The puzzle of style

My hackles go up when people I will call Serious Reviewers base their assessment of a book’s quality on style. In the last week alone, I’ve read the phrases, “amateurish style,” “lacked style,” and “pretentious style” in multiple reviews. The market spectrum ranged from YA, through SF, to literary fiction. The market penetration ranged from indie unknown to mega-blockbuster bestseller.

I’m left with the impression that when Serious Reviewers don’t feel like building defenses for their dislike of a book, they default to assaulting style. They’re like debaters who stoop to ad hominem attacks when they run out of logical arguments? (gratuitous ad hominem example: “Oh, yeah? You can list ten factors indicating climate change? Well, your socks are stupid, so you don’t know anything.”)

 The refusal to engage on point irks me, but a more troubling issue lurks under my surface annoyance. Style is a a fluid element in communication, just as words are fluid elements of language. Styles and words fall in an out of fashion, so is it fair to state unequivocably that a style is good or bad?

No, it isn’t. “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” That’s a quote. Rev up the search engine of your choice, if you want an attribution. When the foundation for all that’s wrong with a written work is that it is not the Right Style, the reviewer is basically saying, “I am disguising my legitimate emotional response behind intellectual trappings, because feels aren’t legit. I must box them up in pretty thinks.”

Did I say, “basically?” Oh, yes, I did! Evil adverb on the loose! Also, exclamation points! And Slang! And starting a sentence with a conjunction!

There. All my writing can now be dismissed on multiple style points. Lazy writer. Bad style–or not, depending on venue, audience, and reader expectations. Some people hate Hemingway. (me) Some people think his style is the cat’s pajamas. Why the heck is that a positive idiom, by the way? Fodder for a different post. Moving on. Style is to writing what clothes are to modesty. Necessary in principle, but a source of endless variation in practice and acceptance.

That’s my point. Style is in the eye of the beholder, so criticizing style is personal rather than professional. If someone likes fast sports cars, a motorcycle might be considered short two wheels, and horses would be right out, as a form of transportation. If you love horses, on the other hand, a Ferrari is no substitute for something with a whinny and a tail.

Whether a style suits its story or not is an equally problematic issue. I’ve seen plenty of mealy-worded versions of: “It was an interesting idea, but the wording was too simplistic for the subject matter.” My personal favorite pins down the far end of that spectrum: “The author used too many words.”

 How the story gets told, that’s the author’s choice. Like it or don’t, that’s valid. It’s not pertinent to the quality of the work, but it’s valid. Downgrading an assessment of a book’s intrinsic worth based on a visceral response? Not valid. Not cool. Don’t throw out the comments, “It’s a kid’s book,” or “It reads like a romance,” as if they were legitimate evaluations. They aren’t.

Cats. Pajamas. Now there’s style.

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