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The Element of Style

Dear Readers and Authors,

There was music from my neighbor’s house through the summer nights. In his blue gardens men and girls came and went like moths among the whisperings and the champagne and the stars. At high tide in the afternoon I watched his guests diving from the tower of his raft or taking the sun on the hot sand of his beach while two motor boats slit the waters of the Sound, drawing aquaplanes over cataracts of foam. On week-ends his Rolls Royce became an omnibus, bearing parties to and from the city, between nine in the morning and long past midnight, while his station wagon scampered like a brisk yellow bug to meet all trains. And on Mondays eight servants including an extra gardener toiled all day with mops and scrubbing-brushes and hammers and garden shears, repairing the ravages of the night before.

Recognize this quote? It’s from what some consider the greatest American novel, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. No, this is not a pop quiz for high school seniors. I’m quoting Fitzgerald because I want to talk about an element of the novel that isn’t discussed on romance boards quite as frequently as plot, characters, or sex scenes: style.

When I read the passage above, I want to swoon. The music from Gatsby’s house runs not only through the summer nights but through the words themselves, and I can almost feel the cool starlight on my flushed skin, can almost imagine myself moth-like, wearing something as velvety as wings, only half listening to the low hush of whispers that surrounds me, the murmured laughter like the clinking of champagne glasses.

I’m not half the writer Fitzgerald is, so I can’t quite capture what his words do to me, can’t put to paper the joy I get from startling images like “blue gardens” and metaphors like “cataracts of foam” and “his station wagon scampered like a brisk yellow bug.” When I read this book, not just the images and the ideas embedded in the words, but the sounds of the individual words themselves, the sound effects of words grouped together and the rhythms of the sentences wrap me up, enfold me, intoxicate me.

For me, there are few pleasures better than sinking deep into a book written by a master stylist, a writer who clearly loves words and can string them together like the jewels they are. Immersion in the words of such a writer is a sensory and sensuous experience. That sensation of being carried away by a sublime book can be as romantic as anything, so I have to ask this question: why don’t more romance authors employ the gorgeousness of the written word to that effect? Why not dazzle readers with language, or at least, attempt to? Why not write more lyrical and poetic prose?

hand_writing.jpgIt’s hardly fair, I know, to compare other books to what may be the greatest American novel. And yet, I can’t help but do it. Having had a taste of beautiful writing, I crave more. There are voices in the romance genre that I love, authors who are wordsmiths of the first order. But there aren’t enough of them to satisfy my cravings for rich language.

It’s not that I can’t enjoy books written in what I think of as plain and serviceable prose. I can and I have, and I’ve recommended them here. It’s just that generally those aren’t the books I anticipate most keenly and enjoy best. They can be a lot of fun, but only rarely does one of them blow me out of the water. And I long to be blown away.

Lately I have not been reading much literary fiction, partly because I review for this blog, and partly because some of it seems to me to revel, in terms of content at least, in drabness and pessimism. I can love an intricate plot full of twists and turns, as well, and that’s not the strength of many literary writers. One thing I do miss about literary fiction, though, is the way words are put together, the crafting of language, the style.

I’ve long felt that genre writers and non-genre writers could learn from each other. I could talk at length about the things that authors of contemporary literary fiction could learn from genre writers, and ask why they aren’t more interested in doing so, but if I did that at this forum, I’d just be preaching to the vestry members. So let me ask instead why there aren’t many genre authors whose sound effects, imagery, and metaphors engage my senses the way the words of many non-genre authors do.

Is it that literary and genre writers have sneered at one another so much that there’s too much defensiveness on both sides for many members of each group to admit that something could be learned from the other group? Is it that it’s harder to produce gorgeous writing on a tight deadline? Is it that, as one of my friends has suggested, the romance genre is young? Or is it, as another friend suggests, that perhaps such books are being written but not published? Do other romance readers dislike poetic writing?

Beauty, I realize, is in the eye of the beholder, to some degree at least. But (finicky, spoiled reader that I am) I ask (and know this question may upset a lot of people, and feel bad about that), how many genre writers actually try for *beauty* when they write? How many genre writers actually attempt greatness in the arena of style?

Not that I mean to imply that none do. The romance genre has some wonderful stylists. Here are some examples of lovely writing in the romance genre:

She vanished into the twilight, a slight figure soon devoured by shadows and the restless flicker of the torches the stable boys were embedding in precise intervals along the drive. Kit looked back at Malbroke's mansion, at the warm golden windows and colored drapery, the ornate plastered ceiling of the ballroom visible behind glass like distant icing on a wedding cake.

— Shana Abe, The Smoke Thief

He awaited them in the drawing room, dressed with old fashioned formality: knee breeches and an unadorned tailcoat of black silk. That appeared to exhaust his fund of conventional behavior. He barely looked at them, except for a swift, potent glance when Folie opened the door. There was something faintly startled in it, as if he had forgotten they were coming. Without delay for small talk or an announcement from a servant, he merely made a taut bow and indicated the dining room doors.

— Laura Kinsale, My Sweet Folly

The roses and the lilac, violets and lemon verbena shed their fragrance more intensely after dark, the sweet air of the English country night seeming to glimmer with benign spirits. Mary could feel her parents’ presence; it seemed to her that Arthur Grandin had added the warm light of his memory. There were a few more restless shades abroad as well: she shook her head at the one who stuck a sugary yellow tongue at her. When she was sure that Jessica was looking the other way, she stuck her own tongue back at the little imp–who giggled silently and flickered off toward the forest.

— Pam Rosenthal, The Slightest Provocation

I hardly ever dream anymore, I don’t know why. Tonight I did, though, and it woke me up. I was walking through a tall thicket of brake fern, the clear green fronds as high as my shoulders. I came to a gate leading into a meadow full of flowers. A man began to walk beside me, and his boots were golden bronze from the yellow pollen of buttercups. I don’t know who he was, though in the dream I think I knew.

— Patricia Gaffney, To Love and to Cherish

But she could still feel the sea inside her stomach, and color and movement and noise came at her in waves: men swarming to unload the ship, the early morning sun ricocheting hard between smooth sea and blue sky, gulls wheeling in arcs of silver and white. No clouds floated above to cut the glare or soften the heat. Sylvie took her first deep breath of truly English air. It was hot and clotted with dock odors, and made matters inside her stomach worse instead of better.

— Julie Anne Long, Ways to be Wicked

Miss Van Evan sat in a chair directly in front of the writing table, the sunlight brightly spotlighting her skirts, skirts the deep, saturated purple of sloe plums. This color was the predominant note in the girl’s presence: folds of dark, dark purple in a halo of sunlight.

— Judy Cuevas (Judith Ivory), Bliss

Above her the roof of Euston Station yawned in two barnlike peaks, its smutted glass filtering in a watery species of sunshine more appropriate to dusk than noon.

— Emma Holly, Beyond Innocence

My aim in this letter isn’t to knock the genre, or its hard-working authors. It’s simply that though the element of style isn’t everything to me, it can add hugely to my enjoyment, and there are few things I thirst for more than a beautifully written romance.

My questions to you who are reading this are the ones I asked above, and these: Does style make a difference to you? How much does it affect your reading experience? Who are your favorite stylists in the romance genre? Whose writing are you drawn to simply because you like the way they put together their words?

After watching Jane plead with authors to digitize their books, I’ve decided to present my own plea to authors, and it’s this: Attempt the poetic. Reach for those stars, and like one of Fitzgerald’s moths, I will be drawn to your luminous words. Write lyrical romances, books that seduce me with their melodies. I crave them. I long for them. I read them until they fall apart and buy more copies. I tell all my friends about them. I cherish them dearly; I see them as precious, precious gifts. Write one for me, for yourself, for lovers of words everywhere.



Janine Ballard loves well-paced, character driven novels in historical romance, fantasy, YA, and the occasional outlier genre. Recent examples include novels by Katherine Addison, Meljean Brook, Kristin Cashore, Cecilia Grant, Rachel Hartman, Ann Leckie, Jeannie Lin, Rose Lerner, Courtney Milan, Miranda Neville, and Nalini Singh. Janine also writes fiction. Her critique partners are Sherry Thomas, Meredith Duran and Bettie Sharpe. Her erotic short story, “Kiss of Life,” appears in the Berkley anthology AGONY/ECSTASY under the pen name Lily Daniels. You can email Janine at janineballard at gmail dot com or find her on Twitter @janine_ballard.


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