Prose Stylist

Message Bookmarked
Bookmark Removed
What makes a good "prose stylist"? I keep seeing this phrase in the book reviews section of the Guardian and it always tends to be used in a damning-with-faint-praise way when C.Hitchens/M.Amis/etc. writes a book that the reviewer doesn't actually agree with. The sentences quoted are generally unexceptional. My idea of a good prose stylist is Norman Phay but I suspect this isn't quite what they're on about.

Tom (Groke), Sunday, 8 September 2002 20:15 (fifteen years ago) Permalink

That's pretty unanswerable in any way that can't be dismissed - it's like defining good poetry. Beautiful sounding sentences is one way of writing good prose. Sentences that feel as if you have never heard these words used that way before. Avoiding tired tropes, and finding new and genuinely right ones. Vividness of description. Part of it is fitting the style to the content. Long, slow, Proustian rhythms (which Updike says are Scott Moncrieff's rhythms, not Proust's!) suit Proust and might suit, say, Scott Fitzgerald (not that he needs a new style!), but would not help hardboiled crime or cyberpunk.

Some people I think write/wrote great prose: Fitzgerald, Wodehouse, Updike, M. John Harrison, Faulkner. Maybe Hemingway. Within crime, James Lee Burke is excellent. I can't speak of foreign writers, though a translater I dated briefly told me that Gorki and Dostoyevsky were not good, and Chekhov was great. I suspect Flaubert is very good indeed, and Mishima, but I can't back that up.

Some famous terrible prose writers: Isaac Asimov is unspeakably bad, tin-eared and clumsy and ugly. I love Dick (haha yes okay), but he's sometimes bad. Sinclair Lewis was stiff and dull, but not as rotten as Dreiser. Barbara Cartland is much worse than you even imagine she would be.

Martin Skidmore (Martin Skidmore), Sunday, 8 September 2002 20:36 (fifteen years ago) Permalink

I love prose stylists but there is a terrible twitch-convulse in my head when I try and wrap up a definition. I could give examples but would that be of use? No. I like Martin's "beautiful sounding..." defn. for the moment.

david h (david h), Sunday, 8 September 2002 20:44 (fifteen years ago) Permalink

John Burnside is a terrible prose stylist but a GREAT prose poet. Huh? I think he saves his best turns for his poetry though.

david h (david h), Sunday, 8 September 2002 20:47 (fifteen years ago) Permalink

tom, for some reason I have the idea that people say this about people when they want to praise their style but they're pretty readable. vladimir nabokov is the 'master prose stylist of the 20th century' haha if that's any indication.

Josh (Josh), Monday, 9 September 2002 03:01 (fifteen years ago) Permalink

Most science fiction writers I can think of are poor stylists, even the 'great' ones like Heinlein. I tried reading Stranger in a Strange Land at least twice and couldn't finish the first chapter. I read Asimov's three volume (!) autobiography when I was 13 and thought it better than any of his fiction. One good SF stylist that comes to mind is JG Ballard (who once said that the only modern writers he admired were Asimov and William Burroughs!)

Good stylists: Gore Vidal, Salinger, Hitchens (usually), Nabokov. I really don't think Amis is half the 'stylist' he's made out to be - his recent book on Stalin is filled with bad writing.

Justyn Dillingham (Justyn Dillingham), Monday, 9 September 2002 03:19 (fifteen years ago) Permalink

I always loved to read Italo Calvino, back when I read booXor instead of the interweb. I think some of it had to do with its translatedness—whatever stylings he's added had been sanded down to an almost uncomfortable clarity of intention, like you were being explained things by someone who'd just taken loads of drugs the day before. that may have been the way he actually wrote, i don't know.

Tracer Hand (tracerhand), Monday, 9 September 2002 03:54 (fifteen years ago) Permalink

That sanded down translatedness is something I often perceive (and like) in books, and it bothers me a little that I might be seeing something that isn't there. WG Sebalds prose is a particular worry in this respect, although his writing for an English audience (big assumption, admittedly) in German makes me wonder if he was intentionally using the translator as a sander.

RickyT (RickyT), Monday, 9 September 2002 06:41 (fifteen years ago) Permalink

Great prose stylist: Michael Jones

Good prose stylist: Tom Ewing

Bad prose stylist: Nick Southall

the pinefox, Monday, 9 September 2002 07:16 (fifteen years ago) Permalink

Bad prose stylist: I touched caressed your breast and I quivered with pleasure.

Good prose stylist: The cool stay of your right breast, face down, your soft hardness, its soft allowance. Your soft allowance – that you didn’t shake and stutter and rip an arm from a socket.

david h (david h), Monday, 9 September 2002 15:08 (fifteen years ago) Permalink

haha bad prose stylists undecide there verbs at the last moment but forget to change it to JUST 'caressed'.

david h (david h), Monday, 9 September 2002 15:08 (fifteen years ago) Permalink

Do you reckon the Face has an in-house prose stylist, to make all the words look pretty and fashionable?

Alex M., Monday, 9 September 2002 15:26 (fifteen years ago) Permalink

Justyn, I didn't mention Asimov to pick on SF - M. John Harrison, who I think writes breathtakingly lovely prose, is an SF writer too.

Martin Skidmore (Martin Skidmore), Monday, 9 September 2002 18:11 (fifteen years ago) Permalink

Am I the only one who thought this thread was about hiphop?

Andrew (enneff), Tuesday, 10 September 2002 01:00 (fifteen years ago) Permalink


"It may look easy to write, but that is part of the trick of classic prose. It is efficient and precise, and seems utterly spontaneous. However, that natural sound is not the sound of is the sound of writing...The classic prose stylist therefore never descends to grinding persuasion; an unobstructed view of things is always enough."

It's a pretty decent excerpt by Denis Dutton, I think saying that effectual prose styling is writing in which the author manages to sound very natural and real (i.e., Lorrie Moore, Richard Russo)without being completely authentic (i.e., Irvine Welsch, etc.).

nory (nory), Tuesday, 10 September 2002 03:31 (fifteen years ago) Permalink

Come to think of it, Irvine Welsh is a bad example, except for in regards to his dialogue. I'll try to think of a better one...

nory (nory), Tuesday, 10 September 2002 03:42 (fifteen years ago) Permalink

Nory, that is surely only one type of good prose. Some of those I mention, such as Updike and Harrison, fail on that criterion, but I still think their prose is beautiful and striking. I think suggesting that there is only one kind of good prose, one good style, is akin to saying that only soul singing can be good singing, or prog has the only good guitar playing. And, come to that, what is said there is almost prescribing good prose without a style (if you believe that is possible at all).

Martin Skidmore (Martin Skidmore), Tuesday, 10 September 2002 16:51 (fifteen years ago) Permalink

Martin--Oh, I didn't mean to imply that Irvine Welsh wasn't an example of good prose (though, to be completely honest, I never could get into him, but I see why others do). Good prose, I think, comes in all sorts of varieties. I was just trying to get back to the original question in this thread, re: what do the critics mean when they label someone a "good prose stylist." My guess would be that they're going w/ more of a "classic prose" definition, as I mentioned above. But that's just me making assumptions about the minds of literary critics, which is probably a futile pastime.

Seems like prose without style (if such a thing exists) would be very, very difficult to read, wouldn't it?

nory (nory), Tuesday, 10 September 2002 18:35 (fifteen years ago) Permalink

"Herzog's insistence on enacting the central metaphor of the film, that is, actually moving a ship over a South American mountain, delayed the film's completion by four years." Europe Since 1945: An Encyclopedia

the sentence would have been better without 'actually', but it made me smile anyways.

youn, Wednesday, 11 September 2002 03:13 (fifteen years ago) Permalink

I never was very stylish. My girlfriend chooses my clothes.

Nick Southall, Thursday, 12 September 2002 20:56 (fifteen years ago) Permalink

five months pass...
Notion of a book (of a text) in which is braided, woven, in the most personal way, the relation of every kind of bliss: those of "life" and those of the text, in which reading and the risks of real life are subject to the same anamnesis.

the pinefox, Thursday, 20 February 2003 15:47 (fourteen years ago) Permalink

Am I still bad at this then?

Nick Southall (Nick Southall), Thursday, 20 February 2003 15:52 (fourteen years ago) Permalink

two weeks pass...
When critics and readers praise DeLillo they often speak about his sentences, as if sentences were what he wrote, rather than words or phrases or paragraphs or books. The cue comes from DeLillo himself who in Mao II (1991) has a writer say that he's always seen himself in sentences, that he's 'a sentence-maker, like a doughnut-maker only slower', and that 'every sentence has a truth waiting at the end of it.' This last sentence is manifestly not itself true, and although DeLillo does write wonderful sentences, like the one quoted above about 'massive and unvaried ruin', some of the others can get a little sticky, like doughnuts only more talkative: 'A hollow clamour begins to rise from the crowd, men calling from the deep reaches, an animal awe and desolation.' 'The deep discordance, the old muscling of wills, that unforgiving thing in the idea of brothers'. 'Longing on a large scale is what makes history.' Er . . . maybe. 'When people tell rat stories, the rat is always tremendous.' Now there's a sentence.

In fact the most interesting syntactic unit in Underworld is the paragraph, or more precisely the evoked image or moment, instantly intercut with another image or moment. All of DeLillo's stories in this novel run in parallel with other stories, restlessly zig-zagging from one time or place or connection to another. This is true even of conversations, which are always conducted on several fronts, non sequiturs being retrieved by sequels, sequels beings interrupted by new non sequiturs. Here's a simple example:

At home we wanted clean healthy garbage. We rinsed out old bottles and put them in their proper bins...

He never committed a figure to paper. He had a head for numbers, a memory for numbers.

We fixed her up with a humidifier, the hangers, the good hard bed and the dresser...

The first 'we' is a mother and two boys, in the old days in the Bronx. 'He' is the absent father. The second 'we' is one of the boys and his wife, and the 'her' is the mother - the time is now the Nineties. The whole narrative relies on our hanging onto stories in our heads, being ready for their return - the effect is about as close to simultaneity, or a split-screen, as one could get on pages that run in lines and have to be turned over one after another.


the pinefox, Thursday, 6 March 2003 16:14 (fourteen years ago) Permalink

five years pass...

actually, that's not very good

the pinefox, Wednesday, 26 March 2008 11:14 (nine years ago) Permalink

You must be logged in to post. Please either login here, or if you are not registered, you may register here.