Ali Smith: Style vs content? Novelists should approach their art with an eye to what the story asks
Speaking at the Edinburgh World Writers’ Conference, Ali Smith argues that it is the duty of both readers and writers to ‘be as open as a book, and alive to the life in language’
Point 1: “What’s it all about?” v “What’s it all – a bout?”
Fight! Fight! Fight! In the style corner, a battered old copy of Ulysses. In the content corner, the Brazilian writer Paulo Coelho. “Writers go wrong when they focus on form, not content,” Coelho told a São Paulo newspaper earlier this month. He explained to the paper that his ability to make complicated things simple was what made him a great modern writer. “One of the books that caused great harm was James Joyce’s Ulysses,” he said. The problem with Ulysses? It’s “pure style. There is nothing there. Stripped down, Ulysses is a twit.”
Or did he mean “Ulysses is a tweet”? That sounds more likely – and handy too, because it lets us add new technological reference to the same old age-old fight. The great rollicking world of invention, the book whose rewrite of tradition, whose fusion of ordinary, legendary, fictional and real made the everyday and the man in the street an epic, and vice versa – a tweet. I think Joyce would’ve made a really good tweeter, it being his habit to transform characters – whether fictional human beings or the letters that form words – into something unexpectedly expansive.
Nothing is harmful to literature except censorship, and that almost never stops literature going where it wants to go either, because literature has a way of surpassing everything that blocks it and growing stronger for the exercise. Personally, I don’t care if everybody or nobody reads Ulysses or if nobody or everybody reads 50 shades of Coelho. There’s room in the world for all of us. We are large. We contain multitudes. A good argument, like a good dialogue, is always a proof of life, but I’d much rather go and read a book. And I like a bit of style, myself, so it’ll probably be Ulysses. Maybe the Cyclops chapter, a fusion of pugilism with the parodies of written styles over the centuries, in which there’s a description of a boxing match between Irish colonised and English coloniser; it’s the chapter in which Bloom, talking in his own faltering way about the little things – violence, history, hatred, love, life – faces a bar-room of brawlers and a legendary one-eyed bigot.
Or maybe I’d read one of the most original writers at work in the novel in English right now, Nicola Barker. I’d open Clear: a Transparent Novel, a book published a hundred years after Joyce’s Bloomsday. What’s it about? Ostensibly reality, a real-life event: David Blaine the magician, and how he survived on nothing in a see-through box strung above the Thames for 44 days in 2003. But from page one of this novel, all transparencies and deceptions, is a dissection of the infatuations, the seductions, the things we ask of books and art and culture. Like Ulysses, it’s also a discourse on heroism. Its speaker is one of Barker’s appalling and glorious wide boys, and all he can talk about, as it opens, is prose – specifically the opening lines of another book, Jack Schaefer’s Shane, a “Classic Novel of the American West”.
I was thinking how incredibly precise those first lines were, and yet how crazily effortless they seemed; Schaefer’s style (his – ahem – ‘voice’) so enviably understated, his artistic (if I may be so bold as to use this word, and so early in our acquaintance) ‘vision’ so totally (and I mean totally) unflinching.
‘I have huge balls.’
That’s what the text’s shouting:
‘I have huge balls, d’ya hear me? I have huge fucking balls, and I love them, and I have nothing else to prove here.’
… when you’ve got balls that size, you automatically develop a strange kind of moral authority … a special intellectual certainty, which is very, very seductive…”
Then he sums up the power the literary styles we love have over us:
I am putty – literally putty – in Schaefer’s hands … To be manipulated, to be led, to be played, and so artfully. It’s just … I’m just … I’ve very, very happy to be a part of that process.
Barker’s writing is a 21st-century force of energy, playfulness, marginalia, bombast, emphatic tic and formal courage, and – as with all high literary processes – not every reader’s happy to be a part of it, though lots are. Would I call it balls, what Barker’s got? No, though I’d stay with the procreational possibilities. I’d use something a lot more gender non-specific. Jouissance? No, still too gendered. Lifeforce? it certainly roars with something like life.
Let’s just call it style.