In her landmark essay “On Style” (196x), Susan Sontag rejects the idea that style is something excessive, potentially ornamental, that exist beyond the true essence of the work of literature: the subject matter. Although, as Sontag herself points out, few people would subscribe to this idea, it was still prevalent in her day – and it is still prevalent in our literary discussions to this day, with its emphasis on “accessible” or “simple” language, and rejection of the flowery and over-stylized.
Importantly, Sontag points out: “The antipathy to “style” is always an antipathy to a given style. There are no style-less works of art, only works of art belonging to different, more or less complex stylistic traditions and conventions.”
As in Sontag’s era, there’s a sense of the immorality of style, of the art-ness or art having exceeded itself in a reprehensible luxury, a kind of immorality surrounds our discussion of style. The reason perhaps why villains in Hollywood movies so often are stylish.
Or why they so often speak with a foreign accent?
In his book on Raymond Chandler, Frederic Jameson makes an astute observation about how the writer who writes in a foreign language develops a self-consciousness, a style-ness based on the circumstance of his or her foreignized relationship to language:
“For Chandler thought of himself primarily as a stylist, and it was his distance from the American language that gave him the chance to use it as he did. In that respect his situation was not unlike that of Nabokov: the writer of an adopted language can never again be unselfconscious for him; words can never again be unproblematical. The naïve and unreflective attitude towards literary expression is henceforth proscribed, and he feels in his language a kind of material density and resistance: even those clichés and commonplaces which for the native speaker are not really words at all, but instant communication, take on outlandish resonance in his mouth, are used between quotation marks, as you would delicately expose some interesting specimen: his sentences are collages of heterogenous materials.”
As an immigrant writer, I really relate to this description (though it seems it describes Nabokov more than Chandler). Though I find that “style” is often dismissed as a lack of style – a lack of restraint and elite-school training. Perhaps a good text to put in conversation with Jameson’s would be Deleuze and Guattari’s classic Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature, where they suggest that Kafka’s multilingual relationship to German (his “Prague German,” his Jewish background) leads him to write in a way that makes the German language “vibrate with a new intensity.”
I like to think of this minor usage as a kind of stylistic intensity: over the top, heterogenous, with an “outlandish resonance” in our mouths.
Born in Lund, Sweden, Johannes Göransson now lives in South Bend, Indiana, where he teaches at the University of Notre Dame. He’s the author of eight books, including POETRY AGAINST ALL, The Sugar Book and Transgressive Circulations: Essays on Translation, and the translator of several poets, including Aase Berg, Ann Jäderlund, Helena Boberg and Kim Yideum.