Style Versus Story In Modern Prose

There's a famous quote about Jack Kerouac attributed to Truman Capote, "That's not writing, that's typing." (It's a bit of a mis-attribution, as he was criticizing all of the Beats, not just Kerouac.) Kerouac was a guy who infused far more poetry into his prose than story, which he drew largely from his own life. His first published book, The Town and the City, has all the autobiographical elements— it is missing the prose style that defined him as a writer. 

More so than Kerouac, Raymond Chandler is a writer defined by his style. To be fair, that's because his style of detective novel has been mined over so heavily; he invented most of the basic cliches of detective fiction. However, he's endured his stories being so influential, because the writing is so great. I recently read The Big Sleep and here's a couple of gems:

“Dead men are heavier than broken hearts.”

“She lay still now, her face pale against the pillow, her eyes large and dark and empty as rain barrels in a drought.”

I wonder who we really have that can put sentences together like that. I'm not saying that modern writers are not interested in style, William Gibson comes to mind as someone who has a very deliberate style of writing. However, I think that modern fiction seems to still be caught in one of two styles. The breathless thriller style, which moves fast and is light on details, is probably the most dominant. It's a matter of degrees, not every book is your typical bestseller that breaks up chapters in scenes pre-built for screenplay adaptation. You also have that contemplative literary fiction style, lots of detail and character, but the language is more journalistic. These are generalizations obviously, but I think we have some great storytellers creating worlds, but we're missing writers that master language. 

There's lot of exceptions to this rule, and it may just be difficult to compare the whole of English Literature to a single era. it will be interesting to see that as a generation that grew up using text for their main mode of communication. For all the hand writing about text speak, we are nearing a point where people that spent almost their entire lives with text as the dominant form of communication. It should make for some interesting reading.

Mike M

Mike M

I have written various kind of reviews for years. I currently write for Make Use Of. I used to write for Digital Entertainment News, Macgasm, and the Examiner. My day job is as an IT monkey. Follow me on Twitter.