Style Vs. Content at the Edinburgh International Book Festival

Ali Smith, writing for the Guardian on Saturday, relayed some of her thoughts on style vs. content as discussed in her talk for the Edinburgh International Book Festival. She argues that it is the duty of both readers and writers to “be as open as a book, and alive to the life in language”:

The late Gore Vidal said, characteristically: “Style is knowing who you are, what you want to say, and not giving a damn.” So is there something that risks being damned, in style? Something about bravado, defiance, the defiance that rings of individuality?
Is there a sense, too, in which some writers use style as a marker of existence? A proof we’re here? But good working style is powerful whether it’s bullish or showy or quiet. Style’s existence is a matter of verbal precision, nothing else.

Style is not something that can be severed from content: “How something is told […] makes what’s being told. A story is its style. […] This is because words themselves when put together produce style, never lack style of one sort or another. Otherwise we could junk, say, one of the most recent translators of Madame Bovary, Lydia Davis (who went back and looked at Flaubert’s edits and took into account for her translation his removal, from draft to draft, of metaphoric or lyrical elements in the language of the novel), and just run Madame Bovary through Google Translate.”

Smith goes on to use T.S. Eliot and Jane Austen as examples of style, but it is her closing analysis of the style vs. content argument that most concisely sums up her argument:

A world, in a novel, in a tweet, in a grain of sand. In that newsworthy fistfight, that lively discussion the delegates had here 50 years ago in the shadow of the H-bomb and still in those long shadows of the second world war, Rebecca West talked at one point about Austen’s style and the wildly opposing universes it unites: “She said it like a lady, but the intention was strictly revolutionary.” The novel as a form, West said, would never die. She cited Salinger’s characters, “people who are dealing with eternal problems, ancient problems, and they simply cannot use a phrase that was made more than twenty-five years ago … fighting, fighting, fighting into a means of self-expression.”
Fight, fight, fight. Language is never not up for it. It’s a fight to the life. All we need to do, reader or writer, from first line to final page, is be as open as a book, and be alive to the life in language – on all its levels. Then style, as usual, will do what it does best. Then you, and I, and all of us (all seven billion of us here now in the world, not forgetting all the people in the future, and the past) with all our individualities, all our struggles, all our means of expression, will find ourselves, one way and another, when it comes to the novel, content.

The Guardian is offering daily updates on the Edinburgh Book Festival — have a look at them all here.

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