Christmas Bestsellers 2011
Christmas Bestsellers 2011

There’s a lot of discussion in creative writing courses about how authors can find their voice. It’s quite a difficult concept to articulate — most simplistically it’s what defines the distinctiveness of an author’s style. This may, depending on the author, be generic to all their output or restricted to a subset of their work. Also there is debate about how some authors use a consistent voice whereas others vary their narrative voice according to the tone of different parts of a book. In this post I’m mainly concerned with the sort of authorial voice that suffuses most of a writer’s work.

Maybe one of the best ways of capturing an author’s voice was to do what we did in the most recent term of the MMU MA course — when every week a couple of us would contribute a short piece of original writing ‘in the style of’ whichever author we’d discussed the previous week in the Reading Novels module.

So I contributed short pieces inspired by Vladmir Nabokov, Margaret Drabble and John Banville (in the guise of Benjamin Black). I couldn’t help my examples of writing go beyond even pastiche and into the territory of parody — but with different degrees of subtlety they seemed to work.

It was fascinating to see how the other students tackled the exercises too. Who were the literary chameleons who could identify the elements that made another writer’s work distinctive and impose these on their pieces — and who were the types who would nod in the direction of the writer’s style but still make the piece recognisably theirs. Sometimes there were students who alchemically combined the two — both embracing the writer who inspired the piece and also making it unerringly their own.

Writing parodies or pastiches is an incredibly useful exercise — according to one of my friends at Metroland Poets, W.H.Auden said that if he was to teach poetry then he’d restrict it to parodies only.

But imitating other writers, even if it gives a fascinating insight into their techniques, isn’t going to establish a new writer with an unmistakeable voice – the sort of semi-mythical, startling new voice that agents say leaps off the slush pile and transfixes their attention for hours. I guess agents spend enough time reading submissions that they’re the experts at spotting voice leaping from the written page. I tend towards the romantic notion that your writing personality is like a fingerprint or indelible watermark: uncontrollably unique like your spoken voice and the result of hundreds of thousands of experiences and encounters as well as reflecting your genetic personality. How it’s formed must be the subject of many literary PhDs –also witness the popularity of books like Claire Tomalin’s biography of Charles Dickens.

The spoken voice analogy is where the horribly blurry photo comes in at the top of this post. It shows books on promotion as Christmas presents at a local W.H.Smith branch.  It’s a collection mainly of celebrity memoirs and TV cookery tie-ins — which as the Guardian’s round up of Nielsen’s Bookscan sales figures shows comprised the bulk of the top sellers this year (apart from David Nicholls’s ‘One Day‘).

My wife was reading the Michael McIntyre book and said ‘You can imagine him speaking every single line of this’  and then I realised the stunningly obvious fact about the whole selection: the common factor shared by virtually every single one of these books is that they are purportedly written by (or about) people whose spoken voices are very familiar to the reading public — clearly McIntyre, the Hairy Bikers, James Corden, Lee Evans, Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall but also, in the collective memory, Steve Jobs and Jonny Wilkinson.

Knowing the public persona of the (supposed) author immediately changes the way a book is read. There’s no discovery process about the author (or the voice of the author) — if the author’s meant to be a celebrity then it immediately contextualises the words on the page for the reader.

I was flicking through Alison Baverstock’s ‘Marketing Your Book’ and noted another glaringly obvious (but revelatory) point she made: unlike repeatable commodities such as bread or milk or shoes, books aren’t bought more than once (except on occasion for presents and the like). That’s why publishers must love franchises. Readers might spend ages deliberating and prevaricating about trying something new but once they know they like an author then they’re hopeful of the same pleasurable experience again and will repeat purchase — part of the reason why book series are so attractive to publishers. It’s also inherent in the behaviour of book buyers — people go out to get the new Terry Pratchett, Lee Child, Sophie Kinsella and so on because they know they’ll encounter something familiar — if not the same characters then certainly the authorial voice.

Perhaps what’s most terrifying for putative writers who aren’t celebrities is the question of whether theirs is a voice that people want to hear? For a comedian or celebrity chef their written voice is something they don’t need to worry about making their own — the cover page and their TV appearance should see to that. But if it’s a first novel then the authorial voice will be new and unfamiliar (unless it’s an attempt at bandwagon-jumping and imitating someone else). That’s why activities that promote new writers, such as literary prizes and competitions, are so important. (Speaking of which, one of my ex-City coursemates — Bren Gosling whose blog is linked in the sidebar — has had the great news that the manuscript of his recently finished novel — ‘Sweeping Up the Village’ has been put on the longlist for the Harry Bowling prize 2011.)

A final point on the W.H.Smith display is to note how little fiction it contains — only the Martina Cole and the Christopher Paolini — and the Wimpy Kid book (if that counts). Perhaps that’s a little unfair as next to the shelves was a rack containing Richard and Judy’s latest seasonal selections — all recently-published fiction. What’s also startling is the predominance of books about sportsmen, comedians and cookery.

I guess a humorous novel about an ex-rugby-playing, TV cookery show contestant who leaves an IT job to run a gastropub might have a bit of appeal to a publisher’s marketing department at least. Let’s hope 2012 at least sees it finished.

Happy new year everyone — I’m hoping the next 12 months will see the publication of some of the great writing that’s been produced by my coursemates and other writing friends.

A Tense Debate

There’s an interesting post by Richard Lea on the Guardian books blog about Philip Pullman’s recently reported comments about the growing use of the present tense in novels — reflected by half the Man Booker shortlist being written in the present.

Pullman is reported to have said the use of present tense is becoming a cliché, adding ‘it’s a silly affectation, in my view, and it does nothing but annoy’. Hensher apparently said ‘Writing is vivid if it is vivid. A shift in tense won’t do that for you…What was once a rare, interesting effect is starting to become utterly conventional….[The present tense] is everywhere in the English novel, like Japanese knotweed.’

The novelists on the City University course had a varied approach to tenses and there was considerable experimentation by some people about whether past or present suited their novels. There were some examples of using both tenses — for example, present for the main story and past to denote flashbacks. The present tense certainly gives immediacy to a piece of writing — the Guardian blog suggests that its increased use might reflect our 24-hour news culture and the cultural impact of immediate informational gratification via the internet. Perhaps. The present tense seemed to work very effectively for two or three people when reading their pieces at our end of course event. (Another piece that made a big impression on agents avoided the simple past tense and used the past perfect, past continuous and past conditional.)

I doubt whether the present tense is as prevalent as reported, although the more ‘literary’ the aspirations of the writer, perhaps the more likely they are to experiment — maybe in a few years the past tense will be the daring, radical choice? As might be inferred from the example above, the past tense offers a writer far more variations in its use — although one of the missions of creative writing courses seems be to make to make the passivity of the past continuous tense almost as endangered as the adverb (and using less of both is usually the best policy). Good use of the present tense requires skill on the part of the writer. I was at a Q&A with a commissioning editor (of genre fiction) when she was asked what mistakes writers should avoid — ‘First person present’ she said as she received a lot of it and it was, in her opinion, almost impossible to pull off.

I’ve experimented with writing pieces in the present tense and enjoyed the effect — and I’ve also had my work re-written by someone else in the present tense and thought that had improved it. However, I’m quite happy to write my novel in the past tense, even if it reduces my chances of winning the Man Booker!

A Couple of Points About the Site

I’ve added an RSS link to The Guardian’s Book Blog site. I was looking at this site earlier today and there are plenty of interesting articles referenced from the blog — not just the latest three that pop up in the sidebar under RSS — so adding the link on the blog will hopefully remind me to take a look there a bit more often.

Also in the sidebar, under Recent Comments, is one from Carole Blake commenting on the Crisis of Confidence post. Quite remarkably, this is the author of the book ‘From Pitch to Publication’ that was referenced in the post. She is a leading London literary agent and is the Blake in the Blake Friedmann literary agency which, I discovered by a nice co-incidence is based about 200 yards from the office I worked in for five years near Mornington Crescent tube station. Her comment is fairly self-explanatory but it goes without saying that it was an extremely pleasant surprise to find that she had been reading this blog.