The Words that Built the Story is a feature in which I dissect and discuss an author’s writing style. Today’s study is on Jay Kristoff.
Out of all the authors I’ve covered so far on this feature, I’d say Jay Kristoff’s writing style is the most polarizing. Even among fans, there are times we love his writing and times we hate it. It all depends on the execution.
In my oh-so-humble opinion, his writing style is done well in The Nevernight Chronicle but not so well in The Illuminae Files (which, to be fair, he co-wrote with Amie Kaufman). Others disagree and have the opposite take. Some love his writing in all his books, while others yet hate his writing. Sure, this is true for every author ever. Bye I’ve found feelings toward Kristoff’s writing style to be especially divisive.
The two terms I think best exemplify Kristoff’s writing style are tongue-in-cheek and out of the box. Kristoff takes unique approaches to writing his novels, often in a way that makes the storytelling a character or piece of world-building in its own right.
Take, for example, The Illuminae Files. Each story is told via text conversations, interviews, security footage, and legal dossiers. It’s a huge part of what makes the series so vibrant. In fact, let me amend an earlier statement: Kristoff’s writing style is the only thing I like about this series. Well, in terms of format at least.
In The Nevernight Chronicle, Kristoff uses footnotes to expand on the world-building and provide amusing commentary. It’s a really unique way of giving the world more depth. While some find the footnotes annoying, I find them interesting and feel they add to the experience of reading the books.
Additionally, the tone of the footnotes is often very wry and self-aware. The narrator inputs his opinion indiscriminately, which makes him a character in his own right. Critics have described this usage of the footnotes as defensive, especially given how they’re changed in the final book. Personally, I feel like this is Kristoff acknowledging the criticism that the footnotes are annoying and taking it in stride.
On the other hand, The Illuminae Files takes this concept and does it poorly. Because much of the story is told via text conversations, a lot of slang is used. The problem is it’s not slang teenagers use. In this series, they call each other “chum” and call women “femmes.” They don’t talk like real teenagers talk, which takes the reader out of the story. This is one of the main reasons why I don’t like this series. But hey, that’s just me.
When Kristoff isn’t utilizing unique storytelling methods, his writing style tends to be very lyrical. In Nevernight, Kristoff writes, “If her face were a puzzle, most would put it back in the box, unfinished.” This quote could mean so many things. The subject’s face could be either ugly or utterly unremarkable. Maybe it’s somehow difficult to comprehend. So much can be inferred from such an interesting sentence.
Further, Kristoff describes Mia Corvere as, “a girl who was to murder as maestros are to music.” This is a beautiful example of showing and not telling. The reader can infer Mia’s advanced skill for murder and assume it’s almost akin to art. In describing his characters in such a poetic way, Kristoff brings them to life and makes them feel real.
I would be remiss if I didn’t address the more serious criticisms of Kristoff’s writing. In The Nevernight Chronicle, there is a fictionalized culture that is similar to Māori culture and many Māori readers have said it’s appropriative of their culture. Kristoff claims the Dweymeri aren’t based on the Māori, but that doesn’t mean Māori readers’ criticisms aren’t valid. Here is a Twitter thread from a Māori reader that delves further into this issue.
East Asian readers have also criticized Kristoff’s Lotus War series, asserting it is also appropriative and fetishizes Asian women. Supposedly, it’s based on Japan but there are elements of Chinese culture and other East Asian cultures in it that make it feel under researched. Here is a review that addresses it better than I ever could.
Honestly, I can’t say I blame critics for disliking Kristoff’s writing style. It doesn’t always vibe with me either. And sometimes his writing is problematic. But when it’s good, it’s really good. Kristoff makes his novels stand out with his tongue-in cheek and unique writing style. If he didn’t think outside the box when crafting his stories, they wouldn’t come alive the way they do or affect people so much (whether positive or negative). Even though I don’t plan on diving into Kristoff’s backlog, I’ll be reading whatever he puts out in the future.
Do you agree with my take on Jay Kristoff’s writing style? Are there any authors whose writing style you’d like me to examine next? Let me know in the comments!