Saturday, 31 January 2009

On the pitfalls of stylistic uniformity, Part I I should begin by thanking my drive-by insult-smith for reminding me what I'd written about Gene Wolfe four years back, because it should've been the foundation of the Updike post. In that earlier post, I claimed Wolfe suffered from something that needs a better name (or an agglutinative one) than "brilliant-one-trick-pony syndrome." What I mean is a stylist who employs the same breathtaking style in every single thing he or she writes. Some would accuse David Foster Wallace of being one such stylist. But his novels, shorts and essays are focalized through a variety of characters. Because each of his characters speak with a unique voice, his overall style remains heterogeneous despite his penchant for footnotes and sentences of Faulknerian length and complexity. (Brief Interviews With Hideous Men works as a perfect litmus test: no one "interviewee" sounds like any of the others or, for that matter, Hal from Infinite Jest.) Gene Wolfe, however, suffers mightily from brilliant-one-trick-pony syndrome. It doesn't influence my impression of any one, two or three of his novels, but once some critical point has been passed the cumulative effect of his prose stylings begins to falter before the law of diminishing returns. [Consider] The Fifth Head of Cerberus. It begins when Severian—I'm kidding. Severian isn't in this collection. But he could be if you judged by narrative voice alone. Here's Adam Roberts, responding to that point in 2005: I was very struck by [Scott's] original point about stylistic monotony. It's not that Wolfe is a bad writer, but that he is a writer incapable of changing (or perhaps disinclined to change) his writing style. There is a flatness to reading long stretches of Wolfe; and I don't just mean late Wolfe, the Long Sun and Short Sun books where he falls lazily back on endlessly elaboration couched in the form of dialogue. The whole corpus: it's all so stylistically monologic. Some writers develop a laziness born of talent: once they've mastered their idiom, they elaborate on their strengths instead of confronting their weaknesses. Here's Adam Roberts, responding to a very similar stylist today: That’s where his genius was—his extraordinary, fluent, particularised style; the way he evoked the specificity of detail. But one of the things that follows from this is that his larger artistic project stands or falls on whether we consider the details adequate to the business of representing experience. Updike’s whole corpus is a way of answering this question with: they are; indeed, there’s really nothing more than the details. His stuff is overwritten, but in the way the Ode: to Autumn is overwritten. Of course you may feel that a writer needs something more than the details; that s/he needs a panoramic ability, or at least a larger vision. But I’m not so sure. Which is to say; I wonder if, when we look back on the second half of the twentieth century, we won’t find ourselves saying: that was the age in which people became queerly obsessed with details and minutiae,...

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