Fear of the World

If I have a religion, it is probably bibliomancy, the practice of flipping books open at random and reading from the quote I find.

Just now:

Fear of the world produces crystals in writing. One seeks the faultless, crystallized phrases, perfection, the hard polish of the gems, and then finds that people prefer the sloppy writers, the inchoate, the untidy, the unfocused ones because it is more human. To jewels, they prefer human imperfections, moisture of perspiration, bad smells, stutterings, and all the time I keep this for the diary and give the world only jewels.

That’s from the journals of Anaïs Nin, Volume II, page 52, at the end of July 1935.

I have lately seen a lot of praise for not being perfectI like this above quote because it encourages the writer to just be alive. I’ve written some about this disjunct, how readers prefer story over style, in my post on Ender’s Game, and back then I was only amazed at the seemingly childish attack on style Card makes in the new preface to the current edition.  But it has been on my mind lately, the idea that style doesn’t matter, the uselessness to a writer in being a master of style. Master of story, yes. I will always love style, to be clear—I am now taking a break in writing, for example, from a revision that involves retyping the manuscript of the second novel, which I am doing because it is the best way to pay attention to the whole story—a very old-school way to proceed, yes, but that’s because it works. Retyping allows you to edit it in an intuitive way that cut and paste can’t reach. And yes, it also helps the writer revise to tone, something I’ve always loved. Oh well. Me and my useless love of style.

The woman pictured here is the Comtesse de Castilgione, a character in my new novel and a real figure from history. She was one of the legendary beauties of 19th Century Paris and the milieu surrounding the court of the Second Empire, the ambassador to France from Italy. She was something of a Second Empire Cindy Sherman. She hid herself from society as she aged, afraid of allowing people to see her beauty in decline, but before that happened, photographed herself relentlessly in her favorite costumes to commemorate scenes from her life. The Met organized a beautiful show and catalogue around these portraits.

I know I haven’t updated in a while, and if you’re wondering, “what is he up to?” The answer is, thinking about her. I am delivering edits on the manuscript before I begin teaching at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop for the spring semester, and there’s not much time for anything else. I am trying to live up to being put on The Millions Most Anticipated List, basically. Anyway, we return to regular updates soon.


  1. This is interesting. I’ve undergone a similar realization, as I veered away from reading sentences aloud obsessively and prioritizing style to the point that I sacrificed the story.

    I don’t think style is useless. I think of the rhythm of Faulkner or Dillard or even Cormac McCarthy. I love authors who can achieve a lyricism in their words; story is riveting, but the style can create a rhythm that transports me in its own way. I can become transfixed on how certain syllables or sounds compliment with and clash against one another. I don’t think it can ever come before before story, but I can’t say I would happily discard it in my work. And I don’t think your love of style is useless; one of my favorite things about your writing is the beauty of your sentences, how they feel like tides sweeping me under. I hope that never changes.

    Maybe it’s not about rendering style useless as much as shifting priorities. You could set story as the priority and still toil away at style, just making sure it never detracts from your top priority.

    Just my 2 cents.

    1. Oh, thank you, and I’m not giving up on it, but I have had conversations with one writer friend in particular about how we fear American writers have, and this includes us, become afflicted by style in a way our British counterparts haven’t—and I use the Card as an extreme example. But a useful one. And this by way of saying I don’t think style itself is bad, but I think worrying about it can be—caring about it sometimes to the exclusion of story, or as a way to procrastinate because, as Nin says, one fears the world.

      I do teach it, also. And as I have said to some of my students who’ve complained about needing to pay attention to it, “You don’t have to care about style, but then maybe don’t tell anyone you studied with me.”

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