The question I have been thinking about this week is: Is there a place for style in genre fiction?
The definition of style is open to interpretation, of course. When I talk about "style," I am referring to those aspects of prose that mark a writer's departure from what would be considered traditionally correct or competent prose. At a more general level, the word might mean those aspects of prose that identify the work as having been written by a particular writer.
So, for instance, when we think of Agatha Christie's style, we think of straightforward prose, not gorgeous use of the language. Ross Macdonald, husband of Margaret Millar, used to refer to his wife's "somewhat sarcastic" style, and that's a good description. When you read one of the mature Millar books, the prose tells you in no uncertain terms that Margaret Millar was not one to suffer fools gladly.
Christie and Millar were very different writers working in the same genre, but I can't think of any grammatical oddities in their writing. Yet, I can think of several very good stylists who use a lot of ellipses (many more than the typical writer). I have a writer who likes italics, another writer who likes dashes.
With both these writers, I see what they are doing. That is, as an editor who likes punctuation and sees it as a powerful tool in the writer's arsenal, I understand how they are using the elements of their own particular style. The writer who likes italics often uses them ironically as the conventional wisdom, in order to poke fun at the contemporary culture. The writer who likes dashes uses them before and after verbs to indicate a character doing something unexpected.
And yet, I fear that my "typical reader" out there does not quite go for such stylings. In fact, I think Typical Reader may find them annoying. So I do a lot of editing to get rid of the elements that actually make a book appealing, unique, or different. I don't necessarily like myself for doing this, but I feel as though I would be doing writers a disservice if I did not.
Why? Because, when I read non-professional reviews, I find many readers complaining about stylistic elements that they found offputting or annoying. A good example is Lisa Unger. In one of her books, Beautiful Lies, the narrator (first person) occasionally addresses the reader directly, like this: "I know now that what I did was stupid, but let me ask you: Wouldn't you have done the same? Wouldn't you have wanted to believe that the man who said he loved you really DID love you?" (I just made that up, but you get the idea.)
I didn't mind that element of Unger's style. I wouldn't say I LOVED it, but I saw what she was doing with it: She was trying to bring the reader into a conversation, and as a strategy it was not a bad idea at all, given how many readers like to see fictional characters as personal friends. Yet a lot of the non-professional reviewers called attention to how "annoying" or "offputting" this was. (Interestingly, this hasn't stopped Unger from being quite successful.)
But, as I've suggested in earlier posts on Mysterious Matters, I'm becoming more conservative in terms of trying to publish books that do not offend - that do not put noses out of joint - that do not overly challenge - that do not erect barriers to immediate liking. Is this a result of thinking in terms of Facebook? Perhaps, perhaps.
Ultimately, I don't know quite what I'm trying to say here. A manuscript with style captures my attention and gets me interested in it. And then, when I'm reading it, I'm often thinking: This is great - interesting - provocative - but ultimately it has to go. Unless, of course, you already have readership that loves your style, in which case, everything is fine as is.