Friday, August 7, 2009

Unique style: expressive or substantive

Often in discussions about writing excellence, the point is made that the best writers have a unique style. Little is said to describe the contours of this style. Style has been the subject of previous entries, which define styles as tradeoff patterns among writing Virtues, but the unique styles don't mean tradeoffs skilled writers purposefully modify. "Unique style" refers to something else, but what?

Some treatments, sporting a touch of New Ageism, call this unique style the writer's "voice." These authors promptly add that voice identifies a writer like fingerprints identify ordinary persons. So is it like a voice or like a fingerprint? They're not the same. Only a universal truth about fingerprints, the absolute uniqueness of each, lends them the least interest to most of us. We usually don't even bother to form an opinion about whether one's fingerprint is attractive, more-than-usually unique, or in other manner worthy. Not so with voice. While no aspirant lands a job because of the aesthetics of his fingerprint, the aural media demand vocal qualities, innate and trained. Some voices are more attractive than others, and their attractiveness is independent of the utterance's content, the assessment part objective, part subjective.

Is a writer's unique style a voice or a fingerprint? Surely if this unique style exists, it resembles voice. Unlike a fingerprint, it obtrudes itself; we can't avoid the writer's style. If in contradiction, unique style turns out to be some subtle, technical variance, then we may avoid noticing it — hardly surprising, as it becomes irrelevant. Rather than being like voice, style would have the uniqueness of handwriting in a future civilization where none use this skill.

To the contrary, style obviously matters, yet seems impossible to define in a way keeping the supposed unique and involuntary character. Unique style is supposed to be an expressive quality that becomes more pronounced as the writer skilled. If unique writing style existed, the best writers would suffer scorn for freakishness, not only win acclaim for uniqueness. Any distinctive "voice" can annoy, will annoy someone. Yet, we find no literary critics who simply despise Shakespeare. Shakespeare's distinctiveness, we can conclude, doesn't derive from a unique writing style.

Opposed to these expressive accounts of unique style, an author's unique "style" should be conceived as intellectual style, not anything inhering in sentence or paragraph composition. Writers come to identify their intellectual strengths and learn to exploit them. When a writer settles on a style, he adopts a set of approaches to intellectual (or literary) problems.

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