The tightness or rightness of sentences, images, metaphors, the snapping-together of word and word, phrase and phrase—in other words, the stylistic elements writers spend years perfecting—are useless without the supreme literary virtue, personality. Because the central literary task is not the creation of a beautiful verbal artifact but the projection of personality.
Or, in the case of dramatists and novelists, the projection of multiple different personalities. This ability to project personalities is what shakes out the great from the merely good, in the end. The more vividly a character comes across as an autonomous being, known to the reader as a friend or mentor is, the more distinct and vivid a mental image of a poet his or her reader can get: This is the thing. The personality you project doesn’t have to be your own. It can be a purely invented character, like a stage persona. A poet tries to add his or her “page persona” to the gallery of verbally-fleshed-out human beings in a reader’s head; a novelist tries to add himself or herself, but hopefully adds a few made-up characters as well. This is why the names “Dostoevsky” and “Raskolnikov” conjure distinct mental images in a reader’s mind, and why we have one mental image for “Charles Dickens” and quite another for “Oliver Twist.” It’s why we speak of characters Shakespeare invented as if they were real people. Of hundreds of medieval French writers, Francois Villon survives to this day–because his poems continue to project his personality, which, once you get to know it, is unmistakable and unforgettable. (I confess that sometimes I have the urge to write a novel about him.)
You will notice that these writers vary greatly in what kind of metaphorical power they had, and how much linguistic energy they brought to the writing itself. The power differential between Shakespearean English and Dickensian English has not hurt Dickens; he didn’t have to write English as densely or rhythmically as Shakespeare, on a line-by-line level, to add his own characters to our collective gallery. Arthur Conan Doyle has never, to my knowledge, been called a great English stylist, and I have never found admirable phrases or stylistic touches in his work–but Holmes will always be Holmes, Watson always Watson. I’ve seen the occasional critic claim that J. K. Rowling is a “lesser” fantasy writer than Pullman, or Tolkien, or whomever; they have failed to understand that, when people say they love Harry Potter, they are talking about someone they know.
In any generation, there is no shortage of talented engineers in the language. Style can be developed and hypertrophied with diligent application and relentless practice, but it is useless in the long run if a personality fails to project. One sees this phenomenon in poets most clearly because poets are so focused on projecting a single personality—their own—and are drawn, by virtue of their medium, to foreground the wrong thing. Language matters immensely in poetry, far more so than in prose forms, true; but even here, personality comes first. You will know the personality-weak poets by their unexpectedly extensive publication histories—and the hazy grasp you have on who they really are. The language is consistently beautiful, the poems are well put-together, but you cannot conjure the poet up and hold him or her in your mind by thinking the name. So many books and poems, but can a reader today get to know Archibald MacLeish from his writings? The same problem hamstrings the reputation of the consistently exquisite, widely published, but personality-weak living poet, Bruce Bond. Personality-strong poets, by contrast, can survive anything, even their own unevenness: It took a single book to establish the Michael Robbins poetic persona.
It is an open question whether the projection of personality can be taught at all: You can teach people to write competent, even flawless paragraphs or stanzas, but you can’t teach people to be interesting. Is it a coincidence that many of the most vivid literary characters of 19th century fiction, Bovary, Karenina, Jean Valjean, have correspondingly vivid creators in Flaubert, Tolstoy, Hugo? I’m about to watch a recent film about Tolstoy, The Last Station: This is what prompted these thoughts, the realization that a writer like Tolstoy, not given to verbal pyrotechnics or stylistic showiness, could succeed to such an extent largely by the projection of personality, both his own and that of Anna, Levin, Pierre, Natasha, etc. His characters are always where a reader’s focus lies, unless he is going off on an essayistic digression, in which case the focus shifts to Tolstoy himself. I realized I couldn’t find his opposite number in the annals of cipher stylists. Even writers who have claimed style is all-important—Nabokov, Flaubert, Hemingway—made their verbal finickyness the central aspect of their personality.