Is stylised prose making a comeback?

I thought at first I was asking this question with my reviewer's hat on, after reading a few recent novels that seemed to me, anyway, to be excellent examples of stylised prose. Marlon James's debut, for example, John Crow's Devil, felt highly stylised, in the best possible way, a great marrying of voice and language.



 I also got excited by Laird Hunt's excellent Neverhome, about a woman who has joined up to fight during the American Civil War, for the same reason - a voice that felt both realistic and unreal, literary in a stylised way.



I think of Megan Abbott as a great contemporary stylist, too. Bury Me Deep is a perfect example:



A favourite from the past is Eudora Welty, a superb stylist - and of course, the Modernists. Joyce, Woolf, Lawrence and co, all stylists. But for a long time now, 'style' has been out of fashion. Perhaps that's why Hemingway has also been in the doldrums. Chandler, too. Robert Louis Stevenson, a great prose stylist - but who amongst us reads him regularly now? Jane Austen has been cited as a stylist (I was asked once by a terrifying teacher at school who I'd offer up as an example of a great stylist, back in the 1980s. I could only think of Austen and almost died with relief when he just said 'hmmmm', and didn't throw the blackboard chalk at me, which he was wont to do), and at least is still read. But who else? Martin Amis is listed as a stylist, but he's famously never won the Booker. I think James may have beaten him to it, as the times change...

Some linked the disappearance of style in contemporary writing to the rise in creative writing schools - so I guess nobody is being taught to write like Hemingway? I've never quite understood what's meant by the criticism that a piece of work is very 'creative writing school' and I'm still not quite sure. I think what's meant by that criticism is that individuality is being ironed out, to produce a more bland, more generally acceptable rose style. Get rid of the quirks and obey the rules.

I'm not sure that's fair to creative writing schools, if that is what such a criticism means. What part do publishers play in this? Do publishers prefer a blander, more pared-back, more simplistic style that has a greater potential to appeal to a larger group of people? Marlon James asked recently if the reason publishers didn't go for his early work was because he didn't fit their perception of what they thought he should be writing about - but perhaps also he didn't fit how they wanted him to write.

A more stylised piece of prose may well have more limited appeal, of course. So now I'm asking with my writer's hat on. I think my Madeleine Smith novel could probably be described as 'stylised', and at the moment it's with agents as I look for new representation. Will that be a problem, I've been asking myself, if 'style' is still out of fashion (more than a problem, I should say, than low book sales. Cue hollow laughter)?

I've come to realise over the years that often the novels that excite me the most are those with more stylised prose (Joyce Carol Oates is someone I'd cite in this category, too), and the ones that are least stylised are the ones I truly struggle to 'like'. So is 'style' making a comeback, or are the likes of James and Hunt more of an anomaly? I can but hope...

I should also add, that non-fiction is part of this, too. When I was writing 'Between the Sheets' I was very aware that my writing style was...raw, I would call it. Quite rough in places. I only had to read Claire Tomalin's beautifully written biography of Katherine Mansfield to realise the difference. But I was in a real quandary about that. My book, I felt, had a political point to make and I wanted that to feel real, immediate. A rougher, rawer style felt appropriate. Beautifully polished prose didn't. I have the feeling sometimes, in literary biography, that one is supposed to be more 'ladylike' in one's expressions. But this wasn't, I'm happy to say, a 'ladylike' book!

 

Comments