I was thinking about different styles of writing this week as what I was reading changed dramatically from one book to another. I switched from reading a little more of War and Peace to a book by Kate Atkinson (Case Histories), published in our own century. Of course a couple of short excerpts are not enough for a serious discussion, but fortunately I’ve tried to keep the standards on this blog as low as possible, so short excerpts should do just fine.
It was the older style, from Tolstoy, that actually struck me the most, as it feels so old-fashioned. Here’s a sentence I’ve pulled out to try to illustrate (this is my own translation from the Russian, but it will do for this discussion): “Her large eyes shone with a kind and gentle light. Such eyes lit up her sickly, thin face and made it beautiful.”
I find that Tolsoy, like some English novelists of the 19th century, focuses tremendously on the details of faces, and in doing so, he seems to imply that it’s possible to know things that couldn’t be known in reality. There is a feeling sometimes in 19th century literature that it was practically possible to read people’s minds just from looking at the shapes of their lips. In the sentence I quoted above, I see this in the exaggeration of eyes having a sort of moral quality, with that “kind and gentle light”.
In terms of symbolism, it also feels old-fashioned to attribute such power to eyes, however they might be described. Perhaps there was more tendency in 19th century writing to focus on the surface of the face. Writers in the 20th century moved from the surface of the face either farther away from a character, unable to know exactly what the person is thinking, or else moved inside the character, to show us in more detail the person’s thoughts exactly as they think them.
For a sharply different style from Tolstoy, here’s a sentence from Kate Atkinson’s novel: “Apart from her father’s whiskery bedtime benedictions, Victor was the first man Rosemary had ever been kissed by (albeit awkwardly, lunging at her like an elephant seal).”
This is much closer to the way I would choose to write. In this one sentence we find two examples of alliteration (“bedtime benedictions”, “albeit awkwardly”). From the use of the unusual word “benedictions” we can see that Atkinson is using this repetition of sound deliberately. She also uses irony, very much a modern practice, so that a first kiss—which ought to be a beautiful moment—is reduced to the clumsy flopping around of an enormous animal. Perhaps after the grim travail of the 20th century (and good riddance to it), we are much more likely to be cynical than people of the 19th century, so that irony feels normal to us.
In the novel I’m currently writing, there is irony certainly, and I use word play as Atkinson did, including alliteration. The style for my book also uses a modern technique of changing from first to third person in alternating chapters. I say “modern”, but the technique has been used for decades now. In every other chapter, I’m not playing with language in my own style, but rather trying to develop a distinctive voice in first person for a teenaged girl, as when she says, “One day after lunch I was sort of playing around with what was left. You probably think somebody my age shouldn’t be playing with their leftover food, but I bet you do, too, like making patterns in the sauce on the plate.”
The writing is very satisfying at the moment, though I seem to have so little time to do it. Other things take time: I walk for exercise, I practice my drum, I make dinner… Then, when it’s late, probably past other people’s bedtimes, I finally get into it. I warm up, begin to write, and feel contented and happy. And it’s bedtime and time to stop.
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I’ll end this by mentioning that on April 8 I’m going to be one of two featured poets at the Callanwolde Arts Center. If you live in Atlanta, or if you’re within a three-hour drive, come on by. It starts at 8:00, and it only costs $5 to get in (money that is used to buy alcohol for the poets, so you know the money isn’t wasted).