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Thread: The Style vs Substance Problem in Literature

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    The Style vs Substance Problem in Literature

    Hi all, I believe it's been two years since I last posted here. It's not that I didn't want to post. Frankly, I was too preoccupied (and still is, actually) with school and work. I haven't even been reading all that much (I read more books in the year before than all the books in the last two years combined). The few books and articles and short stories I've read, however, led me to ponder the problem of Flash vs Substance. Perhaps there are new difficult questions a superior mind can ask, but here I shall present my rookie answers to the most typical coffee house question surrounding this subject. Without further ado, here it is.

    Are Style and Substance mutually exclusive in literary works?
    To me, it's more of a spectrum than this A or B thing. If we look atThe Divine Comedy, the answer is no. Style and Substance come together into what is arguably the single most multi-dimensional work of art. Indeed, much of the comedy's substance is lost if we read any versions that do away with all but the basic structure of the poem (such as the few prose versions out there). Although written in poetry, which is a sign of stylistic conceit, Style is less married to Substance in Shakespeare's plays as it does in Dante's masterpiece. However much we celebrate the stylistic richness of Shakespeare's oeuvre, we remember the characters he created and the scenes they live in, so much so that they might as well be parts of ourselves that poured forth onto the pages instead. Because of this, we don't really mind reading versions of the plays with significant stylistic alterations (like the switch from verse to prose). It's also one of the reasons why he is adaptable across different times, places, and languages. The Novel also depends very little on Style. Nobody would put War and Peace on the pedestal of Style, yet it is one of the most substantial literary works of all time. The Brothers Karamazov is no different; Don Quixote too. These books are remembered for their characters-the vessels of substance. To conclude, the more concerned a literary work is with human beings, that is the more earthly, more general its theme is, the less Style-dependent it becomes. Vice-versa, the more specific, the more alien it is, the more Style-dependent it becomes.

    There seems to exist a spectrum of stylistic dependency in literature.

    Now that I've put forth my feeble thought on this problem, I'd love to read yours. Thank you.

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    Registered User Clopin's Avatar
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    I mean you're right but there are novels which depend almost entirely on style for their effect such as Ulysses and The Waves.
    Last edited by Clopin; 02-09-2015 at 05:48 AM.
    So with the courage of a clown, or a cur, or a kite jerkin tight at it's tether

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    Quote Originally Posted by Clopin View Post
    I mean you're right but there are novels whic depend almost entirely on style for their effect such as Ulysses and The Waves.
    Haven't read The Waves, so I cannot appraise it. But Ulysses to me is a case of style over substance, which is why it is very dependent on style. What little substance Ulysses has cannot make up for any stylistic alterations, for style is all it has.

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    I don't like to think that there is a dialectical opposition between the two, or how writers somehow feel when they are writing a novel that they are torn between choosing style and content. On the contrary, both style and content complement each other - one cannot exist without the other. The reader may choose to draw a line up to his own choosing if he can't enjoy Faulkner or Pynchon or Gaddis or DFW (i myself cannot stomach them), which are definitely more stylistic and flashy in language and therefore in content as well. Personally, I find as much satisfaction in reading a book which sticks to conventional language while being heartfelt and truthful in its intentions. Case(s) in point: The Joys of Motherhood by Buchi Emecheta, So Long a Letter by Mariama Ba, Beauty and Sadness by Yasunari Kawabata.
    Last edited by Marcus1; 02-09-2015 at 11:48 AM.

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    there is not style over substance. The truth is style is substance.

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    Quote Originally Posted by JCamilo View Post
    there is not style over substance. The truth is style is substance.
    There's no doubt about that. What I am to convey here is the emphasis of one over the other, and how it varies according to genres.

    It's a given that to create substance you cannot discard style, for style gives form to substance. What I'm saying is that rigidity in style is less critical in some works than others; and also that some writers put tremendous attention, energy, and time to style that the substance of their works suffer as a result.
    Last edited by Raven Falcon.; 02-09-2015 at 05:51 PM.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Raven Falcon. View Post
    There's no doubt about that. What I am to convey here is the emphasis of one over the other, and how it varies according to genres.
    If style is substance there is not emphasis. It is that simple. If you notice something wrong with them, you are discoverying the writer's flaw.

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    Quote Originally Posted by JCamilo View Post
    If style is substance there is not emphasis. It is that simple. If you notice something wrong with them, you are discoverying the writer's flaw.
    Then all post modern books are flawed.
    Last edited by Raven Falcon.; 02-10-2015 at 05:47 AM.

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    A lot of great novels and stories are recognized as much for style as for substance: Moby-Dick, Blood Meridian, the works of William Faulkner and Ernest Hemingway, and others

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    Artist and Bibliophile stlukesguild's Avatar
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    Style vs Substance seems but another means of saying Art vs Content. As JCamilo suggests, I'm not certain that there is a dichotomy here... a "VS". There is as much artifice involved in a painting such as this:



    ... as there is in a painting such as this:



    One is more self-consciously or openly artificial or "artful" while one employs its artifice in creating the illusion of "realism" or naturalism.

    I imagine the same is true of literature. Joyce, Sterne, Nabokov, Kafka, Calvino, etc... are far more blatantly artificial than Tolstoy, Dickens, Dostoevsky, or Flaubert... but neither approach is inherently less "artful" than the other.

    If we are speaking of the idea of "content" as being defined as a "serious" or "profound" subject or "meaning" I have no use for that concept whatsoever. I'll take Shakespeare over Tolstoy and Sterne and Nabokov over Dostoevsky any time. IMO "content" is the result of the ART. Subject matter is irrelevant in terms of inherent value or merit. "Meaning" is rather like a definition. To me the value of all Art... including literature... lies in the experience.
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    Quote Originally Posted by Raven Falcon. View Post

    Style is less married to Substance in Shakespeare's plays as it does in Dante's masterpiece. However much we celebrate the stylistic richness of Shakespeare's oeuvre, we remember the characters he created and the scenes they live in, so much so that they might as well be parts of ourselves that poured forth onto the pages instead. Because of this, we don't really mind reading versions of the plays with significant stylistic alterations (like the switch from verse to prose)
    I agree that there is a spectrum dividing texts, which spans across texts where syle is substance, texts blending the two (the majority), and texts where style only serves to convey the substance. However, one cannot move the language of Shakespeare's plays without losing their brilliance. The genius of the characters' complexity and the plays' tragedy or comedy lies in Shakespeare's words. Replacing them with someone else's is like letting someone repaint Van Gogh or sing a karaoke version of a Beatles classic. People may be ok reading prose versions or classic comics of Shakespeare, but they aren't getting his true works, their style, or their substance.

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    Pièce de Résistance Scheherazade's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by stlukesguild View Post
    To me the value of all Art... including literature... lies in the experience.
    Which can be rather subjective, depending on many factors.
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    As others have mentioned, perhaps the question isn't so much style vs substance as what kind of style the author uses. A work that seems more "earthly" or "human" might not necessarily lack style. Instead, the creator could channel his or her stylistic skills towards a different end. A couple of years ago, I read a book about the painter Norman Rockwell which suggested that despite the simplicity of his works, he was very conscious of ideas of composition and style. A work with style that draws attention to itself is not necessarily more stylistically sophisticated.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Bartlebooth View Post
    A work with style that draws attention to itself is not necessarily more stylistically sophisticated.
    Although I have a personal preference for elaborate styles like Faulkner's, Morrison's, and McCarthy's, the statement above is definitely true.

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    substance over always because style changes to chase it is rather rages
    so I would they are not mutual they are habitual one depends on the other more
    substance subsidies style because style shifts it is unreliable because of the mood.
    style is language dependable.
    substance is it not because it is rectifiable viable to everyday situation it makes style undeniable it follows but changes.
    it may never try
    but when it does it sigh
    it is just that
    good
    it fly

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