Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Robert Hudson Vincent reviews Senses of Style

Jeff Dolven. Senses of Style: Poetry before Interpretation. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2018. 240 pp.

Review by Robert Hudson Vincent

15 August 2018

There is a growing sense that literary style is a concept for computational criticism. Critics like Franco Moretti champion a future of big data and statistical programming, saying, “Today, we can replicate in a few minutes investigations that took a giant like Leo Spitzer months and years of work. When it comes to phenomena of language and style, we can do things that previous generations could only dream of.”[1] While some critics welcome this analytic approach to style by digital humanists, others are beginning to revive a more strictly humanist conception of style. Recent publications by Kathy Eden and Lucy Munro emphasize the intimacy and self-consciousness of style, showing how the concept is inextricably linked to human affinity. This understanding of style might seem a relic of the past, but Jeff Dolven’s new book Senses of Style: Poetry Before Interpretation assures it a future.

With a stylish theoretical approach to the concept, Dolven describes his book as a “pragmatist critique”—pragmatist in the Jamesian sense of offering a cash value of style, and a critique “in the Kantian sense” of offering “an account of the word’s proper limits” (p. viii). Dolven the pragmatist responds early in his book to critics who hesitate to use a sloppy word like style. Instead of endless qualifications or a boycott of style, he offers a practical solution: “a shrug, a wry smile, or a barely perceptible nod of acknowledgement, as though to say, I already knew all that” (p. 2). Dolven’s book reminds us what we already know—the word style is confused and contradictory, but it is also vital to the creation and appreciation of art. We cannot do without it.

Senses of Style is a series of 396 aphoristic remarks, divided into ten parts. The middle sections offer interlocking explorations of what Dolven calls the “ironies” and “antitheses” of style: “Part and Whole,” “Style v. Substance,” “Art and Nature,” “Style v. Aesthetics,” “Individual and Group,” “Style v. Interpretation,” “Description and Judgment,” “Style v. Narrative.” These philosophical investigations are framed by introductory and concluding sections both titled “Continuing,” which emphasize the open-endedness of style—style continues by “likeness” and by imitation. Like “Continuing,” themes of style appear and reappear throughout the book: “Style and Form,” “Style and Truth,” “Style and Freedom,” etc. These continuations thread the book together, making its scattered parts feel whole. 

Apart from style, Thomas Wyatt and Frank O’Hara—their lives, poetry, and stylistic resonances—are the principal subjects of the book, and their verses allow Dolven to put his theory of style into practice. His readings of style are original and often swagger, as if to say, this is how you do it. Nonetheless, some readers may encounter conceptual confusion in the book: “Style is deviation,” “Everything has a style,” “Style is a structure,” “All style is false,” “To have a style is to be like yourself,” “Style is fast,” “Style has no meaning,” “Everything has a style, except action” (pp. 27, 29, 61, 64, 99, 129, 133, and 145). How all these definitions cohere is a mystery. And surely that is the point. For Dolven, style is never settled. It only continues. Style connects Wyatt to O’Hara and O’Hara to Wyatt in an infinite loop of “likeness.” Dolven invites us to stop worrying and love the freedom of style.

In an academic field whose future seems indelibly tied to quantitative analysis, Dolven reminds us that style is first and foremost a matter of human sensibility. He explains, “The sense of style makes a map that is not defined by neutral gradients of similarity and dissimilarity, but is instead a manifold of tropisms and aversions” (pp. 117–18). These tropisms and aversions evolve according to our own personal affinities. “To respond to something in terms of its style is to ask, always if not always explicitly, would I want to do something like that, make something like that, live that way?” (p. 118). This theory of style may feel old-school, but it suits Dolven well. His book is full of charisma, guaranteeing it a place in future studies of the concept. To be sure, Senses of Style will be important for literary historians and theorists alike, if only for the reminder that being human is also a matter of style.


[1] Franco Moretti, “Network Theory, Plot Analysis,” Literary Lab Pamphlet 2, 1 May 2011,, p. [1].