Distinct author style, should it remain/change?
So here’s a thing. A lot of professional authors (oh, yeah, this post is mainly about literature, so if that’s not your thing, well.. Bit of a shame, innit?) tend to develop a certain style of writing that identifies their works. It can go so far as expressing itself as a distinctive sentence structure, or descriptive style, or it can be limited to reusing a specific set of emotion-building elements, or character roles. It has the benefit of a work being more familiar, if one is familiar with other works of that source, and yet it also has the downside of introducing a certain element of repetition and routine. There are authors who maintain their specific styles throughout their works, and there are those who tend to change things up, switch to other avenues within the same framework (meaning they won’t go from books to paintings, but the two books will read differently). I’m not sure which of the two, then, is the more preferable in essence – should authors try to retain and polish their signature style, or should they change it in every few works? Well, let’s have a bit of a think, then.
There are things to be said about the benefits of an author keeping a specific, familiar style throughout their entire bibliography. If nothing else, it gives a foundation for audience assurance, establishing that this author can be reliably judged on any one of his works, and from that – from reading just one work and deciding if it seems good or not to the reader – it is then easy to either recommend more works of the same origin or decide that “no, they will probably be the same and I didn’t like this, so I won’t like those either”. Furthermore, by keeping the same stylings and work methods, an author is (presumably) able to bring extra amount of polish and consideration to whatever elements compose that style, evolving it in very gradual steps as time goes by into something that is truly professional and nearing faultless.
I suppose a decent example of a same, distinct author style being polished and developed to greater and greater detail would be, well, Sir ‘Terry’ Pratchett with his about-40 “Discworld” works. They do cover a rather wide host of themes and plots, but they are all fairly similar and uniform in the way they tend to deliver and set up for jokes, contain both explicit and veiled analogies and parallels to our world, and in the way the characters – both reoccurring and new ones – behave and ‘think’. With 40 whole works there is bound to have variation, no arguing about that, but whenever you take a “Discworld” novel, it will definitely read as one and be instantly recognizable if you’ve read another of its ilk.
Then again, having the same style across many works can carry a host of downsides just as well. Touching on the aforementioned issue of repetition, there is a distinct problem with all books of an author having identical elements – especially if those elements are related to character archetypes, plot resolution paths, or general ideology structure. Yes, there are the obvious differences that make one work be a new writeup as opposed to literal re-write, but that doesn’t preclude general features from reoccurring time and time again. The reason readers keep reaching out to new works is because they want to experience something new. Perhaps in the same vain, or same literature subgenre, but it has to be new. After all, when we want to experience something we’ve already read and know we like just that just as it is, we can simply re-read the actual work itself. Thus, by having large structural and ideological elements that repeat in all of author’s works, the reader is prevented from experiencing a truly fresh, new work – the familiar aspects of it will constantly cause reminiscence and an overall sense of pseudo- déjà vu, and in more unfortunate cases, even cause a thought along the lines of “I already know how this is going to go, so why bother reading it?”
That’s, more or less, the feeling I am getting right now from Iain M. Banks’ Culture novels. Having read 5 of them and starting the sixth, I cannot help but recognize the Banks-specific tropes rearing their heads. The ever-present SC agent connection, the snarky self-indulgent but good-deep-down drone companion, the strong & witty, yet somewhat dry and a wee bit pessimistic lead character, and, of course (though I cannot speak for the 6th, the previous 5 novels all exhibited this to some extent), the typical ending where the main character(s) die a somewhat noble death, one or two near-main characters survive it but it changes their lives in some profound way, and the deep big-scale conflict is seemingly resolved, while the same cannot be said for the individual conflicts on display.
That kind of ending – along with some dark revelation (mixed with the self-sacrifice of the/a lead character, mostly) to set a bitter-sweet tone – is present in so many Banks’s novels that I suspect and anticipate the next ones to have it as well – and frankly, it is harming the immersion a little bit, having to constantly watch and recognize hooks that set up the instantly recognizable.
So that’s that about the authors keeping to their styles, but what about the opposite – what about authors who decided at some point to change things up and create deviations from previous styles, resulting in a distinct change in their work? Well, it is mostly an inversion of the previous two arguments. A definite upside of having a change of style is that it helps avoid repetition and over-familiarity. Consider, an author will likely not suddenly decrease their ability to create good writing just by having a change of writing style. The usual level of quality will likely remain roughly the same; the net result of such a style change is, therefore, a new and fresh-feeling work that retains the quality of previous writings. In fact, if the change is linked to audience feedback, then it can even directly improve to following works. For instance, Peter F. Hamilton’s “Night’s Dawn” trilogy was a large-scale classic space opera that had the misfortune of dragging on for way too long. That was solved by a slight change of writing style (the seeds of which could already be seen in the last parts of the final “Night’s Dawn” books), and the following SF works by him – the Commonwealth saga and the Void trilogy – were equally as lengthy in terms of pure word-count-per-book, but presented a smoother reading flow due to improved pacing and sentence structures. It wasn’t so much a plain improvement of the author (though it could be seen as one) as it was a change in the writing style. A change for the better, yes, but not an evolution.
Then again, a deviation of a ‘safe’ style can result in an overall turn for the worse. Yeah, I said that the quality usually isn’t compromised, but entertainment is also a personal thing, very dependent on individual preferences. If an author, with a large backlog of works that appeal perfectly on a feel and theme basis, chooses to change exactly those aspects of the writing style, and produces a work with a different feel, different themes, then it certainly isn’t a lesser work in terms of quality, but it is a less enjoyable work personally. To put a recent example, well, for myself at least this was exactly the case with Alastair Reynold’s new book “Blue Remembered Earth”. It is a fun and nice read, but it just did not hit all the right notes in the same way that the books set in Revelation Space universe did, or his other works written inbetween those (e.g. Terminal World and House Of Suns). The writing was great as always, but there was that dark, noir-like overtone missing from BRE. The characters were less familiar as far as their overall archetype is concerned, but they also felt less alive, less interesting. That’s the issue, a change in style means that one cannot rely on expecting to like a work just because one liked a previous work of same author. There’s no longer the safety on relying on a known name or past experiences. Which, in turn, means that every book/work is judged on its own (which isn’t bad) and that every new purchase is a risk (which is.. well, risky).
Overall, is it better for authors to stick with their styles or mix things up once in a while? I honestly cannot decide. There are logical arguments both for and against staying and not staying. There are real-world examples of authors who were able to manage either one, and there are those who were less lucky and had their work suffer for it (imo). Maybe this will have to remain an unanswered question – having no personal bias either way, I don’t really see an outstanding disparity in attractiveness of the two sides…
~X2-Eliah considers user-reviews to be and absolutely and totally crap method of evaluating books and basing a purchasing decision upon.