Style vs. Content: an energetic debate

By Corina Milic

Four authors sat down for a round table discussion on Basic Instinct: Style vs. Content, Wednesday night as part of the Toronto edition of the Edinburgh World Writers’ Conference.

The event may have been tamer than its 1962 counterpart (authors almost came to fisticuffs during that controversial meeting), but there was heated debate, intelligent questions and even a few audience F-bombs.

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Susan G. Cole, books editor at NOW Magazine, hosted the chat with Marjorie Celona, Rebecca Lee, Anakana Schofield and Leanne Shapton.

The conversation meandered through each author’s writing process, the concept of style vs. content, style as content (reminding this audience member of fellow Canadian Marshall McLuhan) and whether to use first person or third person narration.

Rebecca Lee uses first person throughout Bobcat and Other Stories, her debut short story collection. Lee said each character had a bit of her in them. “It’s like turning up the volume on yourself and that becomes your character.”

Marjorie Celona chose a double narrative for her debut novel Y, which is about a girl abandoned at birth. One storyline is told in first person, the other in third. “At one point the I key on my keyboard stopped working. First person can be limiting.”

But the real disagreements didn’t begin until Cole asked,

“Can style ever get in the way?”

Celona argued overly stylized writing can block a story’s emotion. She said she doesn’t want “the writer to be louder than the story.”

Anakana Schofield, the panel’s Irish-accented firecracker, was “horrified” at the argument, saying, “I find story is a dead end. I’m interested in language.”

Cole suggested in Schofield’s novel, Malarky, the style is the content. It was 10 years in the making and is about a grief-stricken rural Irish woman. Schofield said she specifically used stylized, fragmented language to “represent the discombobulation of grief.”

The debate evolved into the importance of story vs. language, which Leanne Shapton likened to the difference between illustration and art.

Shapton came to the round table from a unique perspective: she is an artist and an author. Her memoir, Swimming Studies, is about her experiences training for the Olympics and includes whole chapters told with photos and illustrations.

An energetic audience weighed in. Is there something gendered about the way authors use style and content? What is content? To which Lee answered with the best quote of the night: “What can writing do that other forms can’t? It can collapse experience into meaning.” Anyone can tell a story! And, doesn’t style, not narrative, define great literature?

“Shouldn’t we have both?” argued Celona.

Celona’s novel is about a girl who finds out she was abandoned at the YMCA as a baby and is looking for her birth mother. “It sounds like a bad made-for-TV movie,” she laughed. “Style is what elevates it above that.”

Learn more about Milic’s attempts to read every book in her home on her blog. Visit readings.org for more IFOA events.

Five Questions with… Marjorie Celona

© Sherri Barber

Marjorie Celona will read from her debut novel, Y, and participate in an IFOA round table discussion called Basic Instinct: Style vs. Content.

IFOA: What was your favourite book as a child?

Celona: The Ant and Bee books by Angela Banner, particularly the ones featuring ‘Kind Dog.’

IFOA: You grew up in Victoria, where Y is set, but you wrote the book while living in upstate New York. Does putting distance between you and the place you’re writing about make things easier, or more difficult?

Celona: People sometimes ask whether I write at home, or in a coffee shop, or at the beach. And whether my surroundings matter—and whether I need to be in a beautiful space. I have to say that none of these things matter when I write. There was a certain similarity to the landscape, believe it or not, in the woods of central New York State and Vancouver Island, and this was at times helpful, but, really, I’d be lying if I said that where I am has any kind of bearing on what I write.  

IFOA: What time of day do you usually write, and why?

Celona: For the most part, it doesn’t matter—if I’m working on something, I can work on it any time. When I wrote Y, I wrote every other day, sometimes all day.

IFOA: Who are you most excited to see at the Festival?

Celona: Alice Munro.

IFOA: Finish this sentence: If I could change one thing…

Celona: . . . about what? If it were up to me, I’d change something about everything.

For more about Celona and her appearance at IFOA, visit readings.org.