6-gunnkStyle vs Content

Keynote address given by Kirsty Gunn

First presented at The Melbourne Writers Festival 2013


Kirsty Gunn keynote text ‘Style vs Content’:

Generally, it seems to me, when people get together to talk about style and content in the novel they talk about just that: There’s the way a story is written and there’s what is written about. And the two, as any Literature Professor in charge of any introductory undergraduate course on the novel would say, are inextricably linked.

But nobody talks much about form. Or if they do, as the programme notes for this event suggest, they use it as another word for style.

And we need to talk about form. “Significant form”, as Roger Fry and Virginia Woolf had it. Form that is the shape and idea and raison d’etre of the novel. Form that sits behind the style and generates it, that informs the presentation of content and makes sense of it, giving context. If content is the “what” of a novel – what it’s made of – and style the “way” – in which way it is written – then form is the “how”. How a story is made in the first place, the plan for its very being. And it’s form, the mother of style and content, I may say – if I want to be rather classical and 18th century about things! -  that I want to concern myself with here today.

As I say, it’s something we don’t hear much about. Form is fancy. It’s “highbrow”. It’s the word used by Modernists and for Modernism, it’s for academic papers and critical theory and discussions about aesthetics. Form, for all that it is talked about in general literary circles, in the papers and at Writers Festivals (though not this one!) may as well be a dirty word.

Yet, I return through the mists of time to my undergraduate English programme, headed up, no doubt, by that same professor I talked about earlier, who tells us that “style and content are inextricably linked” and the core course: Introduction to the Novel 101. And what I remember is this: That as we marched our way through the canon that year, from “Pamela” and “Clarissa” through to “Robinson Crusoe” and “Tristram Shandy” and “Tom Jones” and all the rest, stopping resolutely as we did in those Oxbridge syllabus dominated days with DH Lawrence, it was form that gave instruction to the writer I wanted to be. I had no or little interest, not really, in what went on in those books. All the stuff that was happening, riveting and dramatic as it may have been. I wasn’t turned on by the stories’ historical contexts, either; I didn’t care to keep track of the characters’ individual actions and remember what happened to whom, and when. No, I was interested in how they were made, those books, for what purpose their authors deemed they were fitted. I was interested in how an imaginative idea was going to be made as real to me and as necessary and vital as anything else that might be going on in my life. Once that was in place, I could figure, all the rest would follow.

And follow it did. The exam questions kicked in and I knew exactly what to do: “In what way does the word of Middlemarch reflect a changing England? “Forget it. “At what point in the novel and why does Dorothea realise her sense of independence has been challenged?” Pass. “Show passages of speech and description that reflect class prejudice.” Not now. But once I got to “How has George Eliot gone about creating a social document within a novel?” I was off and running.

Form was my way in, then, to those often lengthy, densely written, character rich narratives that have all of us flipping back pages in the midst of our reading to remind ourselves of whether such and such was the same one who had said something to so and so in the first section, or whether he was her uncle. There was so much content! And then the paragraphs, the circumlocutions of period speech, the details of descriptions that were needed in a world before photographs and films. There was so much style! Getting through the canon of English language literature in three years – it’s a relentless business, alright! But what books! What mighty books! And each one utterly unlike the other – no two authors writing in the same way and each literary project with its own unique shape. Like exciting novels we read now that transport us, that take us fully into their reality and keep us there, that aren’t just some copycat project based on research, or that follow a trend, or trick us with a fancy style or overwhelm us with plot. The books that have form have unity and wholeness. They answer fully and with integrity the question: How am I going to create a world for this story to live in? That’s what form does. It brings content and style together in unity in a novel. Without it, the style, original as it may be, is just echoing in an empty chamber. The content, box new perhaps but without its own form, dull and second hand and boring to read.

I have a million examples of writing of the other kind, that miss the point of form, and still the books are praised and bought and read. Seemingly, just because we’re talking about novels, that great rag bag of a genre that can hold anything from chick-lit to “War and Peace”, we can throw form out the window. Because in the novel, anything goes. But should it be that way? That a writer putting together a novel about, say, insanity in rural Ireland in the 19h Century, (and I’m making up the examples here, by the way, to be polite) a novel with an uneducated central protagonist who is keeping a diary from her cell, has not considered a form for that book that would make sense of that woman’s status and condition? So, for example, she would not write at all –because she can’t. She’s not educated. She wouldn’t be able to fill the pages of a journal in her cell. But still there would be some other way of the author creating that character’s thoughts and life on the page? Can’t that writer think about that, instead of just relying on the substance of his content, to make the story real? James Kelman knows how to solve that kind of challenge. He knows about form. He has characters who don’t read, who’ve gone blind, yet still move through the pages of their stories in a way that’s rich in literary terms because of how he has invented his books, to have come up with a form where, as the great late Dr Gavin Wallace, former head of literature at Creative Scotland described it, “the life being lived is contiguous with the writing that describes it.” Kelman’s form is made up of his very characters, who talk to themselves continually, apprehending, sensing, understanding, not understanding. What we read on the pages of his books are the entire contents of their minds. It s a world away from the tried and tested journal style used by that other writer, and countless like him, who’ve all copied in turn from Defoe – because Kelman has form. He’ s not like anyone else. Form doesn’t want to be.

Or, to take another example, that a book, say, written from a child’s point of view might consider issues of vocabulary and understanding in a young mind, that it might encapsulate a sensibility more fractured and acute than the sophisticated adult who’s writing it? Yet how many writers – some of them very successful – really capture in their words what it is to be a child? Carson McCullers did, perfectly, in “Member of the Wedding”.  She knew about form. Frankie’s world, in that book, is complete, but made up of parts of disparate seeing and understanding and she grows up in the story with different ways of being, and speaking. Everything about the construction of “Member of the Wedding” is idiosyncratic and wild, mixed up as a dream. That’s what a child’s world is like. It’s not a version of an adult novel cut down to size. It’s not a controlled narrative, or masses of character and interiority. It’s scattered and intense. Why don’t so many authors who write from a children’s perspective get it? That kids’ worlds aren’t like theirs? Why doesn’t form seem to matter to them, that they should think that just by inventing a young voice they’ll pull off the trick of making childhood seem like childhood?

As I say, I could go on and on here, with examples. Books written from the first person that have never considered what it is about the first person that might be exciting actually, that the reader might not feel she’s been stuck in someone’s solitary company for too long. Books written that seem to be about character, until, ten pages in, you realise they’re only about stereotypes; or books set in ancient times with all the research in place, all those details about iron vessels and agriculture,  only the teenagers who live in the freezing hovels sound like they come from LA. Or books that seem to be about fancy writing but the writing has no context because there’ s been no central aesthetic governing it, nothing to put it in. Or books that seem to be about plot but really it’s the setting that the writer loves, that could have been the plot in itself, if only the author had thought about form, if only, if only, if only… The writer had thought about form so many of the novels might come together.

But then, form is a challenge. It’s the hardest part. It’s why most writers stick with the tried and tested, that good old workhorse, the realist novel. Broken and harnessed to plough the fields of 19th century fiction, we know what to expect of it, what it’s supposed to do. Indeed, how many other, very different kinds of books are always held up to it for comparison? If you listened to enough of the hugely successful realist novelists at work today talk about the novel, their novels, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the canon stopped its march right there, in the turned earth of the classical English novel, with its showing and telling and character development and narrative arc.

Yet the examples I gave before describe two ways form may have stepped in and created something new and exciting from the materials in hand without having to revert to copied and repeated methods. And I gave two masters of form, two great artists, as examples of how one might find solutions to the basic challenge of writing fiction, that is, making the words on the page believable and real. These are writers whose every book shows them having thought through completely the requirements of what they need to do to tell their stories. They know that idolect does not form make. Nor crazy looking chapter headings or multiple fonts. Nor content designed to impress or over-act. They know that form is not just tackling certain challenges of plot or character in isolation – but is the very “how” of their work, as I said at the beginning of this talk, its beginning and its end.

Virginia Woolf’s novel  “The Waves” tells the unbroken story of six friends from childhood into age. By creating a kind of banner of prose, without break, that segues from the mind of one character to the next, she tells about the private and public circumstances of their lives. So that’s the style, that’s the content. But the “how” is how she gets started. Two places divided by a corridor, is how she first thought of “To the Lighthouse”. It was music for “The Waves”,  “rhythm”. Yes, the work unfolds, as it does to any writer as she or he is writing, but it took shape first as a concept, an idea that was abstracted from the imagination and the intellect and sometimes, too, from the psychological make-up and even psyche of the author and then fashioned into fiction. I can imagine writing a novel that would be like a ship at night “strung about with lights” Katherine Mansfield wrote as though in response to Woolf’s own definition of the novel as a “row of lamps”. How far these ideas are removed from the rigid, rectilinear narratives, that flinty mass-produced form, that constitute so many novels today. How wild, by contrast, how trippy, how exciting and involving…This other kind of novel that has as its beginning a complex, aesthetic idea to do with the story’s origin and design, that is nothing to do with what is safe and familiar.

In a recent lecture to writing students, critic and author Gabriel Josipovici talked about the “terror” of creation. He was addressing the modernist condition of making art in the void, described so beautifully in his recent polemic “Whatever Happened to Modernism?” as the “fading of the numinous”, the relaxing of a religious medieval mind, content with its world order and heaven, into the troubled, questioning condition of humanism. There is time in which to create, Jospipovici said, and out of that time can come the excitement – of making something new – but alongside it is the terror, too, that the writing may not succeed. All we have to hold onto is the sense of the form of the project.

So to finish: There’s writing as representation, and there’s writing as a living thing. There are novels that are about, and like, and for. And there are other novels that …Simply are. To consider form, the shape, the concept of a work of fiction, is to go at reading from the most exciting perspective – one that gifts us with fresh sight, that makes reading not passive – part of out consumer consumption, an extension of the entertainment industry – but something active, engaging, affecting and real.

Let me conclude with a remark made by science-fiction-writer China Mieville, who had much to say on the future of the novel at the conference in Edinburgh last year and who was talking about novels there again this past week and at a book reading he gave a couple of months back. The word he had for what I’m wanting to get at here, in this talk of mine about what novels are made of, was “uncanny” – the notion of a thought, or a sentence that is homeless, somehow, in the text. He was referring to future-fiction and fantasy, and also the modernist idea of looking at something anew, so that the familiar seems strange  – saying that both these concepts need to find a home in the story so the reader can make sense of them. But the idea works beautifully for us here, today, too. Because that’s what form does. It gives the words, it gives style and content, a home.

© Kirsty Gunn 2013