove as told by Huck Finn. It would be funny for ten pages, but...

If you're asking about the author's voice, or the narrator's, it's so closely linked to style that I see no point in discussing it separately. If you mean the voice in which each character speaks, each must be different. The butler mustn't sound like the footman, even though neither is an important character. This is one of those truths that students reject out of hand. They reject it because everybody sounds alike.

To them.

Come and think of this, this could also be tied in to the continuing discussion on reviewers' styles, not that I would ever do that, right?

Considering that I just finished my second day of in-service training today, funny how Wolfe's statements dovetail nicely with what high school English teachers have said for years about student writing and comprehension of literature. But I suppose some might disagree with this assessment and with Wolfe's comments. Perhaps someone reading this has something to say?


Elena said...

Do I have any thoughts to share? Only as they relate to a big "amen" from someone who got straight As in my COLLEGE lit classes primarily on strength of writing as opposed to strength of ideas. The only reason I learned anything from high school English classes is because I was really, really interested in it. But it wasn't until I took an advanced rhetoric & comp class at UT that I actually learned much about style. I learned more in one class with a stylistic non-fiction writer than I did in all of my creative writing classes together. It's sad enough that mere correctness falls by the wayside most of the time...but even the people who grasp the linguistic and grammatical concepts of English as a language have trouble with style...

Then again, style can be its own worst enemy, too...plenty of the examples I read in that class were more style than substance, and that's an equal sin, at least to me...

Liviu said...

There are several issues here but regarding literacy levels - I am not so sure when it was that US kids were more literate overall? When they worked on the farms?

Yeah maybe middle-class standards are lower, but that is due to the shrinking middle-class due mostly to single parent families which are one of the worst social maladies for children as study after study shows...

Sure video games, the Internet and such may contribute to a decline in book reading though they have their own advantages in some ways, but again when was this so called golden age of children reading??

Anyway everything starts with parents, so if school standards are lower, if children do not read, there is where the blame should go first - I understand that is much easier to blame "the system" but overall teaching is just a job - I was an instructor for 6 years and taught hundreds of mostly engineering students math - and expecting teachers as a group - not the individual outstanding ones which all of us met at some point - to shoulder parenting duties is unrealistic...

And complaining about the poor quality of students has been a pastime of instructors since Socrates and Plato if not earlier...

jstock said...

Like Liviu, I'm pretty suspicious of any arguments that boil down to "kids these days..." Sure, most students today don't have the mastery of language that Gene Wolfe has, but I doubt things were any better 50 or 100 years ago. People talk about a general decline in public education, but I've never seen much in the way of evidence.

Also, his example is terrible! "Should an enemy warrior cross that line, kill them" is oral communication from one soldier to another, probably in a pretty tense situation. Pronoun-antecedent agreement would be the last thing on anyone's mind at that point, and making a grammatical mistake hardly means the speaker is 'an illiterate'.

But his example does raise an interesting side issue--to what extent should dialogue in a story be "true to life"? Have you ever seen a word-for-word transcription of everyday conversation? It's a mess. At least half of the words are placeholders like 'uh' or 'um', and *huge* grammatical mistakes are common. Obviously, this needs to be edited to some extent for readability--but I'd say that when Gene Wolfe labels a character as an 'illiterate' because of a small error, we've likely gone too far in the other direction.

I guess a good rule of thumb might be: if you spot a grammatical error in *3rd-person narration*, go ahead and blame the author. But in dialogue and 1st person, you might want to give them some benefit of the doubt.

J M McDermott said...

I've always wondered if we are approaching a different sort of literacy.

More books are selling than ever before in the world, and folks who would otherwise spend their evening plugged into the latest radio dramedy play fifty years ago are now chilling at a Barnes and Noble drinking lattes and reading mass-produced titles.

I wonder if it isn't that culture is becoming illiterate, but rather that literate culture is becoming populous.

Thus, the median reader prioritizes prose differently than today than fifty years ago.

I believe the solution is writing the best prose I can, promoting beautiful prose, and expanding the world of beautiful prose.

If the books are truly good, people will read them, and word will spread, and books will sell. Most people can tell the quality difference between Gene Wolfe and Travis Tea, after all.

J M McDermott said...

Also, my ten cents about the style v substance critique?

Any reviewer that says "This book is all style and no substance" is really saying "I didn't get it, and I'm too lazy or pressed for time to try to engage the text and put together what I'm missing."

Perhaps I have some pent up frustration about that, though. For some reason. You know.

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