The Stein Style

Jun 29 2013 @ 1:29pm

Assessing Paris France, Adam Gopnik describes Gertrude Stein’s “marked” writing style:

All marked styles—and any style that isn’t marked isn’t a style; what we call a “mannered” style is simply a marked style on a bad morning—hold their authors hostage just a bit. Stein’s style makes subtle thoughts sound flat and straightforward, and it also lets straightforward, flat thoughts sound subtle. Above all, its lack of the ordinary half-tints and protective shadings of adjectives and semicolons—the Jamesian fog of implication—lends itself to generalizations, sometimes profound, often idiosyncratic, always startling. It is the most deliberately naïve style in which any good writer has ever worked, and it is also the most “faux-naïf,” the most willed instance of simplicity rising from someone in no way simple. (E. B. White and Robert Frost were neither of them the simple Yankees their styles liked to intimate, but both were more like simple Yankees than Stein was ever like a simple San Franciscan, or a simple anything.) Stein’s style is to writing what sushi is to cooking—not so much an example as a repudiation of the whole idea that still manages to serve the original function.

Gopnik illustrates how Stein’s unconventional prose “can even be made to look normal”:

[A]ny sentence, no matter how many qualifications it contains, is almost always written by Stein in commaless, undivided form. This makes her thoughts seem plain even when they are very fancy. Reading Stein is a bit like reading Emily Dickinson before punctuation got imposed on her: both claim, in every sense, our undivided attention. Many of Stein’s sentences can even be made to look normal just by punctuating them normally. “It is nice in France they adapt themselves to everything slowly they change completely but all the time they know that they are as they were.” Simply inserting a period after the first five words and a dash after the next six makes the writing seem much less eccentric: “It is nice in France. They adapt themselves to everything slowly—they change completely but, all the time, they know that they are as they were.”

Previous Dish on Stein here.