Alumni Feature December 2011

The Trouble with Narrative Voice

by Diana Jenkins

There are many qualities distinguishing one writer from the next: vocabulary, command of syntax, a way with alliteration, an incurable addiction to puns (see Kathy Lette here), differences of wit, an obsession with a particular subject, and, in some cases, an idiosyncratic, unmistakable narrative voice.

Wolf Hall cover Some writers are chameleons, inhabiting their characters so completely that the author’s own voice can no longer be detected – Hilary Mantel manages this in Wolf Hall and Peter Carey is a candidate more broadly, in a way I’d argue Don DeLillo and Paul Auster could never be, the voices of these latter authors being so insistent across their work. Remove the author’s name, and you might still pick a Tim Winton title from its innards; a Margaret Atwood might prove harder to place. On the other hand, even as I make these comparisons I realise readers actively cultivate familiarity with writers’ work in a way that undermines the very point I’m trying to make – reading is a love affair, after all, so a beloved author’s tiniest tic won’t pass unseen. Nonetheless… all voices are not created equal.

Voice. I wonder sometimes if this is the defining difference between fiction and non-fiction writers: that fiction writers are blessed with (or besieged by?) a cacophony of voices, all clambering to be heard, and non-fiction writers hear nothing but the steady sound of their own breathing. I have waited, hoped and begged for characters to speak to me in their own tongues, but my inner ear remains resolutely deaf to the cadences of pure creation, because to date all my fictional characters end up sounding just like me. It's horrible, but attempts to disguise it have so far proven worse. Bad enough, in fact, that I am continually asking myself if I should give up fiction writing altogether. I keep wondering if I am barking up the wrong pulped tree.

Christopher Hitchens, a writer now almost as well known for his atheism and cancer battle as for his acerbic commentaries in Vanity Fair, was quoted in September’s Australian Literary Review from his memoir, Hitch-22, in an article entitled (appropriately enough for our purposes) There’s Just One Hitch.

I soon enough realized when young that I did not have the true “stuff” for [writing] fiction and poetry,’ goes the quote. ‘And I was very fortunate indeed to have, as contemporaries, several practitioners of those arts who made it obvious to me, without unduly rubbing in the point, that I would be wasting my time if I tried.

Christopher Hitchens Yet Hitchens has gone on to become a very successful writer with an enormous international following, as popular on the festival circuit as any novelist could ever hope to be, which begs the question of why he feels he was unable to turn his considerable skills to fiction. Leaving aside whether or not one agrees these contemporaries of his were so very friendly after all, their estimation of Hitchens’s limited “stuff” immediately caused this writer at least to wonder about her own. Reading the profile, I paused a good long while over those few lines with the creeping sensation that, really, this lesson might just as easily be applied to me. I wondered (preposterous comparisons aside) whether Hitchens suffers from the deficiency of voice that plagues my own bumbling attempts at fiction – is it possible he too is hampered by the same meagre ration of one?

I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve heard industry insiders stress the importance of ‘a strong narrative voice.’ Workshops and seminars I’ve attended; essays and writing guides I’ve read; assessments I’ve had done and conversations I’ve shared: it’s unanimous. Voice matters. And all my many and varied fiction appraisals have noted mine – which might be encouraging were I doing it on purpose. It’s not as though I am following a reliable recipe – God only knows what it is exactly they’re referring to. I don’t sound distinct to myself and I have no idea about the so-called Voice’s constituent parts, but I do know the assessments are consistent. Naturally I’m afraid that if I try to analyse it more closely, I’ll kill off whatever it is they’re talking about. It seems to be the o-n-e positive thing in my writing… not positive enough that anyone actually wants it, mind you, but still something that might one day steer this sinking ship in the direction of a just-glimpsed if distant shore (an alternate fate nags all the while, an iceberg scraping the hull: nobody likes this voice. It grates on everybody’s nerves. The captain goes down with the ship. Glub, glub, glub…)

So why keep trying? Hmmm. Good question. Like Hitchens I’ve had plenty of people over the years try to gently dissuade me from fiction. Unlike Hitchens, I’m yet to give up. I think about it often and am edging closer to something I’ll call ‘acceptance’ – but I don’t think I’ll be able to quit until ‘acceptance’ stops feeling like ‘failure.’ At this point it’s impossible to avoid wondering if I am simply too obstinate and/or vain to heed the warnings of well-meaning friends and professionals. Am I deaf to all but my own voice on this count too? Ugh. It’s grotesquely egocentric when I think of it that way. La-la-la, I can’t hear you!

The scene is Varuna, September 2008. It’s the beginning of a Professional Development Residency and our first night fireside with the venerable Peter Bishop, Varuna’s then Creative Director. Peter is going around each of the five assembled writers, all women, giving us his impressions of the MS extracts he’s read in preparation for this week. When it comes my turn, Peter says something about my MS obviously being an autobiographical work, and I cut in quickly, saying, “No, no, it’s fiction.” No one believes me.

Believability is a treacherous slope in fiction: sometimes a narrative voice is believable enough that no one believes it speaks of things untrue. And if you ask me, nothing is more damning to the fate of a piece of prose than hungry speculation as to its origin in fact. All the focus seems to turn, with fetishistic relish, to drawing comparisons with the author’s own life, and damned if you can ever get anyone’s attention back to the page. Why on earth do we care so much? Why does it matter? Really. Why? I’m always bewildered by furors that erupt over something that was supposed to be fiction but turns out to be partly true, or memoirs that turn out to be partly false; it seems incredible to me that anyone ever imagines a pure version of either. How can any writer do other than impart something of themselves in their fiction writing, and something of their imagination in their memories?

Angela Meyer Still we must verify; it seems we can’t help ourselves. Then we must classify. And finally we must gather at literary festivals to debate these and other terms with our own kind. Indeed, back in May Alumna Angela Meyer, the writer behind the popular Literary Minded blog (up until recently a Crikey online column), attended a session on typecasting at The 2011 Emerging Writers’ Festival, at which the authors on the panel were called upon to discuss the way their work is categorised by various market forces.

As Angela noted in her subsequent column, such labels – ‘gay writer,’ ‘chick lit writer,’ Indigenous writer’ – bring their authors both positive and negative consequences. The very quality that works in your favour may also threaten to undo you. When you’re perceived as delivering a reliable product, you may build a loyal audience of readers who like what you do – but plenty of readers will look elsewhere for exactly the same reason. It happens with actors as well as authors – just look at Samuel L. Jackson and his series of increasingly painful Pulp Fiction pastiches. Enough already. No burger is that tasty.

If Samuel L. Jackson is lucky, someone will eventually do him a Tarantino-style favour and restore his credibility the way Tarantino briefly managed to restore John Travolta's (some people will always squander a lottery win). But as a One Voice Wonder, I seem to be stuck playing myself. I wonder how many times have I typed or written 'I'?

Ahem. That is not a happy thought.

Peter Bishop Adventures of the Letter I, Peter Bishop’s poetry-infused essay in the current issue of Griffith REVIEW, is a timely reminder that he’s one writer/reader at least who has a very advanced, fluid frame of reference where the dreaded ‘I’ is concerned – he seems almost entirely untroubled by the obsession binding verification to classification: is this fiction or non-fiction? True or false? Did that happen just like this, or didn’t it? He told me that week at Varuna that it really didn’t matter that my protagonist’s story wasn’t, in fact, my story, because it felt like it was someone’s story – and that was enough for him.

It was an extraordinary idea. I was intrigued – and thrilled – by Peter’s receptiveness to a lawless hybrid between fiction and non-fiction. It was exciting, speaking directly to my long-term interest in the mysterious space that erupts when different things meet. I’d never met anyone so willing to ignore the dictates of genre, and his enthusiasm for radical literary spaces was infectious.

I worked hard to position my MS inside this rogue state both during the week at Varuna and for many months following, but in the end I sort of outfoxed myself and ended up in a new kind of wilderness. I no longer knew what the thing was. The MS was something strange, belonging nowhere and to no one. Everything about it became increasingly unstable and flawed, until I could no longer make a coherent claim for it. I couldn’t call it non-fiction, because too much of it was fiction, and I soon discovered that calling it a hybrid was unhelpful. Despite my best efforts, in the end it wasn’t daring – it was dead.

Fiction works by adhering to certain rules; it obeys structural imperatives like constructing a narrative arc, the scaffold holding a story together in a way that specifically does not resemble real life. These parameters are far less negotiable than I had imagined, and ignoring them in my own case ultimately damaged the integrity of the entire enterprise. Endless rewrites seemed only to push the MS further and further into the gap between literary categories, and there it remains, lodged like a piece of corn between two spectacularly uneven teeth.

Despite my own creative troubles, I remain immensely heartened and excited by Peter’s perspective; it’s so liberated, not to mention liberating, and in surer hands than mine the possibilities are endless. His attitude – though this is my interpretation – seems to be that the authenticity of a work lies not in its unequivocal classification as fiction or non-fiction but in the personal truth of an author’s voice. Back in 2008 I was hugely gratified when invented scenes in my MS struck him as ‘real.’ Not, I should stress, that the work is free of autobiographical elements – they’re in there, there’s no point denying them – but originally I was happy when no one seemed able to readily distinguish between the two. I thought it meant my writing was convincing. Now I know it means my voice is stuck in one register, and readers find the resultant shade of grey fatally unsettling.

A lone voice: I fear it’s a fundamental failure of imagination and ability, this lack of diversity in my narrative ‘I’; there’s something badly lacking here. The right stuff, exactly as Hitchens says. First person is my one and only intuitive tense – it’s what spills forth. I’ve tried writing in third person as a way of freeing my fiction from the cloying omnipresence of my voice, but then it just sounds like I’m lurking nearby, sweating in an ill-fitting disguise. It doesn’t seem to matter what character I invent – there I will find myself, plastered all over the page. Oh, Christ. Not you again.

Charlotte Wood Animal People cover Months ago I made a mental note of a tweet by Alumna Charlotte Wood, the subject of last month’s Member Interview, whose new novel Animal People is a real ripsnorter. Charlotte was writing a non-fiction food book at the time (now due out next year), and the tweet went something along the lines of, ‘Can’t wait to finish non-fiction book and flee back to fiction. So sick of sound of own voice.’

How I envied her then. Charlotte has the best of both worlds, being able to write across forms, whereas I am saddled with a narrative voice from which there is no obvious escape. Sick of the sound of your own voice? Darling, you don’t know the half of it. I’m smeared all over my prose like the screeching stage mother at one of those freakish baby doll pageants, smothering the bejesus out of the very thing I love. Maybe ‘acceptance’ is closer than I think.

So where does this leave the ‘me, myself and I’ of the printed page? Consistency of voice can be an extraordinarily powerful asset – just look at David Sedaris – but the present argument in my own head is around One Voice Wonders possibly being better suited to writing non-fiction (just look at David Sedaris). Yet I think again of Angela’s festival roundup, which ended on a positive note. Her conclusion was that ‘you can never accurately typecast someone. We are all complex, and we change from one minute to the next.’ I do wonder if Angela’s right, but I hope she is. Nothing would thrill me more than discovering I am, after all, made of ‘the right stuff.’ I’d love to be the keeper of someone else’s voice, but for now… (listens hard… ) I seem to be stuck with mine.

Please be encouraged to comment on this feature.

NEXT MONTH: The Alumni News will return in February with a Member Interview.


Lisa Walker’s debut romantic comedy, Liar Bird, is being published by HarperCollins in January 2012.

Ian Trevaskis’s new book Edge of the World, a Picture Story Book for years 5+ is finally finished and looks fantastic thanks to the brilliant illustrations by Wayne Harris. It's due for release in February 2012.

Memoirs of a Suburban Girl is the latest book by Deb Kandelaars published in November 2011.

Mark O'Flynn's fourth collection of poetry, Untested Cures will be published in December 2011.

Read all about these exciting new release Alumni titles at Varuna Books.

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1 comment

  • Eudora Welty writes: In fiction we do not necessarily write about ourselves, we write out of ourselves, using ourselves: what we learn from, what we are sensitive to, what we feel strongly about—these become our characters and go to make our plots.
    Several years back I was grappling with the knowledge that deletions in my chromosomes had mutated further giving my daughter a very severe form of muscular dystrophy. I was also working on a piece for Research Australia on breakthroughs in gene therapy—research that makes me feel complicated because of assumptions about good and bad genes. So I wrote a short piece called ‘Big Block Letters’ for the 1001 Nights Cast performance project. Readers can find it on line. The story is about how I feel about these things, not the events themselves, even if true-life events led to that feeling.
    I think the hard bit, which we all grapple with, is keeping the story true to the feeling, not events locked into position in real life.

    Carol Major Friday, 12 April 2013 10:37 Comment Link

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