Both story and style matter, and you should work to master both. Some people claim literary fiction doesn’t need a plebian thing like plot, only brilliant writing. Others will declare that their genre doesn’t need any frilly stuff, that they’re going to write for Real Men or Real Geeks who don’t care about style.
Are either of them right? Are both?
In a workshop, one of the members got The Answer to this one. His wife’s college roomate, now in the editorial staff at Random House, came to visit. With his ambitions, of course he wanted to know all about publishers’ policies.
He reported back to us with The Answer:
If editors must make a choice between a novel with some plot and setting flaws in vivid vigorous prose with an ear for mood, or a perfectly intricately-plotted novel in dull, overwrought, or inappropriate prose — they’ll buy style.
As they reason, an editor can point out plot flaws and the Writer will write new scenes to fix them in that same great style. But no matter how clever the plot is, the Plotter may never, ever learn to write on a professional level.
Now, “style” does not mean purple prose or prose poems. It doesn’t mean mannered, artificial, encoded, or difficult prose like Gertrude Stein or James Joyce. Moderne writers like Hemingway and Steinbeck prided themselves on trimming their prose until it was spare and sharp as a knife — and this, too, is a style. “Style” means “the way you do it,” not “intricacy” or “obscurantism.” Memorize this anonymous poem, passed on to me by Norma Almquist, and repeat it when you sit down to revise:
The written word
Should be like stone,
Clear as light,
Clean as bone.
Two words are not
As good as one.
This is the contemporary style. Let it affect even work written in an historical voice, just as you wouldn’t over-do dialect.
“But it won’t be authentic!” Modern readers can stand only limited historical authenticity, or Chaucer and “Monk” Lewis would be as popular as Jane Austen. Austen survives while her contemporary, Sir Walter Scott, is rarely read because Austen’s style was remarkably ahead of its time: lean, clean, unornamented — relatively speaking. Compare her to Mrs. Anne Radcliffe to see the gilded garlanded poetry-larded prose of the common novels of the time. Jane Austen has the great style, and lives.