Voice

My friend, Michaela Staton, posted a very sweet tweet yesterday in response, I think, to having read Lost Sheep in the new Dark Currents anthology. The tweet was a compliment and delightful to receive, but I’ve been thinking quite deeply about the implications of it. Michaela said that what she liked about my writing was: “that his Scottishness always shines through”.

This I assume is a good thing, for those that like Scottishness at least, but what does it mean in terms of a writer’s success or failure to give their characters and narrative the appropriate voice for the story. For instance, there are three main characters in Lost Sheep: a standard human space travelling guy, his ship whose voice imitates the speech style of whatever old movies she’s been watching (she starts as a foul mouthed Cockney hard man then shifts into the fast-talking, wise-ass style of Rosalind Russel in His Girl Friday), and…um…a sort of sheep-person nun. Of these, I didn’t intend any of them to come across as Scottish.  The ship aside, I’ve given the characters and also the narrative voice relatively neutral vocal styles in this story. There are no words of Scots or dialect in there, but I’m wondering now if there are turns of phrase in what I think of as neutral that give me away.

Alternatively, is it possible that Michaela’s reading is contaminated by knowing me and the sound of my voice. There are writers that sometimes do that to you. I remember coming out of a reading by Ian McDonald with a friend. The reading had been, I think, from one of the Chaga saga (which are set in Africa), but it was read of course in Ian’s distinctive Nirn accent, and my friend admitted to me that he couldn’t read McDonald’s work without hearing his voice.

Does it change your reading of a writer’s work if you know the sound of their voice? Or should writers be trying harder to ditch what they think of as neutral and give their narratives and characters genuinely distinctive voices of their own?

6 thoughts on “Voice

  1. A really important topic, I think – especially as ‘find your voice’ remains a key piece of advice to developing writers.

    I guess there are two aspects to it. The first, whether knowing an author as an individual with a particular history transforms a reader’s relationship to her/his work, is at the heart of debates around biographical criticism. That witty bit in ‘Dhalgren’ is brilliant on this, as is Bolano’s ‘2666’ where it becomes one of the key meditations of the book.

    The other aspect is whether having a particular recognisable style across a corpus is a mark of a good writer or not. Film criticism, in its infancy, with auteur theory, made the mistake of elevating this to a key criterion of merit… I would say the approach undervalues extraordinary ventriloquists like Gaddis, those who can do subtle and brilliant things by taking on the conventional voices of particular genres, and hollowing them out, like Kelly Link for example, or the way a very plain style can have a powerful affect. On the other hand, though, there are brilliant writers like Angela Carter or Cormac McCarthy, who maintain an idiosyncratic voice over decades, and across divers works.

    One important thing to be challenged is a perception that while ‘literary’ writers have iconoclastic distinctive voices, ‘genre’ fiction is about cliché and convention…

    1. Thanks for this thoughtful response (btw is this the same Tim Jarvis who was in Glasgow a few years back, friend of Hal Duncan? If so, hi again! If not, hi anyway!)

      >The first, whether knowing an author as an individual with a particular history transforms a reader’s relationship to her/his work.

      I think it’s unavoidable to a certain extent at a superficial level, but I don’t think it should necessarily colour the reading experience (unless Author X is known to have hugely repellent views, in which case why would you by reading their book I guess…)

      >The other aspect is whether having a particular recognisable style across a corpus is a mark of a good writer or not.

      I honestly believe that a good writer chooses the right voice for the story. On a writer by writer basis this is only going to be noticeable with writers who vary their milieu widely. You can certainly attempt to use the same narrative voice for a cyberpunk/zombie mash-up as for an American Civil War family saga, but the chance are that at least one of those stories won’t work so well. Of course, many writers stick to the one thing. If you’re entire career is all about writing westerns or novels about middle aged college professors, then applying a consistent voice is more than likely a good thing.

      The other aspect of this is that the narrative voice can be the main reason for liking a particular novelist. Douglas Adams is probably a good example of that.

      >One important thing to be challenged is a perception that while ‘literary’ writers have iconoclastic distinctive voices, ‘genre’ fiction is about cliché and convention…

      Or indeed, as Terry Pratchett has said, whether genre writers are better suited to maintaining as neutral a narrative voice as possible in order to focus attention on ideas and story.

  2. Hi Neil, yes it’s the same Tim Jarvis – how are you?

    I think you’re quite right about the necessity of a kind of congruence/sympathy between style and subject matter – but I do think that the current era is defined by a kind of primacy of voice/style.

    Borrowing from Jacques Rancière, I’d argue than an aesthetic object consists of three elements in tension – ‘inventio’ (the subject matter), ‘dispositio’ (plot), and ‘elecutio’ (style). In classical Aristotelean mimesis ‘inventio’ takes precedence over ‘dispositio’, and ‘elecutio’– it’s all about the appropriateness of the subject that guarantees the continuity of various hierarchies. Literary modernity is distinguished by the privileging of ‘elecutio’, language is autotelic, and refers only to itself. This has far-reaching implications, in that absolute style is egalitarian and democratic – the Word circulates without restriction. You get works like the late Beckett trilogy in which everything is subsumed by ‘elecutio’ – the subject and the plotting reduced to a function of the language.

    But, of course, in works that are radically modern, there is a tendency to muteness and isolation, and in order to reactivate the egalitarian potential you have to reintroduce elements of the ‘inventio’ and ‘dispositio’. I wonder if the novel is the form where there is a fall back to the classical position, and ‘inventio’(and less plot) is introduced to the radically free language, and ‘genre’, speculative fiction is that which introduces elements of the mythic plot, ‘dispositio’ (and less subject), to ‘elecutio’…

    I figure the literary mainstream/sf genre binary is entirely spurious – and it’s what both types of works accomplish as literature that is important.

    By the way, that conciet of that story is really intriguing! What’s the anthology it can be found in?

    1. Ah, cool. I think the last time I saw you must have been in a wee noisy gig somewhere (13th Note perhaps?). Good to see you around here.

      Thanks for introducing me to the Rancièrian description. It’s new to me and makes quite a lot of sense. I think your analysis holds true for the novel-as-literary-form, but in the novel-as-entertainment the balance of the elements is skewed, isn’t it, towards Plot>Subject>Style? And in genre commercial novels probably more so. This isn’t always the case, of course. You’re always going to get, say a Gene Wolfe or Mervyn Peake or an M John Harrison – or from the other side of the blanket a David Mitchell or Mark Danielewski. And obviously when you’re looking at a sample of real books this three-cornered picture will shift. But I like the idea – the tension between three poles.

      The literary v genre thing? Yeah, spurious. They’re both just marketing labels for two different genres.

      >it’s what both types of works accomplish as literature that is important.

      Well, yes. But where “accomplish” is defined according to each work’s aims. If a book sets out to be an enthralling piece of storytelling and succeeds in that, then that’s what’s important.

      >By the way, that conciet of that story is really intriguing! What’s the anthology it can be found in?

      Lost Sheep? Thanks. It’s in Dark Currents, which was just released by NewCon Press last week. Check it out – I imagine there will be a wide variety of Rancièrian diagram shapes (as I’m now calling them) in those stories.

      1. I think that’s correct – must have been an age ago!

        Yeah, Rancière aesthetics are radical and very interesting, but, because he builds up his thesis on literature through analyses of specific texts, he reject the Foucauldian notion of a ‘programmatic’ history, which he sees as deterministic, and he mainly talks about the French cannon, particularly Flaubert, Mallarmé, and Proust, it’s hard to see how his arguments would relate to other kinds of books – but that does leave it open to a range of interpretations. Also, increasing interest in him at the moment is part of a general return of theory to the humanities – which I definitely see being a good thing.

        Totally agree that storytelling should never be undervalued – I definitely have a tendency to valorize wilful obscurantism in the face of joyless mass-marketed ‘entertainment’, but it’s wrong-headed of me. Liked your earlier post on this topic. And definitely important to make that distinction between genre as a useful critical tool for explore different literary affects, or something that brings together readers with a particular affinity, and genre as cynical marketing categories.

        The Anthology looks great – I’ll pick myself up a copy.

      2. I think pretty much everything should be valorized in favour of “joyless, mass-marketed entertainment”. Joyful entertainment, however, is to prized greatly! 😀

        Hope you enjoy the book. I suspect you’ll find a bit of everything in there.

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