Monday, February 27, 2006

First, A Reply

I thought I'd reply to Bob's (and to some extent Megan's) comments on my narrative voice post here since my response is likely to be long, meandering and drawn out and, thus, not terribly suited for the narrow comments page.

Bob asks, "What about voice with gravitas? Why are so many writers terrified of sounding serious?"

I don't know that they are, but you're right that there is a trend in fiction right now toward a chatty, first person narrative voice. I suspect part of that is because the target audience (the slacker generation and younger) tends toward sarcasm and meta-fiction in their life and entertainment. Thus, it's an easy way for a writer to establish a rapport with her audience. Plus, I think a lot of writers enjoy the challenge of working with a potentially unreliable narrator. It's fun to try to figure out how to let your readers know the truth about a situation when your narrator is lying to him/herself about it, you know?

But, I think you can have a serious narrative voice. What I was trying to caution new writers about is being careful of the distinction between serious and flat. You can be plenty serious, but still have that view color the way you look at things. A serious narrator will still "notice" things that are important to him/her as they reflect plot or character. (Example: hero is space captain going for job interview. When he walks in the room the thing he might first notice is the cheap veneer on the table... or some other clue that will forward, in many ways, the plot, as it will dictate how he responds to the scene. This can all be described seriously, but I think it still ought to be a filtered by his personality and situation. A flat narration would simply start listing the dimensions of the room, the table, the color of the walls, etc with no regard to how the character might be reacting to any of it.)

I disagree with Bob about omniscient p.o.v., in that I don't see omniscient as lacking a personality or distinct narrative voice. In fact, the omniscient p.o.v. is merely a character outside of the story who can see into other people's heads. A good example of this is almost any sort of mythological or fairy tale like story, in which the narrator basically directs the story to the moral that he or she is trying to make. Sometimes they're _not_ invisible in the text, they might break out with an imperative sentence like, "Imagine!" or a comment directly to the reader, like, "This was before you were born, and so things were different then." A great modern writer who uses omniscient well is Eleanor Arnason.

Certainly, Bob is right when he says that it is possible that pumping up the voice won't help every writer who has been told that their writing is flat. I agree that it's likely something more holistic. However, I have read at least two manuscripts from students of mine who did everything else right, as far as I could tell, but there was still something that felt missing. I spent months mulling over the problem, and finally decided that what I thought the manuscripts needed was a better sense of voice.

But, voice as a concept is no trendier than the idea that a sentence must include a verb.

How voice is presented has changed dramatically over time, but fiction has always had a voice. Why? Because fiction in its primal form was spoken. Stories have always been told by SOMEONE. This doesn't change because they are written down.

1 comment:

zaparozh said...

"In fact, the omniscient p.o.v. is merely a character outside of the story who can see into other people's heads."

Technically true, and many omniscient narrator's do have a distinct voice.

But--to be chatty and cheeky myself at the moment--it does beg a question: WHO, exactly, is supposed to be so omniscient. ;-)

The traditional answer--even for the atheist/agnostic like myself? God!

("Goddess," if you prefer.)

And, while, it is true that there are plenty of Gods/Goddesses w/ personality in the religions of the world, the truly omniscient ones have become, by tradition, rather ... "neutral." At least in theory. Certainly those who are supposed to be FULLY omniscient!

Some of the best writers have always also put that "voice" to good use.

Of course, there's a cheekiness there, too, even if only implicit. A gutsiness that says, "Yeah, I have this much to say. And it's probably right."

Sci fi used to have much more of that, though, from my looking over the genre. Asimov, whose science may not have been infallible but who had no qualms about standing tall with his credentials. Or polymath L. Sprague deCamp--one of the pompous asses I HATED (and had a few personal run-ins to that effect), but who also had no qualms about straightforward exposition most of the time.

But it seems to me that "unreliable" voices of any kind have become a cop-out for most writers--including and especially many of the most acclaimed ones. "I'm not really sure what I says has weight scientifically/philosophically/even artistically."

{"Look--the literati even like us when we play it tongue-in-cheek or unreliable.")

The whole situation seems to me reminiscent of an issue that I'm always dealing with when teaching straightforward exposition these last few years. What happens when you hear a young writer's essays filled to the rim with "I think" and "it seems" and "in my opinion?" Is that strong writing?

God dammit, take a STAND on something!

So much of modern fiction is composed of writers doing the same thing--albeit with enough intelligence and basic instruction to avoid the cliche. Underneath it, though, is the same intent.