Thursday, April 30, 2009

The Voice of One Crying in the Wilderness

I was recently reading in a collection of letters from Jack Lewis (a present from my lovely wife), and I came across the following passage, which struck me:

"This week I have re-read Jane Eyre. It is quite prodigiously better than the other Bronte is very worth reading. Part of the interest lies in seeing in the most (apparently) preposterous male characters how quite ordinary people look through the eyes of a shy, naive, inflexibly upright, intelligent little woman of the mouse-like governessy type.... Particularly delicious is her idea of conjugal bliss when she says on almost the last page 'We talk, I believe, all day.' Poor husband!" [C. S. Lewis, Books, Broadcasts and the War: 1931-1949, Volume II in The Collected Letters of C. S. Lewis edited by Walter Hooper (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 2004), 291)

I thought it was a very fun quote--not in the least because it brought out a number of points about the book Jane Eyre which I myself had considered. It is always interesting to me to hear the opinions about many of my favourite authors on other authors, whether favourite or not. Jack's opinion on the works of Jane Austen, for example: "[Austen's] books have only 2 faults and both are damnable. They are too few & too short" (ibib, 967). I found both of these opinions very interesting, partially because I was perusing this volume of letters more or less at random, and came across these fascinating references to a couple of books near and dear to the hearts of a number of my female friends (my own dear wife, not the least).

This is not, however, the purpose of this post, but serves only as a convenient segue into a discussion, which is one of my wife's prime criteria for judging a book, namely the voice of an author. For those unfamiliar with the concept, by voice I refer to the way an author puts his words on the page. I tend to have a fairly dry, academic voice, even in my fictional writing (which is why I tend to write what I call fictional non-fiction--a lot of discussion on the politics and religion of Henryon [the name of my fantasy world], but very little actual plot). This is appropriate because I am a dry, academic person. A strong voice can help drive a book forward, elevating it from a mere plot-based book to something more. After all, plot is the easiest part of writing. Look at Shakespeare, for example. His plots are, in general, nothing much, as others have observed before me. It is what he does with them that is the real joy, changing them from fun stories full of sex and violence to part of our English cultural heritage. It is not for nothing we fight to defend "The Language of Shakespeare."

Indeed, for my wife, if an author can vary how his characters speak, that author has already put hooks into her. One of the things she loves about her new favourite author, Brandon Sanderson, is in his voice. She did not like Weiss and Hickman's Rose of the Prophet for much the same reason. Sometimes this may be found in a good first line: "In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit" or "All children grow up, except one" to name a couple of my favourites. These are good because they set the tone for the entire rest of the book. Actually, The Hobbit is a good example of an author's ability to change his voice (you didn't think that I could write a post on any topic without a reference to Tolkien did you? "The disciple does not stand except in the shadow of the Master"), when taken in connection with The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion. Here you have three books, written by the same author and set in the same fantastic world. Yet they are very different in tone and voice. Of the three, I far prefer The Lord of the Rings, because I believe it represents the best middle ground between The Hobbit's conversational style, and the mythic sweep of The Silmarillion (not that I have anything wrong with epic or myth, but I read novels for different reasons than I read myths). Other differ, but that illustrates my point about voice.

Whether or not Miss Bronte was using her writing skills in order to present us a picture of "a shy, naive, inflexibly upright, intelligent little woman of the mouse-likegovernessy type" or, as I tend to think, was projecting a little bit of her psyche into the text is unimportant. Part of the enjoyment of the book is seeing the world through another's eyes and getting another perspective on the universe.

Closely related to this is the idea of an Unreliable Narrator. Now, since many of my readers are careful students of Literature in their various languages of choice, I must admit that I suspect they know better than I the implications of this particular device (I am, after all, a Biblicist, so the application of idea to my field has fascinating theological ramifications, most of which I am unprepared to deal with). I only bring it up, because I first encountered it in a series of books penned by the late, great Roger Zelazny, The Chronicles of Amber. Now, Zelazny wrote faster than he thought, and so his books are full of internal inconsistencies. However, Zelazny turned this into a virtue. In The Chronicles of Amber the narrator and protaganist, one Corwin by name, begins the book with amnesia. As the book progresses he begins to remember things, but sometimes he gets them wrong. As an example, he has a number of brothers and half-brothers and at one point he messes up whose mother belonged to whom. This is, I know, somewhat common place, but it came like a hammer blow to my young teenage self. If Corwin got this wrong, what else is he getting wrong? Then, in another place, Corwin lies to the reader, a lie that only comes out later. Again, a hammer blow. If you couldn't trust Corwin, who was your window into the world, who could you trust? All of these thoughts were confirmed by the second series in the Chronicles, written from the perspective of Corwin's son Merlin, who had a very different take on the events in the first books. These books helped to remember to always examine my own assumptions when reading any book, so whenever my wife starts talking about voice (and she invariably does), Zelazny is the light I hold up to the world.

How about you? Any authors you love to read merely because of how they write? Any books that shook your assumptions about reading? Any other examples of changes in voice showing an author's ability to vary his tone and style? Natually, because I am most interested in fantasy on this 'blog, I would be delighted to hear about those, but this post is much more about reading in general than any specific genre, so please, tell me your opinions of voice, without regard to genre.



Holdinator said...

Markus Zusak, author of The Book Thief, has one of the most unique voices I have ever read (which isn't saying much, but he does have one of the most unique voices that my wife has ever read, and that is saying a lot).

The narrator in The Book Thief is Death. Death follows a young German girl during World War II after he watches her steal a grave digger's handbook following the burial of her little brother. Zusak's voice is unique in that not only did he choose a fascinating narrator, but, as you said, the way he puts the words on the page is different than most. He makes use of different fonts, sizes, and styles of text to illustrate and emphasize different ideas.

His is definitely writing worth reading.

Frau Magister said...

I think why people are either hate or love Stephenie Meyer is because of voice. Besides the Twilight series, I enjoyed The Host because I thought she did a pretty good job of giving each character its own voice. Also, the Harry Potter books started to annoy me by the end because the narrator took Harry too seriously. Harry needed to be mocked a little.

Sorry, that's all the fantasy I've got.

But I am interested in the unreliable narrator in the Bible. I would guess that many Mormons believe the narrator is unreliable, or at least the Bible we have has been mediated by unreliable translators, rendering the narration unreliable. An unreliable narrator could make you read more closely and question the relation of fact and truth. But often it just makes people upset.

Inkling said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Inkling said...

One of the things I used to love about Robert A. Heinlein was his voice; just about any given Heinein book would read like any other, and if you like that sort of thing, it was like sitting down with a favorite friend for a chat. This chat would be part philosophizing, and part old-fashioned yarn, with a dash of mind-twisting physics thrown in for garnish.

Oddly enough, the times when Heinlein changed his voice from, say, Jubal Harshaw or Lazarus Long, didn't work as well for me. There are even one or two books that are so different that I would easily believe that it someone else writing it. One is Podkayne of Mars, which is written from a teenage girl's perspective. I found that so jarring that I never finished it, and it remains unread to this day. The name of the second absolutely escapes me, but it was sufficiently different that I wouldn't have known the old man wrote it if his name hadn't been on the cover.

"The old man," of course being an affectionate term...

As for the Tolkien works you cite, I quite agree about the difference between The Hobbit and LoTR, although part of the reason may be because of the time difference involved, or the intended audience. As for The Silmarillion, I am halfway convinced that it mostly existed in note form, and much of the "voice" we hear, or lack thereof, must be Christopher's.

I do have any ready examples of an unreliable narrator, though I must have read at least one. I think it sounds like a clever device — naturally we trust the narrator! To find out that the person who is telling the story to you is not to be trusted must be jarring indeed.

Finally, I cannot bring myself to think of your writing as dry, even though you say that it is. I personally tend towards bombastic, but that's only because I think it's fun...

Holdinator said...

Since commenting last I have read the Earthsea series by Ursula Leguin. Her voice is beautiful.