As a teacher of writing, I think I am getting a bit of a reputation for riding one particular hobby horse--the one where I tell students over and over to simplify and clarify their prose, to use as few words as possible to get their point across. One grad student out and out accused me of being totally biased against any kind of "beautiful" or "lyrical" writing.
And given my rhetoric, she had a point. I am generally suspicious of excessive elaboration--it usually has to prove its usefulness to me before I can accept it. If I had to say I had a particular aesthetic, it would be that of simple language expressing complex ideas. By "simple" I don't mean intentionally reductive or minimalist--I just mean no more than is necessary.
I think the exemplar of this aesthetic is probably Shakespeare, whose Comedy of Errors I read yesterday, and discussed today with the book group. It's not a major play, but it is highly entertaining and extraordinarily clever (two sets of twins, separated at birth, endure an afternoon of being mistaken for one another). It's also extremely straightforward in its language--anyone can understand it--yet musical to the ear. Perhaps most importantly, it harbors a lot of darkness and fear: the highly implausible plot has the threat of a beheading hanging over it, and the characters immerse themselves in marital disharmony, mental illness, political intrigue, and Christian philosophy. (Doug, the book group's retired pastor, had a lot to say about the influence on the play of Paul's Letter to the Ephesians.) Shakespeare is like a magician, who uses clear, fluid motions to do incredible and mysterious things.
But the thing about your personal aesthetic is, there's always something lying in wait to contradict it. Ulysses is perhaps the antithesis of my aesthetic--it's sprawling, pretentious, confusing, and stylistically inconsistent; it is the product of a supremely arrogant mind without the slightest concern for the comfort of its audience, in total opposition to Shakespeare's egalitarian appeal. And it ends with a big, gooey, overwritten and underpunctuated flourish involving buttocks ("plump mellow yellow smellow melons," in case you haven't had the pleasure).
And yet, I think Ulysses is freaking awesome. I think about it all the time, and it has surely influenced my work. I regard it as one of my twenty or so favorite novels, if you could even call it one. What's up with that?
Frankly, I have no idea. I could mutter something to you about containing multitudes, but I won't even bother. When it comes to art, it is not possible to appreciate too many different things. You can't stand Schoenberg until some string quartet or other makes you cry. You find pork chops repulsive until finally somebody cooks them right. You tell yourself your whole life that you're not into brunettes until suddenly you're married to one. Like Stephen Dedalus on the beach, taste is protean, and is to be assumed unstable at all times, and it's a good thing, too, because this means the world will never run out of stuff for you to love.