Saturday, January 23, 2010

Doctorow on style - and on Hemingway

Here's E.L. Doctorow, quoted in an interview in today's Guardian:

"I don't have a style, but the books do. Each demands its own method of presentation, and I like that. My theory about why Hemingway killed himself is that he heard his own voice; that he reached the point where he couldn't write without feeling he was repeating himself. That's the worst thing that can happen to a writer. A new reader shouldn't be able to find you in your work, though someone who's read more may begin to."

I'll be touching on this point in a few days, in a discussion with Vanessa Gebbie, who has edited a new collection of writing craft articles, called Short Circuit. I think Doctorow is correct at the end and incorrect at the start of this quote. I think all writers do (or should) have a style of some description, however hidden that may be. I don't just mean extremes like Cormac McCarthy, whose style is unmistakable, but anyone who wishes to be a writer has something that motivates them, some territory they wish to explore, and I think that can be seen as a thread running through their work. Doctorow is right, though, that it shouldn't be too obvious. If a writer can be too easily parodied there may be something wrong.

I think Doctorow may be correct about Hemingway, too.


John Baker said...

Thanks for this. I didn't think The Guardian article was that interesting, apart from the paragraph you quoted here, and your own reflections on it.
I'm sure there are many authors who have been important to me, who I would recognize from their prose as easily as I would recognize my friends from their looks.

Carlos said...

Akin with your view, Tom, I like the idea behind the ending of the passage, that a writer or artist should try to be new to himself and so to the audience. However, in practice I think that the notion of novelty falls away to the other idea: that each artist has some territory (perhaps several over the course of a career) that they feel drawn to explore, like an irresistible impulse or a welling up from the depths. Ultimately, when the artist consciously 'reinvents' herself, the results are often questionable from the audience's point of view.

I agree with your comments in another thread about McCarthy that art need not be made through suffering, or that the measure of its greatness is not how painful it has been to create. That said, like with McCarthy's latest work, I think that when an artist stops saying what they feel they NEED to say, and starts writing what they think they SHOULD say... something is lost.

That's where I think the compromise starts to smell funny: not in the weight of this or that artist's discursive baggage, but instead when they try, try, try to tell us how things should be, or how they want them to be, rather than how they are as understood through the manifold of their experience.

In this regard, I think artists are only 'new' to the extent that they as persons can actually see such change in some facet of their lives. You can't fake it well, even if it's your very job description.

That said, I can understand why a reader might only read 1 or 2 novels by McCarthy or Hemingway (I’ve only read 3 books by Hemingway, actually), and feel that that is enough, that one has heard what there is to be heard. Perhaps, then, the measure of an artist’s greatness is in his or her ability to TRULY be new in several ways during a career and have all of those ventures be successful. For most, this is unattainable (although we all love the "B-sides" of our favorite artists… Billy Bragg comes to mind). And if most authors can’t achieve that 'true' and meaningful multiplicity of voice, there is some logic in writing to one's strengths.


andreslaan said...

There is simply more to some styles then others. I'm a neuroscience student. One of the reasons I read McCarthy is his almost scientific accuracy in description. Take this oft-quoted sentence: 'There is a moon shaped rictus in the street lamps globe where a stone has gone and through the constant aspiring helix of insects there falls a steady rain of the same forms, burnt and lifeless.”
Beautiful, but how many readers know that the trajectory in which insects fly is mathematically described by a logarithmic spiral and this has a basis in the construction of the fly’s sensory systems. I suspect McCarthy does know this, yet this knowledge has not remained a dry fact. He has made from that knowledge a beautiful illustration about the transient nature of life.
There are other examples- in his interview with Oprah, he talks about the vestibular centre and getting up in the dark. I remember a sentence from the road about migratory birds flying across the burned earth senselessly like insects trotting the rim of a bowl.
By all this, I don’t mean to say that I expect science in everything I read. I just mean that with some styles, it will take you years to understand everything in it, with others, that much time is not necessary.
I suppose that in Suttree, for the purpose of reinventing himself, he could have written the drinking scenes in a manner similar to the easy, punch-crunch style of Charles Bukowski (also a writer with a clear, repeating style). It would not have been hard to do and I suspect it would have promoted the author of this blog to write something about McCarthy not being a one-trick pony. Yet sometimes, a change in style may indicate that the author’s inner life has become poorer, not richer.

Tom Conoboy said...

Agree about the article, John. It wasn't too exciting.

Carlos, yes I think a writer is almost inevitably going to be driven to the same themes/ideas over and over. That's probably what made them want to write in the first place, and yes, he or she has to be completely honest about exploring those ideas, wherever they lead. I also think - and this may well be the case with McCarthy - a writer may not know exactly what it is he is pursuing, other than the vague sense of wanting to understand. That certainly characterises my own writing. The same basic themes keep cropping up and they're instantly recognisable, but I'm only slowly beginning to understand exactly what it is I want to write about. It's a crab-like progress towards understanding.

andreslaan, I think you have a good point about the scientific foudnation of much of McCarthy's descriptive writing. He famously spends much of his time at the Santa Fe Institute amongst scientists because he doesn't have much time for artists. I made a note the other night of a passage from All The Pretty Horses which would also serve your argument, but I haven't got it to hand at the moment. I'll post it later, if I find it.

Funny, Suttree is the novel that made me realise McCarthy isn't a one-trick pony. There's greatness in that novel...