Sunday, August 17, 2008

Vox Not Popular

To write to be read--to be published, in other words--is to make an appeal. There are probably reams of psychological studies about the personality types that are drawn to fiction writing (to say nothing of writing in general). Could this also manifest in the types of characters one writes--where the impulse to make a likable character has a direct correlation to wanting the work to be liked?

I learned the habit of appealing to readers from writing fiction, but only so far. If you write enough fiction, your hidden agendas take over. At some point, I stopped thinking about who liked my work or not. I’ve probably been unwittingly revealing my subconscious. But this reminds me of the maxim that Charles Baxter mentions more than once in Burning Down the House: “Characters don’t have to be likable, they only need to be interesting.” I’m not inclined to always be polite and ingratiating with my fiction, but for some reason my work has often elicited vehemence.

You have to be bold as a fiction writer, with the courage of your convictions behind your words, otherwise you aren’t going to interest yourself in the writing enough to keep at it. I remember one of my advisors once saying that she was often afraid she might write something that would embarrass her. For the longest time I tried to figure out what I might write that I would feel embarrassed by. I never fully understood what she meant by her statement, but I concluded that, at the very least, I’m always going to stay true to myself. How I do that is by pushing myself and not worrying about what people think. Maybe that’s my superego writing from the point of view of a snake.

Voice is a tack in fiction that I’ve lately become fond of utilizing. More specifically, to find the voice of a first person narrator who will cajole a reader into staying with the narrative. Or, better still, perhaps, a first person narrator who can hook the reader and perform all the mise en scène that can lead to surprise, to make the reader eager to find out what happens next. Several writers I’ve been enjoying lately have a mastery of that voice (for example, the narrators in Jim Shepard’s great collection of stories, Like You’d Understand, Anyway, or Nam Le’s gun running youth in “Cartagena”, and several of Richard Lange’s misanthropes in Dead Boys) . Although I read it for an entirely different reason, voice is what stood out for me in John Banville’s The Sea.

What is voice, exactly? Nabokov, whom Banville is often compared to, to my ears (because voice comes out in the reading-- you can hear it, whether or not you read it aloud--maybe that’s the simplest definition) sounds a consistent voice through his books, a stately, avuncular, often on the fringes of crazy, man of privilege and tired sophistication. Nabokov created this voice, arguably, or parodied it so well, with such consistency that it is a gold standard. In The Sea, Banville appropriates this voice in the character of Max Morden.

Max Morden is not a really likable character. Perhaps pitiable. Yet his idiosyncrasies make him interesting. When he confesses “I have always suffered from what I think must be an overly acute awareness of the mingled aromas that emanate from the human concourse”, I’m intrigued. Maybe voyeurism compels me. Although I wouldn’t want to sit at the Pier Head and have a whisky with him, at the safe distance of the page, I’m curious enough to want to see where he’s going.

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