The Dominant Narrative Voice

9182e95bd28566e2825b6e30ed2ca727I used to work with an educational advisor who was always looking for ways to help children develop their own voice in their writing.  It’s not an easy concept to get over to primary children, especially those who find it difficult enough to write anything at all in the first place, leave alone characterising it with their own particular style.  Possibly the best way to explain what you mean is to offer them examples of writers whose written voice is so distinctive that they are able to recognise who the author might be even if they haven’t encountered the particular text you’re reading from, but that argues the type of wide acquaintance with authors that an eleven year old is unlikely to have developed.  I have tried it with Dr Suess but I’m not certain how well the experience translates from those who write in regular metric verse to those who write in prose.

Truth be told, I’m not sure how good I would be at recognising the style of a particular novelist.  What I am aware of, however, is a small number of writers whose individual voice is so strong that for hours, sometimes days, after I have finished reading their work I find myself thinking, speaking and even writing in their particular idiosyncratic rhythms.

I first noticed this during one summer holiday when I was in my teens and for the only time in my life read Jane Eyre.  The only time, not because I don’t think this is anything less than a remarkable piece of work, but because the music inherent in Charlotte Bronte’s writing was so pervasive that all my postcards home were written as if Jane herself was penning them.  I got some very pointed comments from the people who received them and, given that much of my life is spent writing in one form or another, have never dared go back to the novel again.

What brought this to mind currently was a re-reading of Marilynne Robinson’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel, Gilead, for a book group meeting later this month.  Circumstances meant that I was able to get almost halfway through in my first session, so the narrative voice had ample opportunity to seep into my consciousness.

This morning a splendid dawn passed over our house on its way to Kansas. This morning Kansas rolled out of its sleep into a sunlight gradually announced, proclaimed throughout heaven – one more of the very finite number of days that this old prairie has been called Kansas, or Iowa.  But it has all been one day, that first day.  Light is constant, we just turn over in it. So every day is in fact the selfsame evening and morning.

Whether this is the voice of Robinson, the author, or John Ames, the narrator, it is characterised by that slow development of an idea into something greater than it started out as; a propensity to take nothing at face value but rather to dig further and deeper into every thought through an unhurried revealing of the notional layers  that shroud a fundamental nugget of truth. And, not only do the rhythms of the piece reflect this but so strong are they that for several hours afterwards so also did my speech.  My own voice was subdued by that of the novel.

I don’t know about you, but when this happens I find it disturbing.  I am used to getting lost in the world of a book, or so wrapped up in its plot that I spend time away from the text speculating on how the action might turn out.  That is part of the pleasure of reading.  When, however, I find that I am losing myself not in the book, but to the book I feel very uncomfortable.  Possession by another being isn’t quite what I signed up for when I took the novel down from the shelf.

Something that I have found myself reflecting on while writing this piece has been the fact that both of these novels have first person narrators and I wonder if this is significant.  Would a third person narrator, necessarily at a further remove from the action, have the same potency?  I am just about to start Robinson’s second novel in the Gilead trilogy, Home, which is not told simply in the voice of one person.  It will be illuminating to see if has the same influence.

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12 thoughts on “The Dominant Narrative Voice

  1. I know just what you mean. A greater writer can really get inside your head. I know when I have been reading some nineteenth century fiction I find myself thinking in that voice so I can well appreciate your being so influenced by Jane Eyre. I do so love that book.

  2. Great to hear from you, Alex, after such a while. I know what you mean about the dangers of narrative influence; I think there are writers who accept it as a matter of course and allow themselves to be influenced by those others whom they imitate half-consciously, half-deliberately, half-unconsciously, half-in-a-spell, and then writers for whom this isn’t a comfortable form of writing. In reading them at least, you pays your money, you takes your choice, I think, like the woman said.

    1. I would be very worried as a writer if I thought I was channelling someone else’s voice. I can imagine wanting to follow the same path in other ways, the themes or the setting, but I would definitely want to sound like me, rather than like someone else.

  3. When your blog link came up in my feed reader this morning I was delighted to see it. How are you?
    I don’t think that I have ever been influenced in my speech or writing (except consciously) by anything I’ve read. (I’ve had a copy of Gilead sitting unread on my shelves for several years now – it looks from the extract you quote that I’ll like it when I do get round to reading it.) Maybe it’s the style of writing rather than the personality that has that effect on you, so I’ll be interested to see whether you react to ‘Home’ in the same way. Possession by a character in a book must be uncomfortable :).

    1. Hi Margaret! Things have been difficult over the past few months but I realised last week that by not writing I was actually making things worse, because it’s only when I see what I write that I know what I think (to misquote someone I’ve completely forgotten). So I’ve set myself the task of writing at least 200 words a day to try and get myself back on track. Gilead is a book that you have to give time to, so I would leave it until you know you can devote long hours to it. Home is proving to be very different so I suspect that there is something going on here to do with the first person narrative. I’m more interested this time in the way in which having been through these events once from a very different perspective is influencing my perception of the characters in this book and changing the way I think about those in the previous novel.

  4. Alex! So glad to see you back!

    I know exactly what you mean. This has not happened to me from reading fiction but it happened to me when I was reading the complete poems of Emily Dickinson. Suddenly no matter what I wrote began to sound like her and was filled with dashes. It was kind of exciting and disconcerting at the same time.

    1. Glad to be back, Stefanie. And I can imagine the Dickinson might have that effect on me as well if I read more than two or three at a time. You remind me that there was a very well reviewed biography that came out some years ago that I meant to read and then never got round to. I must do something about that.

  5. Glad to see you back here. As I do occasional writing for people where I have to match their voice, I do pick up authors’ voices horribly. I had a little experiment and wrote reviews in the authors’ voices for a while, I must find those again. I know I did a Joanna Trollope thing, as she has style tics that are pretty noticeable.

    1. Once you notice those tics it can be hard to get away from them. It was interesting though that when J K Rowling started writing under a pseudonym I recognised that I knew the writer from some of those tics, although not who the writer was.

      1. Oh, fascinating! I didn’t catch the book before the name came out, but I would have been interested to see if I had done that, too. You’ve read David Lodge’s “The British Museum is Faling Down”, I’m sure, where he parodies a different writer in each of ten (?) different passages, most amusing. I didn’t “know” he did that the first time I read it, but picked up on it still.

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