Style over substance

Is the saying “all style and no substance” valid?

The way I see it, they usually go hand in hand. When we first start working, writing, composing, or painting, we have no style and no substance. As we do our work, we become better and gain some of each.

You don’t normally see young artists with a lot of legitimate style unless their work can back it up with a certain amount of depth. Likewise, I’ve noticed that established writers like Philip Roth or Cormac McCarthy have a style all their own. (I’m not just using the word style synonymously with cool or hip. I mean something closer to individuality.)

I think people begin creative endeavors because they have good taste. The unfortunate thing, which Ira Glass has said before, is that when we start creating, our product is not as good as our taste. This can be disheartening, because a person knows what is good, but can’t quite attain that level of perfection yet. It takes time to get better.

When people denigrate the likes of Steve Jobs for being “all style and no substance,” they’re speaking callowly. They’re showing a lack of understanding as to how a person can have style, which is by having substance.

Here’s a good article written by Stephen Fry on the matter.  Money quote:

As always there are those who reveal their asininity (as they did throughout his career) with ascriptions like “salesman”, “showman” or the giveaway blunder “triumph of style over substance”.  The use of that last phrase, “style over substance” has always been, as Oscar Wilde observed, a marvellous and instant indicator of a fool. For those who perceive a separation between the two have either not lived, thought, read or experienced the world with any degree of insight, imagination or connective intelligence. It may have been Leclerc Buffon who first said “le style c’est l’homme – the style is the man” but it is an observation that anyone with sense had understood centuries before, Only dullards crippled into cretinism by a fear of being thought pretentious could be so dumb as to believe that there is a distinction between design and use, between form and function, between style and substance. 

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