The OF Blog: The "Superstitions" of Style and Convention

Monday, July 05, 2010

The "Superstitions" of Style and Convention

A few minutes before I began typing this essay, I was translating the introduction to Jorge Luis Borges' "La supersticiosa ética del lector" ("The Superstitious Ethics of the Reader"), when I was struck by the case that Borges sets out.  Here's the original quote and my rough translation:

La condición indigente de nuestras letras, su incapacidad de atrae, han producido una superstición del estilo, una distraída lectura de atenciones parciales.  Los que adolecen de esa superstición entienden por estilo no la eficacia o la ineficacia de una página, sino las habílidades aparentes del escritor:  sus comparaciones, su acústica, los episodios de su puntuación y de su sintaxis.  Son indiferentes a la propia convicción o propia emoción:  buscan tecniquerías (la palabra es de Miguel de Unamuno) que les informarán si lo escrito tiene el derecho o no de agradarles.  Oyeron que la adjetivación no debe ser trivial y opinarán que está mal escrita una página si no hay sorpresas en la juntura de adjetivos con sustantivos, aunque su finalidad general esté realizada.  Oyeron que la concisión es una virtud y tienen por conciso a quien se demora en diez frases breves y no a quien maneje una larga. (Ejemplos normativos de esa charlatanería de la brevedad, de ese frenesí sentencioso, pueden buscarse en la dicción del célebre estadista danés Polonio, de Hamlet, o del Polonio natural, Baltasar Gracián.)  Oyeron que la cercana repetición de una silabas es cacofónica y simularán que en prosa les duele, aunque en verso les agencie un gusto especial, pienso que simulado también.  Es decir, no se fijan en la eficacia del mecanismo, sino en la disposición de sus partes.  Subordinan la emoción a la ética, a una etiqueta indiscutida más bien.  Se ha generalizado tanto esa inhibición que ya no van quedando lectores, en el sentido ingenuo de la palabra, sino que todos son críticos potenciales.

Tan recibida es esta superstición que nadie se atreverá a admitir ausencia de estilo, en obras que lo tocan, máxime si son clásicas.  No hay libro bueno sin su atribución estilística, de la que nadie puede prescindir - excepto su escritor (pp. 45-46)

The poor condition of our letters, their incapacity to attract, has produced a superstition of style, a inattentive reading of parcial attention.  Those afflicted with this superstition understand style not by the efficacy or inefficacy of a page, but instead by the apparent aptitudes of the writer:  his comparisons, his acoustics, the episodes of his punctuation and of his syntax.  They are indifferent to its proper conviction or proper emotion:  they seek 'techniques' (this word is from Miguel of Unamuno) which will inform them if the writing has the authority or not of pleasing them.  They heard that the use of adjectives ought not be trivial and they will opine that a page is badly written if there are no surprises in the juncture of adjectives with nouns, although its general finality is accomplished.  They heard that concision is a virtue and they hold up as being concise those which have ten brief phrases and not those which manage a larger one.  (Normative examples of that garrulous brevity, of that sententious frenzy, can be found in the diction of the celebrated Danish statemans Polonius, of Hamlet, or the nautral Polonius, Baltasar Gracián).  They heard that the close repetition of some syllables is a cacophony and will feign that in prose it grieves them, although in verse it gives them an especial pleasure, I think which they also feign.  It is to say, they are not fixated on the efficacy of the mechanism, but instead on the disposition of its parts.  They suborn emotion to ethics, to a rather indisputable etiquette.  That inhibition has been generalized so much that now they do not remain readers, in the ingenious sense of the word, but instead all are potential critics.

So received is this superstition that no one dares to admit to himself the absence of style, in works which they handle, all the more if they are classics.  There is not a good book without its stylistic attribution, from which none can disregard - except its author.

This touches upon certain topics of which I have wondered before if I may have been guilty of indulging myself.  It is easy to say in passing, especially in reviews that are meant to be 1200 words or fewer, that the "author's style" was pleasing or grating.  What is meant by that?  Usually, I am thinking of how the prose and thematic elements intertwine themselves in a fashion that is pleasing to me, but there really is no discussion of mechanics.  While this lack of discussion is largely due to the nature and limitations of a 1200 word or less review essay, there is still that acute lack of display of an understanding of that story's mechanics. 

Style is essential, I believe, or rather that the mechanics of each story is vital for that story's success or failure.  Borges in this essay goes on to discuss story mechanics in a way that is different from received information on how to process a text.  In this essay, Borges shows a rightful dismissal of convention, which I think lies at the heart of most discussions about style and even mechanics.  Convention is useful to a degree, if the ones using it are aware of its limitations and when convention ought to be ignored.  It is a different matter when erstwhile critics, formally trained or not, toss about platitudes or critiques such as "show, don't tell," without elaborating on why such advice ought to be heeded (or not). 

As a reader of other reviews as much as a critic, I find myself irritated at times when I read such prescriptions that have nothing but convention, unsupported by evidence found within the text, to back their claims as to the efficacy of a story.  Borges makes a good argument here, one that I wish I could translate in full (it would take me the rest of the night and morning, perhaps, to render a 2500 word essay into serviceable English), about how limiting our "superstitious ethics" can be.

But perhaps others have their own thoughts on this issue that they wish to share?

1 comment:

Elena said...

As someone who went through an extremely rigorous non-fiction writing seminar class that focused both on developing a personal "style" and on picking up what is being done wrong in terms of others' prose, I have certainly seen this almost artificial discussion of technique in action. I know that in my reviewing, if I talk about the writing at all, I try to explain why I found it easy or hard to read, and a lot of reviewers don't bother to mention the writing at all or just say it was "fast-paced" or "quick to read," which could apply to the story and not the prose in and of itself, and it's sometimes hard to be sure which was meant. At the same time, I rarely quote things--I find that cumbersome and rarely illuminative if I'm writing (or reading) a review and not an essay about the book. And I do tend to view them as distinct modes of writing about a text.

I would agree completely, though, that there are fads and buzzwords that go around in literary circles, and that the stylistic preferences change over time. There's a dialogue between the types of stories being told and they way they are being told that goes back and forth, and as with any fad once it gets started it gets a lot of people to follow until another thing comes along. Right now "style" is defined in specific terms such as the essay mentions, but style in and of itself is kind of like diet: everything you write is your style, just like everything you eat is your diet. It's simply the practice of writers fitting their words into, or not into, a prescribed set of rules for a particular style that tricks would-be critics into thinking that style alone is style. A sinister form of synechdoche, if you will.

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