THE WRITER’S VIEW ON STYLE: A PASSAGE BY R.L. STEVENSON

I was planning to write a post today on what I have seen and heard in the recent XXXIX AEDEAN conference (11-13 last week) but this needs a bit of careful thinking I have no time for today. Unexpectedly–because it often happens that I end up writing about something that I never thought I would consider–I have woken up with this urge to write about R.L. Stevenson. I have already written plenty about the text by him which I teach every year, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, but today I’m dealing with something quite different: the article “A Note on Realism” (1883, Magazine of Art), included in the volume Essays in the Art of Writing, which you can download from https://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/s/stevenson/robert_louis/s848aw/index.html.

This is a passage I have often used in class, as I did yesterday (forgive the long quotation):

Style is the invariable mark of any master; and for the student who does not aspire so high as to be numbered with the giants, it is still the one quality in which he may improve himself at will. Passion, wisdom, creative force, the power of mystery or colour, are allotted in the hour of birth, and can be neither learned nor simulated. But the just and dexterous use of what qualities we have, the proportion of one part to another and to the whole, the elision of the useless, the accentuation of the important, and the preservation of a uniform character from end to end—these, which taken together constitute technical perfection, are to some degree within the reach of industry and intellectual courage. What to put in and what to leave out; whether some particular fact be organically necessary or purely ornamental; whether, if it be purely ornamental, it may not weaken or obscure the general design; and finally, whether, if we decide to use it, we should do so grossly and notably, or in some conventional disguise: are questions of plastic style continually rearising. And the sphinx that patrols the highways of executive art has no more unanswerable riddle to propound.

To begin with, I find it a great pleasure to read texts about the craft of writing penned by the authors themselves. I would make it compulsory for all kinds of literary work to carry a writer’s comment in the style of the director’s comments on the DVD and Blu-Ray editions of films. Interviews would also do. I miss very much the many presentations by writers the Barcelona British Council used to offer, because they gave me the chance not only to collect autographed books but to hear authors discuss in person the tricks and challenges of their trade. At one point I asked the British Council whether we could edit a volume with the transcriptions of these presentations but the task was so gigantic that we soon abandoned the idea. I was at the time fascinated by the series of volumes offering interviews with major writers published by the Paris Review (now online https://www.theparisreview.org/interviews). I still am.

Anyway, back to Stevenson. Consider what he says: talent (i.e. “passion, wisdom, creative force, the power of mystery or colour”) is innate but style, the “mark of any master” can be learned and even “improved at will”. He speaks next of working on “the just and dexterous use of what qualities we have” to reach “technical perfection” which is, in his view, “to some degree within the reach of industry and intellectual courage”. I may be misreading but my impression is that Stevenson is here over-optimistic in the sense that, correct me if I’m wrong, but ‘industry’ and ‘intellectual courage’ also depend on inborn qualities.

Let me rephrase this: if a writer is born with talent that amounts to 80% of what is required to become a ‘master/mistress’, the 20% that depends on hard work will also depend on their having the required innate capacities to make the best of their talent. Inborn talent + limited ability to develop style = not a master/mistress (or an oxymoron). And the other way round: if a writer is born with a 20% talent for producing good writing, there is no way s/he can ‘learn’ the remaining 80%, as acquiring skills cannot compensate for limited innate talent. Or, as Stephen King argues, creative writing courses can help only if you already have a natural talent; ergo, only those with a natural talent are in a position to complement it with the ‘industry’ required to polish it into producing outstanding writing.

Stevenson does not seem to think that there is a direct link between the inborn talent and the subsequent industry (unless I misunderstand him) because he apparently thinks that the hard work he does on his texts should have similar results for all writers, which is not the case. His style is not a ‘natural’ product in the sense that, as I taught my students yesterday, he wrote Jekyll and Hyde in a six-day fever but spent then six weeks re-writing the text. This re-writing, the search for style and ‘technical perfection’ which he describes in the passage is what makes the work outstanding–both, I’ll insist, depend on inborn abilities. The ability to reach ‘technical perfection’ can be improved but not learned from scratch and much less in the absence of inborn talent. Now, what exactly causes some individuals to be naturally inclined to producing good writing is a mystery. Perhaps one day scientists will discover that it is a mutation.

The features that Stevenson describes as contributing to ‘technical perfection’ will surely remind you of Edgar Allan Poe’s famous review of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Twice-Told Tales (1842) and his defence of “the unity of effect or impression” (he’s actually discussing poetry). “The true critic”, he writes in defence of the short story, “will but demand that the design intended be accomplished, to the fullest extent, by the means most advantageously applicable”. This is what Stevenson seems to bear in mind when he writes that ‘technical perfection’ consists of “the proportion of one part to another and to the whole, the elision of the useless, the accentuation of the important, and the preservation of a uniform character from end to end”.

This was useful for me to remind students that Victorian writers who serialized their work for as long as it could find an audience (Charles Dickens) or those forced to fill in a three-decker (Anne Brontë) could not afford the luxury of trimming their texts as both Poe and Stevenson recommend. It seems then that both the short story and the novella (Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is one) clashed with the novel in this sense until the one-volume novel became the norm (in 1894, when Mudie’s and Smith’s refused to distribute three-deckers). The famous designers’ rule that ‘less is more’ (according to Wikipedia adopted in 1947 by minimalist architect Mies van der Rohe but first found in Robert Browning’s poem “Andrea del Sarto” of 1855) also applies, then, to Literature. Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is, in that sense, an absolute masterpiece–whereas the other novella I teach, Heart of Darkness, would be by Stevenson’s standards in need of some pruning for its verbal flamboyance.

I agree wholeheartedly that trimming and pruning are essential tools for good writing–no matter how frustrated I feel every time I am asked to reduce my articles… The mystery, then, is why the current dominant trend in fiction writing is not the pared-down text that Ian McEwan is so fond of but the sprawling series. I wonder what Stevenson would think of Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, now reaching its sixth volume and nineteenth year as I do wonder how Martin values style…

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