Suppose you saw a sky so blue it left you a little speechless. Now suppose you were a writer and wanted to describe that amazing sky. You could compare it to other things, of course, or emphasize how you felt (an indirect method, but useful). Some writers might wonder whether they could do unusual things with the words and symbols on the page, such as “blue! blue! blue! sky arched over us” or “cobalt as indigo as cerulean as the eyes of a goddess”. Some writers would experiment with style.
In some ways, there have always been writers who were fascinated by this medium, who wanted to see what those words on the page could do. Greek and Roman writers were inventing new genres of poetry, history, and drama. In the early Renaissance, the Italian writer Dante wrote his most famous work, the Divine Comedy, not in Latin, as proper writers of the time would have done, but in a radical experiment, he used Italian as a literary work. That experiment worked. Some don’t.
As an example of an experiment that didn’t work, let’s compare two writing styles. For contrast, I’ll start with Ernest Hemingway, about as plain and down-to-earth a writer as you can find. This is from The Old Man and the Sea.
“The successful fishermen of that day were already in and had butchered their marlin out and carried them laid full length across two planks, with two men staggering at the end of each plank, to the fish house where they waited for the ice truck to carry them to the market in Havana.”
Now here’s James Joyce, with an excerpt from Finnegan’s Wake.
“He would of curse melissciously, by his fore feelhers, flexors, contractors, depressors and extensors, lamely, harry me, marry me, bury me, bind me, till she was puce for shame and allso fourmish her in Spinner’s housery at the earthsbest schoppinhour so summery as his cottage, which was cald fourmillierly Tingsomingenting, groped up.”
Personally, I think Joyce was insane when he wrote that. An entire book like that, Christ almighty. Some experiments fail, but I understand the impulse to try. There have been times in my own writing when I was in the mood to push hard, to stretch the medium until it almost breaks (maybe like Joyce, though I don’t want to be compared to him).
I only try the really radical things in short stories, because there’s less to lose when it doesn’t work. Over time I’ve decided that an experiment can be with either form or content, but in my own case, in any one story, I tend to push only one or the other. If the style is weird, the content of the story is fairly normal, or if I use a strange content, then the style is pretty straightforward.
I wrote, for instance, a modern telling of Judith and Holofernes, a very strange story in my version set in Camden, New Jersey, so I used a descriptive style that’s pretty plain. Here is Judith telling about going into the den of the gangsters: “I did notice when he said this that the other woman there was giving me the dagger eye. Everbody but me was talking, and they were laughing and joking about things, and it looked like they were all getting drunk, especially Cholo.” In the same vein, I’ve also done a modern version of “Gilgamesh” set here in Atlanta, also with a more or less realistic style.
In fairly stark contrast, I took a true story I was told about a woman who died of a heroin overdose, and when I wrote it, I tried so many different things experimenting with style that I can’t show them all here. Here are the opening lines of the story, when she is still a little girl: “yeah want something sweet, sweet is good, U know, make U feel happy • it don’t be scream stupid ugly, U can’t U can’t U can’t, why don’t U shut up right now • they got that pie at Shop Rite, Tina like pie, lemon meringue, don’t all little girls like pie”.
I’ve done lots of experimenting with short stories, trying different things, including one online that had the readers choosing which ending to read. The most radical thing I’ve probably done with style is telling a fairly simple story of a man and woman, but from the point of view of four animals (dog, cat, bird, cockroach). Here’s something from the dog’s point of view: “MeMeMe look at outofhouse, little dog walk by, MeMeMe say hello! hello! hello! two-legged-dog-with-deep-sounds yell at me, stop hello— MeMeMe smell little dog, hello! MeMeMe go to foodroom, look in bowl, smell delicious meat/corn/grass but no food”.
Yeah, it’s not for everybody. Or maybe it’s not for anybody. But sometimes you just want to take those words and fire a pistol at their feet and make them dance.