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.

Purging the Shelves

thelampI am slowly reading my way through Francine Prose’s book, Reading Like A Writer and this morning, in the course of the chapter on the sentence, found myself brought up short her quotation of the opening lines of Virginia Woolf’s essay On Being Ill.  It’s a lengthy quote, even though it is only one sentence long, but I hope you will excuse my repeating here.

Considering how common illness is, how tremendous the spiritual change that it brings, how astonishing, when the lights of health go down, the undiscovered countries that are then disclosed, what wastes and deserts of the soul a slight attack of influenza brings to view, what precipices and lawns sprinkled with bright flowers a little rise of temperature reveals, what ancient and obdurate oaks are uprooted in us by the act of sickness, how we go down into the pit of death and feel the waters of annihilation close above our heads and wake thinking to find ourselves in the presence of the angels  and the harpers when we have a tooth out and come to the surface in the dentist’s arm-chair and confuse his “Rinse the mouth – rinse the mouth” with the greetings of the Deity stooping from the floor of Heaven to welcome us – when we think of this, as we are so frequently forced to think of it, it becomes strange indeed that illness has not taken its place with love and battle and jealousy among the prime themes of literature.

Prose is writing about the sentence; Woolf (when we finally get there, although I’m not complaining about the journey) about the paucity of novels centred around illness. Both of these are subjects for other posts. However, what caught my attention in this quite remarkable opening to Woolf’s essay was the accuracy of her observation about the way in which illness affects our perceptions of ourselves and our place in the world.

Last week I had a bout of food poisoning.  It was not funny!  Neither, however, was it in any sense life-threatening.  That didn’t stop me feeling extremely vulnerable and casting my mind ahead to that time when I shall no longer be able to live alone and will need to downsize to a property that while smaller will also be safer for someone who has no immediate family who will be able to offer support.

This week, I am glad to report, I am feeling rather more positive, but the fact that my house (not to mention my garage) is full of things which I rarely use and which it might be a good idea to slowly recycle (i.e. get rid of) instead of having to panic at some point in the future, has stayed with me.  You know where this is going, don’t you?

What do I do about the books?

Oh, I am not unaware of the irony.  Given that in my previous post I was complaining about the number of people who borrow books and then never return them, is there not a perfect answer right there?  Don’t worry about it.  In fact, start begging people to borrow books simply so that they will take them away and install them permanently on their shelves.  Problem solved.

I think not.

To begin with, it is never the books that I think I might manage without that people want to borrow.  The ones that don’t return are always the ones that I would never dream of being parted from whatever the circumstances.  And furthermore, I have a sinking feeling that if I started lending out books willy-nilly the winds of change might begin to blow and people might suddenly start sending them back to me. I might end up with even more than I have now.

One very simple first step has been to bring together all those books that others have lent me in the past.  I’m sorry if feelings are going to be hurt, but they are going back unread.  Then there are those books that have been languishing on my shelves ever since I moved into this house and are still as pristine as the day they were bought.  If I haven’t got round to reading them in fifteen years they really can’t have been that important in the first place.  And, if I’m honest, there are some that have been there at least twice as long as that.  The charity shops are going to have a field day.

But, what about the rest?

Being harshly practical I know that at least half of what I have in the house and all of those stored in the garage are going to have to go, but on what principal of selection?  I can’t be the only person out there who has faced this dilemma.  There must be people who have walked this path before me and come up with some sort of acceptable strategy.  No suggestion can be too wild, too extreme.  I just need help – soon!

P.S. Ideas as to what to do about the twenty-two teapots wouldn’t go amiss either.

sks41aWell, hello again!

I’m still feeling my way round getting back to writing here, but as the hours of daylight get longer so the problem with my eyes becomes slightly less of an issue and while I don’t think I’ll ever get back to posting as regularly as I used to the need to be part of the book blogging world is beginning to outweigh the discomfort.

Are you all well?  I do hope the winter months have treated you kindly.  The Bears would like you to know that they are thriving, although they could have done without the freezing temperatures during the nights and were observed to be channelling Queen Victoria when the snow forced them to cancel an outing last week.

Life has not been entirely bookless.  I am, however, having to be rather more discriminating in what I choose to spend my reading time on. At the moment I’m coming to the end of Kamila Shamsie’s Orange shortlisted novel, Burnt Shadows.  This reinforces the value of a good book group, because I doubt I would ever have read the work had it not been selected by another reader for discussion this coming Wednesday.  Starting with the horror of Nagasaki, it charts the life of Hiroko Tanaka, a nuclear survivor, who then finds herself caught up in further international conflicts as her life takes her to the India of partition, the subsequent subcontinental nuclear confrontation and the aftermath of the twin towers.  If this sounds depressing reading then I suppose in one sense it is, but the very fact that through all these troubles Hiroko is able to maintain supportive friendships with people who should stand firmly on the other side of the political divide gives grounds for hope that at some point in the future we might find a way of co-existing with those who are ideologically in the opposite camp.

We will be glad to get back to a ‘proper’ group meeting this month.  December and January were given over to an experiment to bring several reading groups together to discuss the same novel and explore it in greater depth through the involvement of an academic who had studied the work and might thus bring a different level of insight to the conversation.  We read the book for our individual meeting in December and then met with the other groups in January. This would have been really interesting had it not been for the fact that the book chosen was, to put it bluntly, poor.  Or at least, we thought it was.  All the other groups loved it and I know that a lot of book bloggers did as well.  However, I think that was because of the subject matter, which was always going to appeal to those who are interested in the book world.  What no one ever asked was ‘is this a well written book?’.  And we just didn’t think it was.

You will have noticed that I am being very circumspect about the title of this work.  I’m pretty certain some of you will have enjoyed it too and I don’t want to alienate you all and have you scream at me to crawl back under my winter stone just as I’ve stuck my nose out to smell the daffodils.  It is interesting, however, what different groups demand of the books that they choose to read.  Are we just attracted by the themes or do we look for quality in the writing as well?  Someone said to me that having two literary PhDs and a Professor of English Language amongst our number does make us a rather unusual group, but surely you don’t have to have formal qualifications to be interested in the quality of an author’s writing?  What do you focus on in your groups?  Do you question the writer’s ability to write with skill as well as to tackle interesting subjects?  Surely we are not alone in this?

Monday Miscellany

DSC_0382I’m sorry that I’ve not been around that much over the past week or so.  There have been two main reasons for this.  The first is that I always forget just how much extra time is going to be taken up once the university term starts at the beginning of October.  It isn’t just the sessions themselves and the planning that goes into them, but also the time taken travelling back and forth.  During the summer months I faff around complaining that I am not getting enough stimulation and, as a consequence, when autumn events, both academic and cultural, start to be advertised I sign up eagerly without giving sufficient thought to the practicalities of what I am committing to and the effects that will have on my rather fragile health.  This year I have definitely over committed and I am going to have to spend reading week pruning my diary and cutting back my expectations.

The second reason is less easily dealt with.  I am having problems with my eyes again and this is obviously curtailing the time that I can spend reading and writing.  We have tried a number of medications, but at the moment are struggling to find anything that doesn’t actually make the situation worse.  As you can imagine, this is frustrating in the extreme.

So, excuse me if I don’t visit your sites as often as I would like until we can get something sorted out.  It doesn’t mean that I don’t care or that I don’t miss you.

What Do We Mean By ‘Story’?

imagesRecently, over on Tales from the Reading Room, Litlove reviewed a short story collection by Tom Barbash.  As usual, I commented on my inability to engage with the short story form, even though I frequently used to include examples in my teaching.  In reply, Litlove asked me whether I enjoyed fairy tales, because were they not a form of short story, and I had to admit that I did, if only because I have frequently used them as material for analysis in my research work on narrative organisation.  However, something must have made me uneasy about this, something that then lodged in the back of my mind and which my few remaining little grey cells have been worritting away at ever since, until my concerns finally coalesced while I was out walking this morning.  I enjoy and have worked with fairy tales because they really are short stories whereas so many texts that are called short stories actually are not.

The fairy tale is, quite simply, a story that is short.  But, short or no, for the most part, it is a complete story.  To put it bluntly (although I would slaughter any student who chose to be quite so blunt) it has a beginning, it has a middle and it has an end.  Or, to be a little more precise, it follows the canonical pattern of exposition, inciting moment, igniting moment, development, climax, dénouement and conclusion.

Let’s take as an example that well known short story, The Three Little Pigs. The exposition introduces us to the main characters and the salient facts about their current life style (i.e like so many grown up sons and daughters they are still living at home with their mother).  But, these pigs are about to strike out for independence and so at inciting moment they all go out into the world to build their own individual houses.  Yea for the pigs!

Now, at this point the story could go off in all sorts of different directions.  It could turn out to be a tale of sibling rivalry as each of the pigs tries to outdo the other two in terms of building the biggest and best house.  It could have a developmental aspect to it as, having built their new homes, the pigs then decide to launch out into the business world and give a whole new meaning to the phrase ‘bringing home the bacon’.  What this plot line needs is an igniting moment to point readers in the right direction so that they can find their way safely through the fairy tale forest to the end of the story.  And so, along comes Mr Wolf and in the space of a huff and a puff our tale becomes one of survival against the evils of the outside world.

So, through the development section we watch as pig after pig finds his house destroyed by the evil machinations of Mr Big Bad.  (Please, no comments about the way in which the figure of the wolf is wickedly maligned and that really they are all nice, kind animals who live a quiet family life and wouldn’t so much as hurt a fly.  This one isn’t after flies.  He’s after roast pig and he’s the baddie.  OK?)  Finally, however, the pattern is broken and at climax pig number three, bravely sheltering her (check out the gender correct version in the Storychest reading scheme) two brothers manages to build a house that defeats the evil intentions of the wicked wolf and we are left to follow the dénouement with bated breath as the villain of the piece tries to climb down the chimney only to fall head first into the pot and become the chief ingredient in the siblings’ housewarming party.  As I said before – Yea for the pigs!

And those three intrepid house builders then get the reward that they deserve because the conclusion of the story, the point at which we move out of the event line and let the protagonists sink back into a settled and tranquil life, is the one that we all know so well – And they all lived happily ever after.  The Three Little Pigs may be short but it is a fully structured story.

However, my suspicion is (and it can be no more than a suspicion because I haven’t done the necessary research) that most so called short stories are actually nothing of the sort.  Rather they are parts of stories and we, as readers, are left to construct the elements that are missing.  Not that I’m suggesting that there’s anything wrong or indeed unusual about that.  I’ve done a lot of work with children on single frame cartoons which normally offer you either the climax or the dénouement of the story and you only understand what is funny or pointed about them because you are able to reconstruct the rest of the narrative from prior knowledge either of a specific situation or a well rehearsed trope.  I’m sure we’ve all had the experience of seeing a political cartoon in the daily press and being completely unable to interpret it because we haven’t been following the particular news item to which it is related.

Perhaps this points to one reason that so many of us have a problem with the short story as a form; it demands so much more of us as readers than does the full-blown narrative.  It can also be much more tantalising, especially if the dénouement and/or conclusion is missing.  Some of us like our stories nicely rounded off.  We may not demand the happy ever after, but we do like to know what happened in the end.

Of course, this is the point at which I should analyse half a dozen so called short stories just to show that they are not – stories, that is.  But, as I’ve said, I’m not in a position to do that – yet.  Because if there is one thing that might galvanise me into action and finally get me reading short stories then it is the possibility of being able to analyse them to see what actually is happening in an organisational sense.  Sad person that I am, I love grammatical analysis at whatever the level of hierarchy might be appropriate.

So, I am announcing The Short Story Project, in which I undertake to read one short story a week and do my best to analyse its narrative structure in order to see if my theory holds water.  The first thing I need to do is get hold of a good anthology because single authored collections are not going to work for this.  I need a range of stories by different writers and if possible from different nationalities and various time periods. I can go and have a good mooch round the library and local bookshops but if any of you have suggestions then they would be most welcome.  As the results, whatever they might be, become apparent I can report back on them here.  If I can keep it going for a year then I should have enough material to offer at least some tentative conclusions and maybe eventually even come up with enough evidence to support a move to rename the genre altogether!

Summer Time Means Summer School…

tumblr_m28hunkihb1rqmm3jo1_1280…and Summer School means that I suddenly become very busy indeed.  Although I run the School as a series of seminars and thus, in theory, each of the meetings is led by someone other than me, of course, I have to prepare the books as if I was going to be teaching them myself.  And, given that this year there are two new presenters, that is even more the case than ever.  So, I apologise, but I won’t be round very much now until after August 22nd, at which time I shall reappear with tales to tell of the books we have read and the discussions we have had and eager to hear all about what you have been reading.  If things go well I may get time to visit a few sites, but writing time is going to be difficult to carve out.

Be good now, while I’m away.  If you’re not, then I may have to set The Bears onto you and you really wouldn’t want that!

Happy reading.

Thank You

IMG_0001Dear Friends,

We are writing to say thank you for all the kind wishes that you have sent to Our Friend Alex (OFA).

She got proper poorly on Wednesday and Thursday but she is a little bit better today although her cough is still very bad and we are all very tired (and some of us are a little bit grumpy!).

We have been looking after OFA very well and feeding her on porridge and honey, which is good for colds (and good for Bears as well).  We will keep her very quiet over the weekend and then perhaps think about letting her come out to play at the beginning of next week.

Lots of Love,  The Bears.

P.S. Today is our Official Birthday.  Normally, there would be CAKE, but we are being very noble and waiting until OFA can enjoy it with us.