A Voice Analysis of a Body (of Fictional Work)

In a continual analysis of the way I’m writing, in building a new collection of fictions, I find there’s a need to be aware of the way of writing that is taking place ‘now’. That is, it keeps changing: what is it now? I’m of the opinion that a writer needs to be in touch with the idea that analysis of their own writing is important. Even in streams of consciousness writing, we can analyse the process. Being able to deconstruct certain elements in the writing or reading process (if not necessarily in writing that all down, then at least in thought), contributes towards a fuller whole. A body of work can be read in various ways: simple chronology of works created forms a basic frame of reference; maybe that body of work can also be read by way of deflections in and out of themes, motifs, structural arrangements, influences, ways of representing concepts and characters, etc.; maybe the body of work can be read by way of individual voices, or tones of the same voice, within the whole.

The trouble with writing a collection that follows a broad theme, but yet is intended as an array of situations and characters, and which allows for deflections in and out of all the above in the previous paragraph, is that one strong piece written in a certain manner becomes the unintended benchmark. This is an aside, yet something discovered in the process of analysis. That a piece can be strong in its own right, without a need for it to have to correlate with the strengths of the other piece, is something that might need embracing. Matching fictions within a collection against each other might well end up converging on the same way of writing: the same first or third person point of view, the same archetypal characters, crucibles or conflicts, resolutions, and/or patterns in twists in the tales.

In analysis of the individuality of fictions found in various notebooks, as the weeks go by, I’m left wondering about the individual voices contained within each, and whether they’re on the path towards aggregating into some coherent whole. That is, the authoritative, the reflective, the defensive (maybe), the unreliable, might converge into something substantial; yet the ‘now’ being such as it is, we’re not to know. Can we leave it to trust, or should we hone in on one strand (because at least then we know what the end result will have the feel of)?

A recent TV documentary about psychological studies into preferred human states concluded that we tend towards people who present as authoritative. Similarly, in our reading we prefer a strong hand, someone to lead the way in the writing, telling us that this is the way things are. We don’t want someone to be evasive or unsure. We want to be taken somewhere and they can steer. We’ll just enjoy the ride. This is true.

Is this true? I’m often drawn to writers who offer me a chance to think for myself, by way of their reflection, or their device of reflecting so as to draw me into what they want to say. In Dark Back of Time, Javier Marías writes in the very first line: ‘I believe I’ve still never mistaken fiction for reality, though I have mixed them together more than once.’ Similarly, in Jeanette Winterson’s Written on the Body, her first line offers a thought: ‘Why is the measure of love loss?’

My next logical step from reflection is the possible defensive. The tone that is ‘I write this because I have to’, as I read it, often opens windows into the writer’s body of work. ‘Having to’ being an implication of the dark draw or gravitational pull of words that will out, no matter what. Franz Kafka wrote a series of meditations that he, perhaps, would have preferred not to be published. In The Men Running Past, he writes: ‘If one is walking along a street at night and a man who can be seen a long way off . . . comes running towards us, then we shan’t lay hands on him . . . after all, haven’t we a right to be tired, haven’t we drunk so much wine?’ Writing because the writing needs to be laid down can be less dour than this. An injection of energy, because the energy of the moment requires it, will run through the whole. In this way it’s real.

Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita could be the epitome of unreliable narration. Within this strand of thinking — that we can fuse reality and fiction as writers and leave the reader wondering which is which — is a constant fascination for this writer: it’s akin to trying to differentiate the blurred line between indoor and outdoor space (when there are no doors, no marks, just some indication of a possible roof overhead). Or it links to cartography and the way that maps of the edges of islands are never correct: if the map marks the high tide line, or the average tide, this is still never the exact shape of the island at any given moment. What is the exact definition of inside/outside, outline of island, reality/fiction in a piece of writing? This individual way of writing is a strong pull.

Can we leave the potential aggregation of voices (tones of the same voice) to trust (the authoritative, the reflective, the defensive, the fusion of reality/fiction or unreliably natured)? Will trust result in a coherent voice in the whole? Analysis and deconstruction, at least, help this writer to understand the writing of the ‘now’.

Of the Destruction of a Writer’s Words: an Analysis

In a recent interview by Nick Higham, of the BBC’s Meet the Author slot, Rick Gekoski asks why some writers don’t just destroy their own work themselves, rather than rely on the actions of trusted others after their own deaths. It’s a question he repeats in reference to different writers, and it leaves me wondering on certain aspects of the writer’s psyche.

In talking about the release of his book, Lost, Stolen, or Shredded, Gekoski refers to both Franz Kafka and the diarist Philip Larkin in this way. The book, as I understand it, is concerned with various works of art which have or may have fallen to the titular outcome. Gekoski cites Kafka’s request to his friend, Max Brod, asking that his writings be destroyed after his death. Brod didn’t adhere to this request, evidently concluding that the literary worth of Kafka’s writings should supersede the writer’s own desires. Gekoski also tells the story of Larkin’s request to have his extensive, and potentially damning, diaries destroyed after his death.

Kafka and Larkin could both have destroyed their own work themselves, but they didn’t, Gekoski says. He wonders why this could be.

The following is purely speculative. In the first instance, a writer may fall into the camp of having been so immersed in his writing, so touched by it, so affected in any given way, that to destroy his own words is tantamount to heresy. It is the cardinal sin because it is the destruction of creation. There are writers who don’t fall into this camp, of course. These are the writers who see little worth in their scribblings, rough drafts, musings, and on towards their final polished pieces. These writers might see their works as a means to an end: that they keep the rent paid, food on the table, etc., is a mindset that can be found if delving into the body of literature at our disposal.

That a writer is unable to destroy his own work is, of course, more complex than this though. If Freudian models of the human psyche are to believed, varying degrees of impurity can be poured into the general mix (this mix, up till now, being the altruistic purity that’s about ‘the creation and giving of words’): the ego becomes embroiled in the process, the super-ego niggles away, the id is let loose amongst it all.

The ego is the mask that we wear. If Kafka and Larkin asked that their writings be destroyed (when they could have done this themselves), what masks after death are they asking to be fitted with? I wish to be presented as noble? I wish to be seen, despite face value, as a great writer after all (knowing the double bluff is in operation and my work won’t be destroyed)?

The super-ego is the referee. If we wish our work to be destroyed, though our egos say otherwise, what fights are going on internally? That we can genuinely see if our writing is less than fit is a reflective skill; yet the ego is a powerful demon in us (if we believe in ego at all, that is; though that’s another story). Perhaps we all fall foul of this internal struggle in which the demon mask so often trumps the little accountant of our writerly soul: it may be weak writing, but publish anyway because there is a need to be read.

The id is the impulsive instinctive. Perhaps Kafka and Larkin, as with all of us who write, genuinely did feel that their words should be returned to their constituent parts. Larkin, perhaps, had different motivations: his diaries were, by Gekoski’s account, not likely to present the author in a terribly good light. Kafka may have felt similarly, but with other emphasis. Either way, the writer’s fight or flight mechanism may have a strong part to play here. Run away from potential writerly immortality: let it all go. Maybe, even after death, the writer’s ego pervades: let it all go and the disembodied ego is not so bruised.

Of course, when all is said and done, it’s not so simple to place the reasons why a writer doesn’t destroy his own work and then requests another to do this for him. If there are concerns at the heresy of destroying a creation, the egotistical desire to remain after death, the desire to flee the possibility of being an intrinsic part of the body of literature, then there are also internal squabblings and spiteful self-deceits at play.

We can’t always help the dynamics of these internal actions: we can only be aware that they are there. The writer who does not wish to destroy his own words, but then asks that another does this for him after his death, should perhaps have some honest conversation with himself as to the reasons why he requests what he does. It may be prudent for him to write these reasons down. At least his followers will then know; though what he writes could, of course, cause further questioning of his noble self, or otherwise, his ego and other manifestations of his psyche.

First Impressions and Irrational Readers

[Umberto Eco] shares moments when loyal readers have tried to dissolve the lines between his fictional world and the real world, whilst others have discovered minute holes in his veil of realism.

— Yosola Olorunshola

Yosola writes this in commenting on a previous post of mine, and I find it also sparks off further thoughts, for me, about the ‘truth’ of fiction and the ‘truth’ of the writer. Sometimes, as readers, we’re willing to forgive the writing misdemeanours of our favourite authors because they are our favourites, or because we’ve been with them for longer than we can remember: misdemeanours such as holes in the inner world of the book, in plot, in characterisation, language use, grammar, syntax, etc.

Sometimes, however, we come across the writing of an author we’ve never read before. This is a dangerous moment for that author, even if they don’t know it. On the face of it, what does it matter to them if that one copy doesn’t get sold, or if that one copy sold and read doesn’t amount to further work being touched? Perhaps it does matter.

In his excellent book, Irrationality (1992), Professor Stuart Sutherland highlights what’s known in psychology circles as the ‘primacy error’ and the ‘halo effect’. The primacy error occurs, he writes, ‘because when connected material (such as a newspaper article or lecture) is presented, the interpretation of the later material is coloured by the earlier.’ It’s a form of first impressions count. Sutherland goes on to say something we’ve often been told regarding job interviews: namely, that interviewers are known to make up their minds about an interviewee quite quickly; Sutherland says that the interviewer then conducts the rest of the interview trying to confirm their first impressions.

The halo effect, Sutherland writes, happens ‘if a person has one salient [that is ‘available’ or obvious] good trait, his other characteristics are likely to be judged by others as better than they really are.’ I shall come back to this.

I think here about writers who I’ve only recently ‘met’. That is, I think about writers whose pages I’ve only just got round to reading. Kazuo Ishiguro is one of these writers. I’ve heard of The Remains of the Day, but I’ve never read it. I don’t know if I will. It’s not that Ishiguro’s writing is bad in his story collection, Nocturnes (I read the whole book and it didn’t make me stumble with issues of fiction/reality, plot, characterisation, language use, grammar, syntax, etc.) — I was just expecting better. That’s all.

I’m well aware that the primacy error could well kick in and any future work I might read of his could become coloured by my reading of Nocturnes. The opposite effect to the halo effect is what Sutherland calls the ‘devil effect’. Ishiguro, for me, is now pictured in a certain way, with a certain writerly trait that projects itself, unfairly perhaps, beyond his other abilities. I consider myself an intelligent enough person and I’m aware of what’s going on under the surface of my thinking. I may give him another read some time; I may just forget my rational thinking, however, and let irrationality play itself out, steering clear of the ‘I’ section on bookshop shelves.

Lilian Faschinger falls into the same category. I have her novel, Magdalena the Sinner, sitting on my bookshelf at home. I’ve had it for several years and I may just have been attracted to the cover (I must have seen something in it). Maybe I was swayed, that day in the bookshop, by a line in her author bio: Lilian Faschinger holds a PhD in English Literature from the University of Graz. I have tried, I really have, several times, to read this book; however, the author chooses to write as the narrator to her captive priest, and it’s clunky, awkward, jarring. I can never get more than a few pages in.

Perhaps, for me, Faschinger occupies a slightly different territory to that of Ishiguro: I want her to be good; Ishiguro I expected to be so. I tuck her back up on the shelf again.

How co-incidental that she sits there exactly next to Italo Calvino. Calvino can do no wrong. I read his Invisible Cities whilst immersed in architecture over twenty years ago now. There’s a halo hanging over that slim volume because of my immersion in such study, I suspect. Even now his writing has a knock-on effect: other writers who also write about Venice seem to benefit from Calvino’s halo.

Authors flirt with dangerous moments when their writing is picked up by a potential reader. What does it matter to them if that one copy doesn’t get sold? It matters because, as Professor Sutherland points out, humans are irrational creatures. First impressions have lasting effects.