(i) STYLE AS MEANS OR END
Style matters. I’m not sure how much it matters to ordinary readers, but it matters to publishers when they’re deciding whether or not your MS is publishable. You may have great powers of imagination and story-telling ability, but if your style is clunky in the opening pages, you’ll be rejected long before your best qualities come to light.
I don’t think much about style myself. I do a lot of retrospective thinking about writing, but I’m scared of giving myself the yips if I worry too closely about my own style. ‘Yips’ as in golf, when a golfer becomes overly conscious of stance, angle of club head, moment of striking the ball—and ends up in a neurotic tailspin. With some things, it’s better to concentrate on the goal. Not the contact of club and ball, but the faraway place where you want the ball to land.
There are forms of writing where style makes a deliberate show of itself. Sure, it’s fine if a reader comes away from a short poem thinking, ‘what a dazzling use of beautiful language’. But that reaction won’t hold up for several hundred pages. With a popular genre novel, it’s what comes through the language that counts. You wouldn’t want the reader admiring the words at the expense of the content.
Literary critics have a lot to answer for, with their emphasis on perpetual novelty in language. I hate the kind of linguistic ‘special effect’ that brings the story to a halt while the reader stands back to admire the author’s cleverness. A striking simile that sticks out like a sore thumb isn’t my idea of good writing. I think the best similes work without being noticed—and the same with all other aspects of style.
At the other extreme are old phrases where the words have clumped together into a single conventional unit. For example
have it all one’s own way
stand shoulder to shoulder
keep a straight face
have one’s heart in one’s mouth
in high spirits
run like the wind
laugh fit to burst
have a soft spot for
fall flat on one’s face
Are these cliches? Some literary critics would claim that any use of old phrases is a fate worse than death. I don’t see anything so bad about them. Yes, they’re conventional, so that we hardly pay attention to the separate words in the phrase (‘straight’? ‘burst’? ‘soft’? ‘flat’?) But single words are conventional too. If the phrase does its job, that’s good enough for me.
I’m not saying old phrases are ideal, only that we shouldn’t be paranoid about avoiding them in genre fiction. Conveying content in a quiet, new way is best, but calling on a well-established conventional phrase is better than straining for novelty.
It’s different when a phrase belongs to certain written contexts rather than to ordinary speakers of the language.
desire burned in his veins
‘Take me to your leader’
Those are the true cliches, for my money—not just standard phrases, but phrases with corny associations, invoking worn-out fictional contexts.