JANE: When I was a junior in high school, my English teacher, Mrs. McCabe, created a very interesting assignment. She divided the class into group, then randomly assigned novels to each group. Each group was to prepare a presentation on the novel to give before the class. Who was to do what element of the novel was also assigned randomly. I still recall my reaction when I looked at the word printed on my slip of paper. It was Style.
Let’s Take a Closer Look
“What?” thought I, “is ‘Style’? How can I ever hope to discuss this, especially in a book like Vanity Fair?”
I usually did very well in English, but I thought I might fail this assignment.
ALAN: What did you do?
JANE: I looked Style up in the dictionary. Then I forged onward. And, for those of you who are waiting in trepidation, I did not fail the assignment. Indeed, I learned a lot.
But I don’t bring this up just to provide a window into a past anxiety. If we’re going to discuss “Style” in SF/F, I think it would be a good idea if we start by providing ourselves with a working definition, so we end up talking about the same thing.
I’d love to hear what springs to mind for you when someone talks about the “Style” of a novel or writer or even time period.
ALAN: Mainly I think it’s the way that sentences are put together. Hemingway’s short, declarative sentences are instantly identifiable. At the other extreme you have Henry James with his long, rambling sentences that are absolutely stuffed to the gills with subordinate within subordinate clauses. And let’s not forget Damon Runyon with his utterly inspired use of the historical present tense.
After that things start to get a bit more subtle. Raymond Chandler’s very clever and often witty similes (…as false as an usherette’s eyebrows…) are quite distinctive, as is the stream of consciousness technique used by Virginia Woolf and James Joyce that tries to mimic people’s interior thoughts.
In a nutshell, for me, style is defined by the structure of the prose. How did you approach the problem when you set out to analyse Vanity Fair?
JANE: I can’t really remember. This was, after all, decades ago. So what I remember most was the apprehension I felt about having to deal in a concrete fashion with a term that people tend to toss around lightly. “I like that writer’s style” can mean different things to different people.
That’s why I wanted to have some idea of what you meant before we dove into the difficult question of “style” in SF and, particularly, the thorny issue you mentioned last week. I quote: “Another criticism I’ve heard about the [SF/F] classics is that the writing style can sometimes seem cumbersome and old fashioned.”
So, what sort of things do people mention when they criticize the style?
ALAN: That’s hard to answer – I’ve not seen any specifics, mostly I’ve just seen general grumbling about old-fashioned and clunky.
But one example that I have seen mentioned is Isaac Asimov’s short story “Nightfall.” It’s been voted the best SF story ever in numerous polls, but if you actually go and read it you’ll find that it reads like it was written by a teenager who was still trying to learn how to write properly. And that’s because it was written by a teenager who was still trying to learn how to write properly. In one of his several autobiographies, Asimov said that he always found it a bit embarrassing that such a badly written story was held in such reverence. It has a great central idea, but the story itself is very poorly written.
JANE: Okay… I went and re-read “Nightfall” (published 1941), then, for good measure I re-read Stanley G. Weinbaum’s “A Martian Odyssey” (published in 1934). This gave me what may be a valid insight into what could be called the “style” or expectations of fiction at that time. This is different from personal writerly style, but no less valid.
Both of these stories can be found in The Science Fiction Hall of Fame. This collection itself is probably now considered a dinosaur, since it was published in 1970 – a walloping forty-six years ago or, to put it all into perspective, a greater interval than between the publication of the anthology and the oldest story in the volume
With me so far?
ALAN: Indeed I am. What conclusions did you draw from this?
JANE: For one thing, I was struck by the fact that both stories (and, indeed, others in the collection) were essentially about events that had already mostly happened. In other words, they broke a cardinal tenant of modern writing: “Show Don’t Tell.”
As such, these stories were incredibly talky, with stereotypical characters whose names – to use “Nightfall” as an example – could have been replaced with “Reporter,” “Psychologist,” “Chief Astronomer,” “Cultist” without losing a beat. The talky characters talk to each other, then the story ends.
“Nightfall” essentially has two parallel plots, both talky: one talking about past events that lead to the current situation; the other talking about the current situation (the impending “Darkness”) and what might happen. The story ends with a shift to an omniscient narrative voice that informs us (in the best radio voiceover manner) “The long night had come again.”
As such, I can see why a post-television audience, accustomed to being shown not told, would find this deadly. However, I think there’s a bigger element influencing the style here than visual versus auditory storytelling. Want to guess what it is?
ALAN: No idea.
JANE: Wrong! Quite the opposite. Idea is really what the stories are all about!
My long-ago English teacher, Mrs. McCabe, would have broken the elements of a story into plot, setting, characters, and style. But for SF, especially “hard” SF, the concept that the IDEA is the hero is crucial.
“Nightfall” begins with a quotation from Emerson.
“If the stars should appear one night in a thousand years, how would men believe and adore, and preserve for many generations the remembrance of the city of God?”
Asimov’s story takes Emerson’s idea and provides a very different answer. Along the way, he designs a complicated solar system that justifies the idea of a relatively sophisticated civilization that has no idea the universe is larger than eight light years, and within which the residents of the planet are accustomed to always having at least some light.
ALAN: Ah! A penny just dropped in my head. Style is more than just sentence structure and word choice. It’s also the way in which the story itself is put together.
JANE: Exactly! When I thought about it, I realized that if retold as a novel, “Nightfall” could be very gripping. Instead being set on the final day, we’d start a few weeks earlier. The characters would be given dimension. There would be trauma and tears over who would go into the “Hideout.” We’d have separated lovers, battles in the streets, as well as the build up to the final disaster… And maybe some of our protagonists (because we’d have some, rather than talking heads) would survive the initial disaster.
Then we could have interminable sequels about how the survivors deal with the “long night.” Actually, handled correctly (say by S.M. Stirling) as retold, “Nightfall” could be quite gripping.
ALAN: As it happens, Robert Silverberg spotted that before you did and he expanded the story into a novel (also called Nightfall) in 1990. Apart from the lack of sequels, he follows your plot outline quite well.
JANE: I had no idea! I wish you could hear how loud I’m laughing.
As I see it, one of the difficulties older SF has with reaching a modern audience is that in a genre now dominated not only by novels, but by series, readers don’t just want a Cool Idea and a setting that exists as an excuse to show it off, they want developed characters, intricate plot, and good prose.
ALAN: I think you’ve hit the nail on the head. The older stories could well seem unsophisticated to modern readers, and that can be quite a turnoff.
JANE: I’d actually like to look more closely at the prose conventions of the older SF and how they inform the style. I’ve had some cool thoughts… But I also want to go write, so can we wait until next time?