Monday, April 18, 2011

David Lawrence, Thoughts on Voice and Me

I have only read two works by D.H. Lawrence: the short story Rockinghorse Winner and the novel Women In Love. The short story, while memorable and well-written, never really made itself felt on my own writing. But Women In Love, which gave me a bit of trouble when I read it, has apparently influenced my prose.

If you had told me while I was reading that book that a year later I'd be seeing Lawrence's fingerprints on my writing, I'd have been surprised and maybe a little huffy. There's a clumsy matter-of-factness to a lot of Lawrence's writing that makes me uncomfortable. Still, these days I often find myself wanting to read more of Lawrence's novels because even though his prose doesn't flow the way I want mine to flow, the guy was The Real Deal and with the passage of time I begin to not only see his influence on all sorts of writers (A.S. Byatt, certainly, and likely everyone else writing literature in English since the 1940s), I also begin to think that maybe, you know, old Dave was a bit of a genius. I plan to read Sons and Lovers in the upcoming months, and we'll see after that.

I'm not a genius, but when I look at passages like this, from my work-in-progress, I think I see a bit of Lawrence's lamplight brightening the way:

Mrs Pullman came bustling through the French doors into the garden. She paused just outside, dazed by the bright sun. Mr Pullman appeared behind her a moment later. He put a hand on his wife’s arm. She batted it away and took a step into the garden. Her cheeks and forehead were bright red.

"Just shut up," she said. "You’re talking nonsense."

George said something but none of the guests in the garden could make out what it was. He disappeared into the dining room. Mrs Pullman turned and shrieked at him, something shrill and violent and her heavy frame quaked with emotion. She shook a fist.


I have, of course, no idea what this passage will look like once I've revised the novel a few times. It might not even make it into the final MS. But I'm sure that if I looked at other pages at random, I'd see more of Lawrence's influence.

One subtext of this post is the idea that "finding one's own voice" is not only highly over-rated, but also pointless in my opinion. Voice is part of narrative, not a fixed property of the writer. Voice is part of the telling, not of the teller.

15 comments:

  1. I wrote 6 paragraphs of discussion and then erased them. I agree with you and I also disagree with you although I cannot tell you why. Well, I can, but it's 6 paragraphs long and mostly opinion that doesn't make much sense.

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  2. Anne, you should have posted it.

    Scott, wow, this is interesting. If I had read this excerpt, I don't think I would have ever guessed it was yours. I'll be curious to see how it changes, if it does.

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  3. Anne, I agree with Domey. You should've left your 6 paragraphs up. I often make no sense; never stops me!

    Big D, I think it looks like my writing, but at the same time it looks nothing like the writing in the last two novels I wrote.

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  4. Domey said sort of what I had in my 6 paragraphs.

    This looks nothing like your writing Scott. I knew it was yours because you said so. But reading now, today, a day later, I don't see you anywhere near this paragraph. However, like you said, this is only the first draft and that always changes.

    I write both historical and contemporary romance. Two extremely different genres. However, the STRUCTURE in my books is the same. Pretty much down to where the third climax goes in Chapter 24.

    Funnily enough, I also found I used the same wording for describing the same thing, although I wrote the two books literally, years apart. My overly prosy narrative and quick scene changes, I think distinguish my 'voice' in my books. (ALthough this is where the line of voice you were talking about gets fuzzy for me.)

    I've read excerpts of your Hamlet. I read the other thing you wrote, I read the Plague, and now this. This is absolutely totally different from any of your previous writing. The sentences are shorter, crisper, have weight behind eight or ten words rather than the sentence of 19 words being weighty, if that makes any sense.

    I'll go one step further (and boldly into the abyss) and say, there is no 'voice' in the paragraph of The Last Guest. At least not yours, nor one that I can hear.

    I think the structure and the narrative, both, have to do with voice in a book. But this is only my opinion.

    And there are my 6 paragraphs.

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  5. I love the crispness of what you posted. It definitely feels different from your other work, but I can still see you in it. Maybe that's your voice shining through? OK, you can glare at me now.

    I've read Sons and Lovers for college, and remember loving it a lot. I still have it on my shelf. I think I'll pull it off and read it again - after C&B. :)

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  6. Anne, I am pleased that this new stuff looks nothing like my previous stuff. The voice in the Hamlet book was a very thick and modernized Elizabethan English, all artifice. The voice in Cocke & Bull is a very heavy, old-fashioned prosy voice. The voice in the plague thing was very much influenced by Albert Camus. The book I'm writing now, I hope, has few "fingerprints" of the writer on it. I am trying to be as far out of the way as I can be, as unobtrusive as possible. I paraphrase John Gardner and say that the best writers' prose is always similar and more-or-less invisible. This idea of a "unique voice" is a fairly recent one, and frankly I don't think it's such a good idea. You end up with novels like The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao that are essentially nothing but voice. Voice is not enough and also highly overrated. The personality, the identity even, of the author is about the least important part of a work of fiction.

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  7. For me, Jhumpa Lahiri and Mary Yukari Waters are the best examples of that invisible author that Gardner talks about. When I'm reading their work, I forget that I'm reading. It's something I've always tried to do in my own writing. When I read a strong voice in someone else's work--yes, I do believe in voice--I can often appreciate it, though. Nabokov comes to mind. It's not necessarily Nabokov's voice, it's the narrator's voice, I guess, but it's strong to me. In books like that, there's a more intentional beauty in the language that I can appreciate. I agree that different books can have different voices.

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  8. Domey, yes. Different books can have different voices. My point is that voice is part of the book, not author personality. What I dislike in most discussions of "voice" is the odd urgency of people attempting to get "themselves" onto the page. Nobody wants to read that. People want a well-constructed narrative, and voice is surely part of that, but it's a structural component, like theme or character. It should not primarily be a fingerpost to the author. I'm particularly bored by the "I'm a kickass muthufucka edgy bitch/bastard" first-person narrator of a lot of recent YA. That stuff is instantly off-putting. And it's all surface. Voice is deeper than that, because voice is structure, not simply narration. Which is why I disagree with Anne when she says the passage quoted above has no voice. What it lacks is a distinct narrative personality, which I claim is a good thing in this case and exactly what I was going for.

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  9. Which is why I disagree with Anne when she says the passage quoted above has no voice. What it lacks is a distinct narrative personality, which I claim is a good thing in this case and exactly what I was going for.

    Yes. I agree with this. I shouldn't say it has no voice. The voice is there. "it lacks a distinct narrative personality." Which if that is what you want, then you have achieved it.

    I guess when I think of voice, I automatically think of author intrusion or the voice of the character. The paragraph of The Last Guest had none. It was almost as if anyone could have written it.

    I don't know if that's good or bad, but if it's what you want, go for it.

    And by the way, I did like the passage. Like Michelle said, it's very crisp and clean. Nothing like your usual style. I suppose I could say I was taken aback, having been used to your "other" way of writing.

    It's good you can break out of your mold.

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  10. Hey, Anne, I didn't think you were saying you didn't like the writing. I just didn't answer your comment directly because, frankly, I wasn't sure what I was thinking so I had to have a side discussion with Davin about it first. Sometimes I make these claims ("Voice is structure!") and while I believe they are absolutely true claims, I'm not really sure what I mean because it's the first time I've said it and I have to work it out in retrospect.

    Anyway, what I'm really going for is the sort of breezy, "interested but not emotionally invested" tone of the Agatha Christie books. That way, when I get to the blood, I can be clinical and amused by the characters' reactions rather than horrified by the violence.

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  11. I like thinking about all of this, but it also leaves me confused (not necessarily in a bad way). I guess there are two types of voice, as I see them. One voice is the narrator's voice, which takes on different personalities and tones and whatever depending on the story. A second voice in my mind is some ill-defined aspect of someone's writing that is unique to them and based on their vocabulary, sentence constructions, metaphors, sounds and linguistic things like that. There is an integration to the other parts of the story involved there, but somehow I can see them as separate. Maybe that's just me trying to break things down so that I can understand them. It may not be a real thing. If we took three Anne stories and three Scott stories and three Davin stories and shuffled them all up and displayed them somewhere, would readers be able to separate them again? Would you want readers to be able to separate them?

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  12. Yeah, there's the voice of the narrator and then there's the linguistic ability of the writer. The voice of the narrator isn't necessarily the writer's voice, as we all know especially in first-person narratives. We know, for example, that Mark Twain was much better spoken than was Huck Finn. But Mark Twain had a finite vocabulary and a more-or-less settled set of grammatical rules he followed and a certain idea of the possibilities inherant in language. So behind the presumed narrator, there is always Twain. I am willing to advance the idea that this Twain, the Twain in the background, was basically invisible when read by his contemporaries, because they mostly shared a sensibility of what "good writing" was and there was a great deal of cultural overlap. The presumed narrator, on the other hand, could be anyone imaginable. The presumed narrator is what most people think of as "voice," and to me that's more a reflection of fictional character than a reflection of the author, and a good writer should be able to come up with as many narrative voices as are needed, and vary them from work to work because--as I claim--this presumed narrator is not the author, but is merely one of the more visible elements of a narrative. It's important to find this presumed narrator for each work, but it's important to realize that this presumed narrator can vary from work to work. Because it's not really the voice of the author.

    Except when it is, or is at least close to the author's real voice, which is what I'm trying in The Last Guest, and what Jhumpa Lahiri seems to be doing in her books, and what Tolstoy was doing, I think, in his books. So these are authorial decisions about narrative and one style is no "better" than another. A lot of writers never realize that the presumed narrator is artifice, and they think it's their own real voice. That's because they're thinking too much about their own experience writing and the writing is more about them-as-writers than it is about a story to be told. And stuff. I'm not being really clear and I know it. I'll have to think more about this distinction.

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  13. If we took three Anne stories and three Scott stories and three Davin stories and shuffled them all up and displayed them somewhere, would readers be able to separate them again? Would you want readers to be able to separate them?

    That's a good question. I don't know what the answer is.

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  14. A lot of writers never realize that the presumed narrator is artifice, and they think it's their own real voice. That's because they're thinking too much about their own experience writing and the writing is more about them-as-writers than it is about a story to be told.

    Okay, I get this. This is what I was trying to say, I think.

    When I write, I let the characters do the talking and the narrative speaks for itself. If I've done my job correctly, you can't hear me.

    Like you said...The presumed narrator is what most people think of as "voice," and to me that's more a reflection of fictional character than a reflection of the author, and a good writer should be able to come up with as many narrative voices as are needed, and vary them from work to work because--as I claim--this presumed narrator is not the author, but is merely one of the more visible elements of a narrative. It's important to find this presumed narrator for each work, but it's important to realize that this presumed narrator can vary from work to work. Because it's not really the voice of the author.

    You're a big thinker, Scott. I am too, only I don't explain big. I absorb and then ruminate. I wish we could all sit in a room and DISCUSS writing. So much of what we write gets lost in the translation.

    And Domey, didn't you guys do this kind of experiment on the Lit Lab not too long ago? Where we all had to guess who wrote what? Or was that just Michelle?

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  15. Michelle, I like the sound of "crisp." I'll hang onto that thought during revisions, when the tendency might be to make it all prosy.

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