Style Envy

by James Scott Bell

Every writer, at one time or another, suffers from what Freud called style envy.

Or maybe it wasn’t Freud. Maybe it was Gertrude Stein.

But I digress.

By style envy I mean we read things that make our jaws drop and our fingers ache. We think, I could never write anything like that. I’m a fraud! Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!

I get style envy whenever I read Raymond Chandler. So many examples, like this from Farewell, My Lovely:

It was a blonde. A blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained glass window.

Or from his short story “Red Wind”:

There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands’ necks. Anything can happen. You can even get a full glass of beer at a cocktail lounge.

Or from Playback:

Mine was the better punch, but it didn’t win the wrist watch, because at that moment an army mule kicked me square on the back of my brain. I went zooming out over a dark sea and exploded in a sheet of flame.

So what do you do about style envy? You remind yourself that every writer is different, and you too have a singular voice. Your duty is to develop that voice. Do that and you can sit back and enjoy great style without stress. Soak it up, and by osmosis you could be learning how to write what one of my favorite stylists, John D. MacDonald, called “unobtrusive poetry.”

Here is MacDonald himself, from Darker Than Amber:

She sat up slowly, looked in turn at each of us, and her dark eyes were like twin entrances to two deep caves. Nothing lived in those caves. Maybe something had, once upon a time. There were piles of picked bones back in there, some scribbling on the walls, and some gray ash where the fires had been.

A new writer I met at a book signing, Steven M. Thomas, offers this in Criminal Paradise:

I caught a whiff of his body odor as he turned. He had slathered himself with cologne in lieu of bathing, but his scent penetrated the chemical astringency. He smelled like a neglected cage.

Style adds tone. Robert B. Parker is a master at this, as he shows in Pale Kings and Princes:

The sun that brief December day shone weakly through the west-facing window of Garrett Kingsley’s office. It made a thin yellow oblong splash on his Persian carpet and gave up.

Do not neglect non-fiction writers. Rick Bragg is one of the best, as evidenced by this selection from Ava’s Man:

She was old all my life. Even when I was sitting in the red dirt, fascinated with my own toes, Ava’s face had a line in it for every hot mile she ever walked, for every fit she ever threw. Her hair was long and black as crows, streaked with white, and her eyes, behind the ancient, yellowed glass of her round spectacles, were pale, pale blue, almost silver. The blind have eyes like that, that color, but Ava could see fine, Ava could see forever. She could tell your fortune by gazing into the dregs of your coffee cup, and swore that if the bottoms of your feet itched, you would walk on strange ground. She could be gentle as a baby and sweet as divinity candy, but if her prescription was off, or if she just got mad, she would sit bolt upright in bed at three o’clock in the morning and dog-cuss anyone who came to mind, including the dead. Some days she would doze in her rocker and speak softly to people that I could not find, even by looking under the porch. Now I know I was just listening to her dreams.

So, do you ever suffer from style envy? Who are some of your favorite stylists?

9 thoughts on “Style Envy

  1. Jim,
    Good point. I suffer from style envy with every Robert B Parker book I read. The same goes for Lee Child.
    One of the things I’ve come to accept is that I’ll never write like them. Then again, I’ll never have a 95+ mph fastball or be able to shoot subpar golf. So I’ll try to be content enjoying the work of those who do.

  2. My last case of style envy came while reading THE GHOST by Robert Harris (winner of the ITW Best Thriller Award 2008). I consider Mr. Harris a “big boy” writer, and few of us breath the same air he does.

  3. James Lee Burke. Reading his books always leaves me looking at my own stuff thinking, “Gee, mine sounds like crap.” *LOL* His narrative descriptions are absolute poetry. He can unobtrusively put you smack in the middle of the scene and leave you tasting and smelling it without making you think, “Gee, get on with the story already.”

    I always tell writers who ask me for advice to read everything of his as a starting point for how to do it the right way. I especially love how he handles first person pov and still imparts outside info you wouldn’t normally get from the standard first person pov. Amazing.

    I love Carl Hiaason for his humor. Maybe because I live in Florida and some of the stuff seems even funnier to me because I remember something similar from real life it was probably based on, but I love his twist on things.

  4. from a reader’s perspective, the passages you have selected remind me of an artist….the brush and palette type. they have painted a picture with their words. they have created characters and a setting that seem so real to all the senses….you can see, smell, taste, and feel what the author is trying to portray. rebecca wells had me wanting to head for the swimmin’ hole with a fishin’ pole in ‘the crowning glory of calla lilly ponder’. that is truly an art form. and in that spirit…here’s a non-professional suggestion…..”it was a dark and stormy night”…….

  5. I suffer from style envy all the time! I’m reading Carlos Ruiz Zafron right now (on the beach) and already I’m envious!

  6. My case of style envy . . .

    Steinbeck in Grapes of Wrath, nuff said . . .

    Stephen King, he can scare me more in one sentence than most horror writers can in an entire book.

    Lisa Alther in ‘Kinflicks’. She is the funniest woman ever and writes the best unsexy sex scenes ever. They are gawky, awkward, absorbing, and decidedly unerotic. In other words, brilliant.

    Too many more to name! Terri

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