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Blog : Posts tagged with ‘Alasdair Gray’

The Writer's Voice

In which FP reads, and learns more about writing as a result

Writing this post from the other week, with its long rant about the poor quality of the worldbuilding in BBC3’s Being Human, has made me think more in general about the quality of writing, and the quality of my own writing. After all, am I in a position to excoriate other people’s ability to write and worldbuild, when I don’t exactly have much to demonstrate on my own behalf there?

It set my brain off on a tangent, though. Not so much about worldbuilding, but about the authorial voice. Because that’s something I used to worry about, years back: I would never be any good at writing because I didn’t have my own voice. If you read any of my prose, there would be nothing at all distinctive about it. Whether that was true back then, back when I used to worry about such things, I don’t know, and I have no real desire to go back and read anything that old. It probably isn’t true any more, though. Certainly, one of the things K likes about my blog posts is that, she says, in my writing I sound just as I do when I speak.

I’ve been a reader since I was small: I’ve been able to read since before memory, since before virtually all of my memories, so I have no conception of what it feels like to see words and not understand them. Ever since I started reading for myself, though, I’ve been a silent reader, a very quick reader, and I also tend to be a very poor reader. Because I’m a quick reader I skim too much. I miss things. I miss things out, have to go back, don’t notice Important Plot Points and don’t take in any of the craft involved in the work. However, I think I’ve found a solution to this. I’ve started reading things aloud, and it has turned around the way I look at writing.

What started all this was: I’d just started reading a book I’ve had sitting around unread for a couple of years almost, Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel.* Only on the second or third chapter, we had to take a plane journey, and K didn’t have anything interesting herself to read. “Read to me?” she asked. So, since, I’ve been reading a passage of Wolf Hall to her in bed every evening. It’s been a couple of months now; reading aloud is much slower than reading silently, and we’re not awake enough for a chapter** every single night. In doing it, I’ve learned a lot about syntax, prosody, and prosody’s representation. Hilary Mantel has been one of my favourite novelists for many years now,*** and Wolf Hall, award-winning and all, is very readable, but it’s not always the easiest novel to read aloud. Its long sentences are just slightly too long for comfort in the voice: lists of things, and there are many lists of things, always have one term too many to easily read aloud. Her authorial voice is very readable, very concise and very accessible, but her sentences are sometimes a little too long to know automatically where the stresses are intended to fall. Which isn’t to deny that it is, absolutely, an excellent novel; it just isn’t perfect for me to read aloud, at least not without a rehearsal.

Wolf Hall‘s sequel will be coming out before too long, and no doubt will be something I will read to K at some point. In the meantime, we are assembling a list of books to be read: The Third Policeman after last week’s opera;**** some Peter Ackroyd, such as Dan Leno And The Limehouse Golem; maybe Lanark, although that will be a mammoth adventure. In the meantime, I am taking a lot from reading aloud. It makes me confident that I do have a voice when I write, a voice I can manipulate if I want to. It makes me confident, too, that I have a readable voice, a voice that might be publishable. Most importantly, it has helped an awful lot to reconnect the craft of writing with the act of reading. The two, obviously, are very closely linked; but I think I’d forgotten just how closely linked they are. I think I’d forgotten to write for the reader.

* I can tell you where I started reading it, too: waiting for a train in Frankfurt an der Oder.

** Strictly speaking, it would be very hard to read a chapter every night, because Wolf Hall has very uneven chapter lengths. Some are getting on for a hundred pages of the book; others are no more than two or three.

*** At root, her earlier historical novel about the lives of Robespierre, Danton and Desmoulins is one of the things to blame for the time I got myself on the telly the other year.

**** Tricky, with all its footnotes.

Cutthroat

In which we go all grand guignol

Before going off on holiday, we popped down to York to see Sweeney Todd, the new Tim Burton version of the Sondheim musical. It contains, as you might expect from a Tim Burton film, a lovely, dark, damp and grimy version of 19th-century London, albeit one with a rather anachronistic Tower Bridge opening near the start.*

I’m not normally a fan of musicals, but I rather liked this one, despite feeling slightly ill by the end at the amount of blood spurting around in best grand guignol style.** I loved Sacha Baron Cohen’s performance as a barber-showman with prominant genitalia, and I even guessed the ending twist (although not the direction it would be coming from). He’s a very good mechanic, too, Sweeney Todd, knocking up a mechanical barber’s chair overnight; I never did work out where he got all his pinions from. And as Mrs Lovett explained how all the blood and waste was poured down into the sewer, it occurred to me that back then nobody would have noticed anyway. Back then the sewer was the River Fleet, which daily ran red with blood and offal from Smithfield Market upstream.

Above all, though, the film reminded me of one of my favourite books, Alasdair Gray’s Lanark. On a superficial level: the almost constantly dark and smoky London of the film reminded me of Lanark‘s fictional and Hadean city of Unthank, with its constantly dark skies. Moreover, though, it was the film’s sense of alienation, between rich and poor, between ruler and oppressed, which made me think of the book.*** Todd’s alienation and disconnection from the London population, caused by his unjust transportation to Australia, lead directly to his sociopathy and psychopathy. It echoes the defining line that isn’t actually in Lanark**** but which sums up much the themes of that novel: “Man is the pie that bakes and eats itself, and the recipe is separation.”

* it wasn’t built until about 90 years after Todd was supposedly around, in most of the versions of the story which give him a date.

** “It looked more like paint,” said Mystery Filmgoer afterwards, laughing. “It was too brightly coloured, more like the blood you get from superficial cuts – arterial blood is darker.”

*** Some of the lyrics also echo George Orwell’s famous quote about “a boot stamping on a human face forever”.

**** The line never appears whole and complete as I’ve quoted it here, but fragments of it are repeated many times through the book.