A Tale of Three Voices

In The Huffingon Post, Anis Shivani has an essay that says, in part:  “What the fuck does voice mean? I’m clueless. This is just another of those fakeries writing teachers–or writers forced to sit on panels and not having the intellectual honesty to talk about the tough work of writing rather than writing as the festival or conference-goer wishes it–pull out of the hat when they have nothing else to talk about.”

Let’s talk about voice, bay-bee, let’s talk about you and me.  I’m reading 3 books:  I’ve got the memoir of the dying mother, the novel about a millionaire Ad Man, and the memoir about an Iranian family that reads in a very non-memoirish way.  What I’m noticing most, however, is not the difference in the genres.  I’m focused on the trichotomy of the narrative voices telling the stories, and what that means to the reader.  To Me.

I finally got around to Jasmin Darznik’s THE GOOD DAUGHTER, a story written mostly in the 3rd person.  I like that it’s different (who writes memoir in 3rd person?).  I like that Darznik’s prose flows like she’s a natural storyteller.  I like that she takes 10 audio tapes made by her mother about her secret history of growing up Iran and teaches me about a culture I know little about.  The one problem I have is the suspension of disbelief.  It’s a memoir, after all, and I keep thinking about the narrator’s voice, the narrator’s truth: “how does she know what the flowers smelled like?” and “how does she know how her grandmother looked at that schoolgirl?”  Still.  Do I recommend the book?  Yes.  It’s a wonderful story, well-told.  I enjoy listening to the voice telling this story.

I met Charles McLeod in school — he was a Steinbeck Fellow; I a student — and didn’t know him well, but I liked him, and I heard lots of buzz about what a brilliant writer he was.  (There’s a great article about him in the May/June issue of Poets and Writers).  His novel AMERICAN WEATHER was recently published in the U.K.  This might be the smartest, most original, story I’ve read in a long while.  It’s like a brutal mirror that stares you in the face and shows you what a hypocrite you are.  What hypocrites we all are, no matter what we like to think of ourselves.  The prose — the voice? — is exhausting in the way that our real lives can be exhausting: paragraphs that go on for pages, repetition on steroids, one man’s obsessive obsessions.  A voice so damned smart it makes me bright emerald green with envy.  Recommended?  A resounding Yes!

Then there’s Meghan O’Rourke’s THE LONG GOODBYE, a young journalist’s account of her mother’s cancer diagnosis and reflections on their relationship.  I’ve been looking forward to reading this book since I read the first excerpt in The New Yorker, and though it kills me to say this, I’m disappointed.  The narrative voice is so cold and flat.  It’s very this happened, and then that happened, and then, well, that’s what it was, on to the next event.  All these pages in, and I have no idea why she’s telling the story, what makes her take on grief something new and insightful, what makes this a story I need to read.  Where is O’Rourke’s daughterly voice?  (whatever “daughterly” means to her)  What is this about????  I don’t know if I can even finish it.

So back to Shivani’s essay and his comment about fakeries and whatnot.  He pokes great fun, and I love his twist on it, but I also think he’s full of shit.

The voice is what pulls me in or shoves me off.

The well-tuned voice makes me decide between reading the book or throwing the damned thing across the room.

What are you reading?  What is it about the voice that’s turning you on or off?

13 thoughts on “A Tale of Three Voices

  1. lisahgolden

    I know I’ve griped about the concept of “voice” before because I just didn’t understand it. This post makes it clearer to me. It’s word choice, depth, attachment to the story, pacing, repetition (or not), length of sentences, paragraphs and even words. Alliteration, poetic, metaphors or stark, stripped down, snapped off ends of sentences with hard gs and ks. It was big. It was a kick. opposed to It was as large and out of place as a cruiseliner on a pond and It was the kind of moment that left your head spinning, your heart pounding, your lips begging for more.

    Voice. Duh! Thank you, Teri.

    I’m reading two books. A novel by Ellen Meister called The Other Life. It’s told in 3rd person and I just started it so I can’t say with certainty, but so far I like the voice and the story. The second book is Mika Brzezinski’s Knowing Your Value, a memoir and a nonfiction about how women undermine their own value and how we can learn not to do it. I like Mika’s writing voice which is very much the same voice she uses on MSNBC’s Morning Joe. There’s no mistaking it. She tells the story of her career highs and lows and how she undervalued herself and contribution to the media and how that was reflected by her salary and working conditions. It’s straightforward with a lot of information about how she felt about things as they unfolded. It seems authentic and honest.

  2. anis shivani

    Hi Teri, my essay made the point that MFA instructors tell you to “discover your voice”–not for one book, but for your career. What would it be like if Charles McLeod wrote all his books in the voice that you loved (and by the way, I was really intrigued about him after reading that profile)? The creative writing programs don’t talk about hitting on the right voice for a particular but one that identifies as a writer for all your books; and that to me is just–bullshit. People don’t talk about style. I think that’s a more valuable way to approach this issue than voice.

    1. Teri

      I hear you, Anis. A definite split between Narrative Voice and what the MFAers call Voice. I think it’s a little different for memoir, though there’s certainly a persona or mask telling the story they want to tell. My frustration with these 2 memoirs is voice. Darznik’s voice is not always believable (not a good thing for a memoir) but tells her story in an informal and flowing tone. Like you’re a friend and she’s relating what she’s learned. I was actually driven to write this post while reading the O’Rourke book, which got such terrific blurbs and reviews, but falls flat — and as a memoir it’s definitely the voice that’s flat. It’s like reading a newspaper article: you’re told what happens but you never really know how the writer feels about it. It’s this feel, I think, that seeps through in the voice.

      And yes, you’re right in that style and voice often get mixed up in the pot when talking about all of this. Which is which??

      Speaking of MFA issues, come back tomorrow if you want to read what I didn’t learn in my MFA.

  3. anis shivani

    I meant “hitting on the right voice for a particular book, but one that identifies you as a writer for all your books.”

  4. macdougalstreetbaby

    “The well-tuned voice makes me decide between reading the book or throwing the damned thing across the room.” Yes.

    I’m reading To Kill a Mockingbird and I must be honest. There’s a part of me that thinks this voice belongs to someone else than the person whose name appears on the front cover. I know that opens a huge can of worms and I realize I’ve got zero foundation for that opinion but it’s just my reaction. My gut reaction.

    1. Teri

      TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD was originally written as a series of vignettes. It was the editor/publisher who decided it needed to be a novel, so it was rewritten many many times. I’ve read the story of it’s publication a few times and I always wonder what the book was when it started vs. where it ended. And who did all that revising? Lee? Her editor? Any help from Capote? I always feel like I can see a little Capote in there, but maybe that’s just me hoping to see it.

      (p.s. I would like to compliment you, MSB, on your limited use of the italics. Can you teach the rest of us how to turn them on. And, more importantly, Off?)

  5. Downith

    I’m damned if I can find the quote anywhere or remember who said it, but I’m sure that one of the authors who spoke to our class last year described voice as “the engine” – what makes your writing go.

    How do we account for voice in short stories? I’m (still!) reading Pulse – Julian Barnes short stories. I laughed out loud at some of the witty dinner table dialogue in the first story in the book – “At Phil and Joanna’s.” The one I read last night, Marriage Lines, was devastating – the recently widowed protagonist discovered that “he was not in charge of grief. Grief was in charge of him.”

  6. Lyra

    Thanks for linking to Anis Shivani’s post. Loved it, perhaps ironically, for the voice. I can get behind anyone who calls bullshit on the expression “Show don’t tell”. It isn’t that voice, or certain expressions have no meaning, but rather their meaning has become trite and cliched to the point of exhaustion, a verbal dumping ground for “It just doesn’t work”.

    That being said I’m on a my-favorite-writer quest. When I read someone mention that phrase and I haven’t read the author, it goes on the list. Credit to you for my current reading of The Year of the Flood. Margaret Atwood has a style that pulled me right in and keeps me flipping the pages. (Occasionally she ventures a bit too much into an author lecture of sorts, but as with many things, the story is worth it.)

  7. Deb

    Hey Teri, I don’t have your email! Did you see what’s going on She Writes right now? Thought I’d tell you in case you didn’t see it. Cheers! Deb

    Our second show, from 1PM to 2PM EST TODAY, will feature SARAH SAFFIAN, former Editorial Director of She Writes and author of Ithaka, ALEXANDRA STYRON, author of All the Finest Girls and Reading My Father, and KATHRYN HARRISON, author of multiple titles including The Kiss. The three will explore the difficult questions that surround the writing of a memoir.

  8. anis shivani

    Teri, thanks for your comments, and looking forward to your “what I didn’t learn from the MFA” piece. Go for it! You’ll have many readers. Go into some detail.

  9. Averil Dean

    Such a good conversation, and a great piece by Shivani. I have been trying over the past week to sink my teeth into some thrillers (August says jump, I say how high) but after reading Lolita and The Road, The Bell Jar, Haunted and The Kiss, I am finding thrillers impossible to love. And I think that must be about voice. I don’t like the straightforward, stark ugliness, the uninspired descriptors, the in-your-face dialogue that thrillers seem to have in common. I want the prose to roll; thrillers hop.

  10. amyg

    can’t wait for your MFA-it-happened-to-me piece.

    if i told you what i was reading now you’d laugh in a you gotta be kidding me way.

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