Last week’s blog got me to thinking about the “putter-inners” and “taker-outers,” as F. Scott Fitzgerald famously called them in a letter to Thomas Wolfe. Fitzgerald believed that there were “two camps” of writers: those that embellished and those who pared away. Dostoyevsky versus Hemingway, say, or the correspondents themselves, Fitzgerald versus Thomas Wolfe.
It is an old argument and a highly subjective one. After all, writing style, like a wardrobe, is personal and evolves over time. As writers (and readers) our tastes change, our views and experiences broaden. Complex style requires complex thought, and (like the use of an omniscient narrator) are often embraced gradually, along with age and (hopefully) wisdom.
For my part, the most successful writing styles echo subject and theme. Meaning should be reflected in every choice the writer makes. Obscure words, syntactical maneuvers, structural underpinnings; these are considerations the writer must contemplate in service of the overall story. It is a subject closely aligned with narrative voice; the way a writer manipulates language to evoke character, time, and place.
I would argue that, for Zinsser, as well as Strunk, White, and a host of others, the divide is not so much between simplicity and complexity, as between clarity and obscurity. Confused writing fails in its essential purpose: to communicate with the reader. And Call me Ishmael. is as fine a construction as, It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.
For Hemingway, the majority of a story lay below the surface “like an iceberg,” its very purpose to conceal more than to reveal, thereby, so he theorized, more deeply involving the reader. The literary excesses of James, Faulkner, and Joyce revealed the human mind in all its unreliability and confusion; stylistic choices with much the same purpose as Hemmingway’s bulky subtext: to engage, to dramatize, to illuminate.
Good writing reveals both the writer’s purpose and the writer. Style is the man himself, so intoned Georges Louis LeClerce, the French Naturalist, and so it is with the writer of fiction. The writer’s history and education, convictions and emotions rise to the surface of a narrative, a byproduct of a thousand careful choices the writer makes in the crafting of story.
That is, gilded or stripped to only the most significant bones, the writer’s work will only be as honest, passionate, and insightful, as the writer herself.