Over the years, I’ve come across three simple two-word explanations for what constitutes style:
• disappointed expectations
• familiar defamiliarized
• perception prolonged
That first description might seem negative but of course it’s not (if well handled by the writer). One can surely derive pleasure from the unexpected.
Unfortunately some writers go to extremes that may displease. Let me give one example:
Last April I read Regina O’Melveny’s historical novel The Book of Madness and Cures. O’Melveny is a poet so, as expected, her prose is lyrical. But it’s easy to get carried away by the sound of words, leaving meaning behind. Let’s take one or two examples:
“Her gall-brown eyes dilated with a ferment that spilled from little wounds everywhere, invisibly issuing from the veins of lives, from the wall joists and the dark timbers of the ceiling, from the spaces in the perfect square of white lace that her mother desperately continued to lay upon her lap, from the cracks in the gondolas, from the sea itself.”
Some readers might find that evocative; I find it annoying. Eyes dilate with a ferment, and this ferment spills from wounds everywhere and thus issues from the veins of lives (!?) and even from spaces in lace, not to speak of wall joists and ceiling timbers, cracks in gondolas and the sea. The result is a nonsensical mishmash.
One gives greater latitude in similes and metaphors, where the unexpected is almost a requirement (such as John Updike’s description of the red tongues of expired parking meters–something I read over twenty years ago, in which book I’ve forgotten, though the image has remained impressed in my memory). Here’s an example from O’Melveny:
“. . . the hours drained like the waters of a wound.” Is the author thinking about what words mean or does she simply like their sound?
By way of contrast, let me cite an equally unusual simile that I found this week while reading Joe R. Lansdale‘s Sunset and Sawdust. Somewhere in there he described mosquitoes as thick as tacks in tarpaper. Unusual, beautiful, and relevant to the story’s ambience. He surely “disappoints” our “expectation” but does so to our delight!