Writers, Readers & Wolf Hall

Of all the elements that make up writing, authorial voice is perhaps the most elusive.

The best definition I’ve heard of it is this: Voice is your writing sounding like you. In the same way one can identify a George Strait song via the particular flavor of his sound, the best writers have a style that distinguishes them from all others. If presented with a coverless, title-less Jane Austen novel, or a work by C. S. Lewis, I would  instantly know to whom the writing belongs. That personality, that authorial sound, is as particular as a face.

But developing your voice can be a rather frustrating cycle. I remember writing professors asserting that voice was the most critical part of the writing/publishing process. Faster than previous publication credits or industry connections, a strong, distinct voice will catch an editor’s eye.

Good writing will win out,

one instructor proclaimed. Given his second hat as a literary agent, his guidance seemed worth absorbing. Years later, I still try to follow that advice–to invest in honing my craft, rather than chasing trends. I still believe my authorial voice is my most valuable writing currency.

But this is where the frustrating part of the cycle can enter in. Though the value of a strong voice is well advertised, specific guidance on how to acquire that voice is thin to barely-existant.

That’s because voice truly is organic, internal, deeply individual. I’d like to say it’s something you have to stumble into, but that doesn’t quite capture the right balance of effort vs. instinct. You can leverage all the effort in the world, but voice comes from the soul–there’s no muscling it into being. And yet, the best way to uncover voice is to write, read, write, read. Because the more you deal in the currency of words, the more readily you recognize what is distinct in your own product.

It would be grievously incorrect to say I’ve “arrived” in terms of authorial voice. I’m sure my voice will continue to refine, transform, grow. But I knew I’d moved beyond parroting other writers and into a space more truly my own when I began subconsciously re-writing other authors’ works as I read. These “edits” were never grammatical and never (at least for books I enjoyed) corrections of bad writing. My authorial brain was simply beginning to better articulate this sentiment:

Were I penning this novel, I would have written something like this….

I was ready, for lack of a better term, to put the story into my own words. Because I’d developed a stronger sense of what those words might be.

My voice also began peeking out via my readers’ commentary. A few references to the visual nature of my writing and suddenly, like a revelation, I realized that yes, I value a pretty element to my writing. It’s import to me to conjure a stark or lovely or striking image; my writing isn’t mine without that quality. Similarly, after several readers noted the tight internal focus I keep on my characters, I realized that, too, was part of my DNA as a writer. Psychological intimacy is an element of my authorial signature.

Realizing I’d taken a leap down the road of voice was a magical moment. When you’re in a field peopled by practitioners whose work you admire deeply, there’s an ever-present temptation to mimicry. I could never hope to rival colleagues like George Elliot and Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Gabriel Garcia Marquez and John Keats. But there’s a joy in breaking away to create something that is truly yours.

In writing, uniqueness can be a hard-won gift.

But sometimes what distinguishes us is simultaneously a barrier and an invitation. Late to the party as usual, I’m only now reading Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall. Mantel has had an incredible career, being the first woman to win two Booker Prizes (an award given for the best English-language novel published that year [American authors excluded]). The first was for her 2009 Tudor Court novel Wolf Halland the second for its 2012 sequel, Bring up the Bodies. Having nearly finished the first of these, I understand their acquired accolades.

But I must be honest: my enjoyment of Mantel’s novel required a bit of instruction. Here, I owe a few shout-outs: one to my beautiful friend Lea, and another to the brilliant bookstore she introduced me to, Blue Willow Bookshop of Houston, Texas.

Billed as a “neighborhood” bookshop, Blue Willow is of the sadly thinning breed of independent bookstores. No disrespect to  Barnes & Noble–I’m grateful to any entity that gets English-language books to me even while I’m living in China–but small shops like Blue Willow have a soul to them that cannot replicated by big box stores. Walking into Blue Willow was like traipsing into my childhood. This quaint shop may have the square footage of a grade-school classroom, but every wall is jammed with volumes. Author events are  scheduled regularly, and story time for children is hosted every Thursday morning. Light streams in the windows bracketing the residential-style front door, and plush toys keep the picture books company. Best of all–at least from my adult perspective–are Blue Willow’s booksellers.

Really what I’d like to call them is book consultants, because they know their books. They make careful decisions about what they shelve, cultivating a true collection rather than simply stocking whatever happens into their hands. Ask for a reading suggestion and they’ll respond with refining questions until they know just what you’re looking for–then comes the tailor-made recommendation. Months before Divergent was on every Young Adult enthusiast’s lips, Blue Willow pressed copies into Lea’s and my hands.

When I popped into Blue Willow interested in Wolf Hall, I was in luck. My “book consultant” that day was passionate about history, had even majored in it; she actually steers clear of historical fiction, as some authors are looser than she likes with historic settings and events. She assured me that Ms. Mantel had done her research very thoroughly, unfolding it accurately in her storytelling.

With such an endorsement, I eagerly purchased the book, as I’m a bit of a history nerd myself. Such a positive review of the novel’s research foundations had me anticipating Wolf Hall‘s being a bit dense. I was pleasantly surprised by the almost conversational tone to the writing, by the highly personable narrating character, Thomas Cromwell.

But a particular bit of guidance provided by my Blue Willow bookseller was critical to my enjoying Wolf Hall–whenever you hit a confusing scene that refers to an unidentified “he” or into a dialogue where “he” could refer to any of the speakers, assume that “he” is Cromwell.

That bit of advice absolutely saved Wolf Hall for me. Mantel’s voice is crisp and clear, confident and guiding, but I’ve never read anything so riddled with unclear pronoun references. Generally, this is considered to be among the “Common Errors” of English-language writing; if multiple males exist in a scene and it is not clear which is being referenced by the term “he”, this is classically considered poor English.

The frequency of this “error” in Wolf Hall, coupled with the novel’s critical recognition, make it obvious that this tendency of Mantel’s is neither a case of carelessness nor sloppy editing. This “pronoun error” is tactical. Perhaps this is meant to break down barriers between the reader and Cromwell, so the narrator/reader relationship is more intimate. Perhaps it’s meant to make Thomas Cromwell an everyman type of character, as Wolf Hall repeatedly emphasizes that Cromwell’s rise to power in the Tudor court is particularly stunning given his status as a common man, the son of an alcoholic blacksmith.

Regardless, I’ve now chatted with several people who set Wolf Hall aside because of the confusion caused by this tactic. These readers got a little too lost a little too often–and without Blue Willow’s guidance, I might have, too. Certainly, my reading Wolf Hall would have been a much more frustrating experience.

Which begs the question: Where is that line dividing desirable uniqueness in authorial voice from confusing convolution? It is so critical that a writer’s voice be special, identifiable as a fingerprint. But it is a delicate dance an author does when that uniqueness begins to cost intelligent, avid readers. Artistic vagueness can be a beautiful tool; I’m trying to refine this in my own work. But by what metric do you judge when elusiveness has gone too far, becoming a barrier to readership?

Certainly, no author can be all things to all readers; perhaps Mantel’s lack of appeal to some readers is more down to their taste than any obstacle in her authorial voice. I’ve had friends rave to me about their favorite authors, only to find myself underwhelmed by the same; my own recommendations have occasionally produced similar effects. I loved Lauren Groff’s Monsters of Templeton for its delicate blend of early American literature and Groff’s own fictional creations; my mom only pushed through to its finish in the hope of eventually discovering why I’d been so excited about it.

In the end, reader preference is nearly as elusive a thing as authorial voice. But not quite. Reader responses offers many breadcrumbs along the path of discovering what works and what doesn’t. The quiet in which authorial voice is courted is an ambiguous space, foggy, and mostly tread alone.

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