Oy Vey: Voice, and Also Twilight

So I'm gearing up to write a talk I've been putting off for a long time, which will be all about voice. And I am rediscovering the reason I've been putting this off for such a long time, which is that voice is to fiction as air is to life: It's simultaneously everything and nothing, essential to have and impossible to grasp, all-encompassing and absolutely individual. Voice to me includes both what is said and how it is said; imagine, if you can, the jolly voice of the narrator in the Narnia books suddenly describing a scene of zombies eating people's brains with soup spoons, dripping blood and corpus callosum; or more unlikely still, describing an explicit sex scene. The persona (intelligence, imagination, soul) behind that narrator would never discuss those topics; they aren't dreamt of in its philosophy. And that seems an important thing to know about a voice, its limitations and its tics; as opposed to the voice of the narrator of Possession, say, who also is unlikely to offer up the zombie brain scene, but who describes the sex quite easily. . . .

When I think about voice, I think about how real a sentence sounds to me, how believable it is as the voice of a real human being, if it's in first person; and also about how elegant a sentence sounds if it's in third person (and also in first, if elegance is appropriate for that character)--how smoothly it flows, whether it chooses the right (and yet also sometimes the unexpected) words, its rhythms and its eddies. So already in talking about voice here, I'm talking about perceptions of reality and of quality of aesthetics, and bloody hell if I can do those topics justice in an hour and a half.

I've thought about anatomizing the elements of a strong voice, with examples, but I'm not sure that would necessarily help writers improve their own writing -- do you go back through your writing and say "Hmm, according to Rule #28, 'Strong voices use distinctive adjectives (in some cases)'; therefore I will replace every fourth 'nice' in my book with 'persnickety'"? This seems unlikely, and I do like the theory of my talks to have some practical application. So for all these reasons, I'm finding it damnably hard to figure out any useful principles relating to voice other than "Have a distinctive one."

(And I think I am also getting tangled up in my own confusion here; perhaps some of these things I'm wrestling with aren't voice but style, if the two can be separated; and why shouldn't I try to nail down a perception of reality in my talk? Ninety minutes is a long time. And perhaps I am also enjoying my own melodrama over the difficulty of writing here -- always a danger with writing something in public. . . .)

In any case, I'm turning to you, dear and thoughtful readers, to ask for your help in coming up with some questions about voice I can try to answer in my talk. What issues do you struggle with in regards to voice? Do you struggle with voice as a concept in your writing, or do you just ignore the concept and make a voice, without much theorizing about it? Is it all about person for you -- whether a first-person or a third-person or, goodness, even a second-person narrator is the right perspective to tell the story? Or do you worry about distance, or energy level, or those distinctive adjectives? Please let me know what you think in the comments below.

One thing I've thought about doing in relation to this is just making up a list of Prose Tics That Annoy Me and teaching people not to use those in their writing, along with why said Tics are bad -- much like the Principles of Line-Editing I posted a long time ago, but in much greater length and detail. Would that be useful? It would, at least, be correcting the Tics in a voice that add up and ultimately make me put a submission down; and I could probably compile a list of Prose Tics That Please Me likewise -- though the most pleasing tic is usually the unexpected and original one.

And speaking of Prose Tics That Annoy Me . . .

I've written, at this point, the equivalent of about ten full text pages on Twilight, but none of them feel quite right as a response, either because I'm pretty sure other people have already said what I'd say or because the pages go into that swamp of reality and aesthetics and never come out again. It's a fascinating book. I also felt strongly reading it that it was not a good book, though when I asked myself why, my reasons were all political and aesthetic and not emotional: Bella doesn't earn any of the adoration she receives on all sides; there is no plot besides her passion for Edward*; Edward is a bossy, condescending, snickering, sparkly emo boy (though did I mention perfect?); and the book is chockablock with Prose Tics That Annoy Me, not least the redundant dialogue tags and the reiterations of how perfect Edward is.

* Which is fine as a plot, as far as it goes, but since she doesn't want anything besides Edward, once she discovers Edward actually wants her too, she has everything she wants and there is no conflict, mystery, or lack. (At which point the bad vampires conveniently show up so there is conflict again.) Protagonists in romance novels should always want at least one thing outside one another, so (a) they're interesting as individuals (to me, interesting people always have something they like thinking and talking about besides other people, and Bella and Edward did not pass this test) and/or (b) they have to choose between the loved one and this other want, which forces conflict and growth.

I gather the big choice for Bella and Edward in the course of the next three books is whether Bella should become a vampire, but by the end of this book, it seemed obvious to me that of course she should become one: She doesn't love anything else in her human life, or that human life itself, with anything like the force of her passion for Edward, and there is apparently no downside to being a vampire, so why not? When I was watching the movie, I recognize see those downsides, as many of the human pleasures I love most -- sleep, food, touch -- seemed to be denied the vampires (I'm thinking of Edward's stone skin here, not that that seems to keep Bella from snuggling with him). But since none of those pleasures seem to matter to Bella really in this book, the decision doesn't seem like a difficult one.

Still, when I thought about the book from a sheerly emotional perspective -- which can and often does matter more than anything else in a reading experience -- then I totally understood why so many readers love this book so passionately, why they would call it not only a good book but one of the best ever: because more than any book I've read in a long time, it captured the exhilaration and fear of falling and being in love. When I read the scenes in which and after Edward and Bella confess their love to each other, I remembered such scenes in my own real-life experience, how delicious and vertiginous those moments were. And for teen readers who might not have had such an experience yet, I imagine those scenes could be all the more shivery and wonderful. (My political brain sticks its oar back in here and says "Yes, and ridiculously-high-expectations-inducing!" But we are ignoring it for the moment.) When I talked about the book with friends whose literary taste I admire, why they felt compelled to read all these in four days flat, they seem to have plugged straight into that emotional vein and managed to ignore the rest, which I clearly couldn't. But I respect and even envy that experience in some ways . . . More power to you people (though the political brain still wants to recommend a good kick-ass fantasy heroine instead).

So: Twilight, problematic but fascinating book; voice, fascinating but problematic subject. End of post for the night.