Substance and Style

When Tom Wolfe's The Bonfire of the Vanities first came out, didn't it have a sort of manifesto-like introduction? That introduction doesn't seem to be in the copies of the book that are now being printed. But somewhere or other -- I'll source this in a comment later if I can track it down -- I remember Wolfe writing about the difference between being a twentysomething and a fortysomething writer, mocking his twentysomething self because his writerly ambition was for his prose to be "crystalline," which he laughs off as a totally meaingless goal. I would counter that the idea of "crystalline" prose is perfectly intelligible -- it implies clearness and also the hope of planting something that will grow. (Perhaps even resonance although that might be getting a bit New Age.) As the child is father to the man, the wide-eyed Wolfe who wanted his prose to be "crystalline" was a necessary stage on the way to the pragmatic mature Wolfe who poses as a sourge of pretension.

The other thing I remember Wolfe writing was something like, I doubt if there's a writer over forty who doesn't think the relative importance of what you have to say and how you say it is something like sixty percent substance, forty percent style. In my twenties I wanted to reply, more like sixty percent style, forty percent substance. But now I am over forty, I guess I more or less agree with Wolfe. Any other thoughts on this? Is it naturally to be expected that young writers are more obsessed with developing their style, while middle-aged writers have figured that side of things out, and can concentrate on setting down their ideas?

6 thoughts on “Substance and Style”

  1. The 60/40-youth and the 40/60-veteran follows the natural perspective of accumulated experience. Certainly in terms of volume of substance one expects the 45 year-old to have a greater store than the 25 year-old. As for me, when I was in my 20s, I insisted, keep in mind I was in graduate school (particle physics), that style couldn’t be less relevant. I was nearly militant in insisting that literature ought to come right out and just SAY what it was trying to, umm, say. That style just gets in the way of the message, that clarity is by definition simplicity and simplicity is born of understanding fundamentals and that fundamentals can only be understood in the nude; that any “style” obfuscates the facts, the basics, the germ.
    I don’t agree with my child-father – or, rather, I’d say to him, “You’re probably right, but, dude, loosen up.” At the time, in my 20’s those are the same words that I would have said to guys like Sartre, Derrida, Camus, Heidegger – all those guys who seemed to try like hell to be simple but failed so miserably.
    There is no limit to the irony of youth and, especially, the reflection upon youth.

  2. When I was a younger writer, I mocked the image I had cooked up of my future self — a worn-out 40 something who looked back fondly, nostalgically, drearily on his younger, smarter self. The latter portion of this sad scenario, thank god, has not come to pass.

  3. And what is the experience that the poet is so bursting to communicate? By the time it has settled down into a poem it may be so different from the original experience as to be hardly recognisable. The “experience” in question may be the result of a fusion of feelings so numerous, and ultimately so obscure in their origins, that even if there be communication of them, the poet may hardly be aware of what he is communicating; and what is there to be communicated was not in existence before the poem was completed. “Communication” will not explain poetry. I will not say that there is not always some varying degree of communication in poetry, or that poetry could exist without any communication taking place. There is room for very great individual variation in the motives of equally good individual poets; and we have the assurance of Coleridge, with the approval of Mr. Housman, that “poetry gives most pleasure when only generally and not perfectly understood.”

  4. Henry James, letter to Hugh Walpole, 1912 — “Don't let anyone persuade you – there are plenty of ignorant and fatuous duffers to try to do it – that strenuous selection and comparison are not the very essence of art, and that Form is [not] substance to that degree that there is absolutely no substance without it. Form alone takes, and holds and preservers, substance – saves it from the welter of helpless verbiage that we swim in as in a sea of tasteless tepid pudding, and that makes one ashamed of an art capable of such degradations.”

    Virginia Woolf, Orlando — “So then he tried saying the grass is green and the sky is blue and so to propitiate the austere spirit of poetry whom still, though at a great distance, he could not help reverencing. 'The sky is blue,' he said, 'the grass is green.' Looking up, he saw that, on the contrary, the sky is like the veils which a thousand Madonnas have let fall from their hair; and the grass fleets and darkens like a flight of girls fleeing the embraces of hairy satyrs from enchanted woods. 'Upon my word,' he said (for he had fallen into the bad habit of speaking aloud), 'I don't see that one's more true than another. Both are utterly false.' And he despaired of being able to solve the problem of what poetry is and what truth is, and fell into a deep dejection.”

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