I don’t know if you are familiar with either Wes Anderson or J.D. Salinger’s fictional worlds. If you know one, chances are you have heard of the other. For those who do not have that level of familiarity, Wes Anderson is an American filmmaker best known for his films Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums. J.D. Salinger was an American writer best known for his works The Catcher in the Rye and Franny and Zoey. While these works were completed decades, even a century, apart from each other, with different characters and different social settings, there are similarities. For one, Anderson and Salinger are both great stylists. The meaning of this is basic: they are known for the look and feel of their craft as much as their craft itself. If you read several Salinger works in a row, you may notice certain similarities. For one, the characters will most likely be lively and full of bursting sparks, like a Charles Dickens’ character in the suburbs. The characters are usually middle-class and, as such, are more concerned with the social problems in their community than the economical ones. Children tend to play prominent roles, not only in the amount of pages that they occupy in the story, but also in their knowledge of the world (which they may or may not be conscious of). Most important for a stylist, of course, is the way that the language of the story is transcribed. Salinger’s characters tend to write in first (or close third) person, with a bit of a frantic feel. It is very much in touch with the language that one uses for everyday communication. The characters talk with you rather than to you, not unlike a monologue in a play. The characters may appear to be especially “human” in this way.
Similarly, the settings of Anderson’s films are usually lively and jumpy. Bright, light versions of yellow, red, blue, green, and pink tend to appear in his backdrops/sets (which, being involved in many aspects of production, is something he is credited with being highly involved in). Anderson’s characters, in contrast, are sometimes unaware of how funny they are (or are to some people). Played with straight faces, his characters (Bill Murray in particular) use unaffected, sometimes rather banal voices for much of the story, no matter how strange or ironic the dialogue becomes. And while there are some silly moments (cars crashing into mailboxes, brothers throwing mace in each other’s faces, fights with octopuses), the majority of the stories are based more on character than setting.
Now, both of these writers (indeed, Wes Anderson does write his own material, though usually with one other person) have been criticized for their style (Anderson more than Salinger). Having one or two works with this style is apparently fine, but once you make your whole career based on this, then it starts to become a formula. But I do believe that there is a difference between a plot formula and a style formula. Plot formulas are easy to copy. Perhaps the most basic plot formula, or at least the most widely used, is that of the romantic comedy one: boy meets girl, boy falls in love with girl, boy and girl separate, boy and girl find each other again. (The terms “boy” and “girl” are more placeholders for the names/genders of the characters). That is not that hard to do if one does not care about writing a unique story. What is much harder to get right is the style. For even though I have tried to explain the styles of Salinger and Anderson, I cannot do these styles full service. All style comes with an atmosphere that is not always translatable to words. Like a film, it must be felt and seen. And trying to copy this style is much harder than it appears. That would almost make me believe that these similarities between works were more unintentional than intentional.
But I suppose the true question is whether style can or should become an extra character in a story. With works as distinctive as Salinger and Anderson, the style is part of the story. Should it be this way, though? Or should a writer’s style remain more hidden and less obvious to the structure of the story? At what point does style become more of a hindrance than an enhancement?