What is Style?

A friend asked me what style means in a literary sense, and can it be good or bad?
Style is the particular way that something is presented. Can we like or dislike a person’s style? Can a reader dismiss a particular literary style and call it ‘bad’? If effort and care has gone into the creation, surely this is not possible. However we can dislike a style, but often that dislike is based on misunderstanding. It is similar to taste which the O.E.D defines as ‘the ability to pick out what is of good quality’. But what is good quality writing? For instance one person’s sense of what is ‘good taste’ is another’s nightmare. Some styles, for example Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’, can seem impossible and yet with time can become illuminating.

What makes a style in a literary context is perhaps a more pertinent question. Style can be seen on a superficial level as formed by choices of structure, grammar and P.O.V. At the moment there is a fashion for writing in the present tense – especially in historical fiction. Or a writer can present work in a reflective manner, commenting on the subtle and tiny nuances of life. A writer may have a descriptive or poetic style. Another may write in simple direct sentences and present plot through terse, exacting dialogue. Although these perhaps come under literary devices they also help shape individual style.

Style can be difficult to decipher. It is apparent when you read it – but what makes it particular to the writer is not obvious. In essence, I suppose, style is the way that the writer chooses to tell a story. Genre can determine a choice of style as does the voice of the narrator. Is the voice in dialect? Judgemental? Omniscient?
A novel in first person lends itself to a more personal, often colloquial style – but that ventures into a discussion on voice.
Voice is intrinsic to the success of a novel – or is that success due to the style of the voice? The more I consider it, the more elusive style becomes. Like glamour or taste it is difficult to define and is many things to many people. Liking or disliking a style has much to do with our own expectations of a novel and what we are used to. But this can change over time in the same way that personal taste may change.

Perhaps fashion is the deciding factor, and those novels that last in popularity are akin to a trilby or Burberry coat. How we decorate our homes comes to much the same thing; the feel of the interior is created by our choice of emphasis on colour, furniture, fabrics and arrangement. And if we don’t care about any of these things we have an uncomfortable, unwelcoming home – or a story badly told and one difficult to understand.

Beatrice Parvin

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