Friday, October 9, 2009

Influence and Voice

Yesterday, Lady Glamis posted about voice, which got me thinking. About voice. In my last novel, which is set in 16th-century Europe and plunders Shakespeare's "Hamlet," my narrator and all the characters speak in a sort of modernized Elizabethan speech. It's very distinctive but nothing at all like the way I write or speak in real life. My current work-in-progress is set in 18th-century Colonial America, and while I'm not totally sure how my characters should talk yet (still doing research on that), the narrative voice is more modern than in my last book, but still has a sort of formal, old-fashioned tone. Again, it's not how I talk or write in real life.

As I said in my comment yesterday to Lady Glamis' post, I think that beneath the narrative voices lies my own authorial voice somewhere, which presents in the way the rhythms of the prose work, in word choice, in sentence and paragraph construction. Even though the Hamlet-based book was heavily influenced by the language of Shakespeare, and my current book is heavily influenced by the language of Hemingway and Melville and possibly people like Thomas Hardy and Charles Dickens, I think that not only does each book have its own unique voice, they both also have my own unique voice.

Which gets me thinking about influence upon authorial voice. Davin Malasarn, as anyone who's read his posts for any length of time should know, is a big fan of Count Leo Tolstoy. Yet Davin's writing doesn't sound like Tolstoy, it sounds like Davin. Which is good, because I am a big fan of Mr. Malasarn's writing. His book ROOSTER is written in a clear, shining voice that gives space for the characters to act and the reader to see. My own prose, despite my love of Hemingway, is dense and can become overcrowded with multiple meanings if I don't watch myself. So how much actual influence is there on us from the writers we admire most? What is it that we take from reading their works? What, exactly, is the influence Tolstoy is having on Davin and what is the influence Hemingway is having on me?

I think there might be a large gap between our favorite authors and the stamp those writers make on our writing. Which is curious and strange but I think it's true. I think that when we really admire to the point, maybe, of worshipping some writer, they may have less actual impact on us than writers we don't love as much.

When I wrote my very first novel about 15 years ago, I was trying very hard to write in the style of Flannery O'Connor, a sort of bizarre religion-centered Southern Gothic darkness. That novel is really awful, so bad that I gave up writing for about a decade in fact, but in a lot of ways I got the O'Connor voice on the page. But I'll never try that hard again to imitate another writer, at least not consciously. I have since then learned that I write better when I'm not trying to copy someone else.

Also, I think that when we really admire a writer, as we come into our own as writers and start to find our own authorial voices, we avoid anything that sounds like our writing heroes, even if we don't know we're doing it. I want to write like Hemingway, but I don't want to have written something that's a rip-off of Hemingway or anyone else. I think Davin won't write like Tolstoy because Davin is trying to write like Davin. Possibly, what each of us wants is to have the command of craft that our favorites have, to command the same affect upon readers these guys pulled off. But not so much to sound like them. Maybe.

I know that reading a lot of Shakespeare has given me a new appreciation of the way words sound together, and of the games you can play with double-meanings in dialogue. I know that Hemingway has given me an appreciation of clarity and simply saying what you mean. Flannery O'Connor had a great economical way of describing action that I admire and try to emulate. Melville enjoyed the sound of his own voice and really understood the concept of telling details. Dostoyevski and Gunter Grass and A.S. Byatt know how to show people at their best and their worst, to create deep characters that remain with readers. I've tried to learn from all of these people, but I don't think I sound like any of them. If there was one thing I would like to still learn, it would be maybe Ivan Turgenov's way of relaxing into the prose and making the reader see the broad sweep of the landscape surrounding the action, all with a couple of sentences.

So we come to the questions du jour: Who are your favorite writers? Do you try to write like them or not? What's the one thing you'd like to learn from another writer?


  1. My favorite writer is Terry Pratchett, by far. I adore other specific works by other scribes though: King's Dark Tower, Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, Green's Nightside series, Butcher's Dresden Files, and Nix's Sabriel trilogy to name a few. But Pratchett's the only one that I regularly come back to and even re-read his work.

    I don't want to write like Pratchett because, for starters, I'm not writing satirical fantasy. Although the steampunk works I play in lend themselves to satire easily, I feel like there are other people who can do that better than me, so I'd prefer to compose the best story I can instead. Whether it's riotously funny or not.

    In terms of what I want to learn from another writer: I'd like to learn the way Stephen King crafts characters that are anathema to who he himself is, and does it so well.

  2. I love some of my fellow Kentucky born or bred authors, like Bobbie Ann Mason, Marsha Norman, Barbara Kingsolver. They are my favorite writers.

    I wouldn't say that I try to mimic their voices, but I hope to create a semi-southern voice of my own in my writing.

    There is not one thing I would like to learn from them... there are a thousand things. :)

  3. This is an excellent post, Scott. I admire any writer who can touch me deeply with their prose, their characters, their action. When it all comes together and sticks with me, I know that they're a favorite of mine. Annie Dillard is one. Flannery O'Connor is one. Shakespeare is one. Davin is one. My friend Natalie is one. I've read many things from unpublished writers that have affected the way I write forever. Diving into a novel of someone's - where they're still learning to find their voice and strengthen it - can be an amazing experience.

    I've never tried to exactly copy any author, but I certainly let other writing I admire influence the way I write. It takes a lot of insight and reflection for me to understand what about the writing is influencing me. When I get to the point where I understand it, I can consciously (or even unconsciously on many levels) let those voices flavor mine just a little bit. I can't wait to read your book. I'm sure it will affect me!

  4. Hunter S. Thompson is one of my favorite authors, and it used to be to a fault. Seven years ago, back in college, I tried to emulate him (like thousands of other male undergrads, I'm sure). All my writing was dark and filled with drugs. I tried to punch readers in the stomach with my prose (Bukowski and Palahniuk were influences, too).

    Then I realized that there could be only one Hunter, and I needed to find my own voice. Now my writing is lighter, with less drugs and more comedy.

    But if you look closely, there's definitely still some Hunter in there.

  5. Jane Austen is one of my favorites and Dostoyevski and Shannon Hale. I could list a ton here actually. I've never really tried to sound like someone else. I think I try to sound more popular than I should. I go up and down though.

  6. This is a really fascinating topic, Scott. Thanks for going into it. I think you're right that there is some sort of separation between the writer and the writer's she or he admires. And, I have no idea why that is the case.

    I'll say that for me, I DON'T go out of my way to sound different from Tolstoy. But, still the separation exists. I think this comes from the fact that I don't think Tolstoy is without his flaws. I don't admire, for example, his tone, so that's one thing I would try to steal. Instead, for tone, I'd look to someone like Faulkner. And, I look to other writers like Banana Yoshimoto (for prose style), Gunter Grass (for character), as well. Perhaps it is that combination that causes the separation. In trying to steal from so many people, we are bound to end up with something different. And, I think we also have a hard escaping ourselves. Even if I WANTED to sound exactly like Tolstoy, I probably couldn't. I just wouldn't be good enough, if you would call that good.

    Lastly, Harold Bloom suggested the idea that great writers have emerged from MISreading their heroes. To put it briefly, I may think that I'm stealing perfectly from Tolstoy, but I may not be reading him in the same way that anyone else is. So, my attempts to copy him could end up as a new thing. We all read different things from books, and that comes through.

  7. MattDel: I think you're right to mention re-reading as a sign of who we truly admire. There are few books I've read more than once.

    Maybe, you know, Stephen King has a dark side we don't know about...

    Amber: I love Barbara Kingsolver. "The Poisonwood Bible" is great. The first page is amazing, with the line about the forest eating itself.

    Michelle: You've mentioned Dillard before, and I haven't read her. Recommend me something. We'll trade manuscripts soon!

    Dan: I had a friend in college who also fell under the Thompson influence, so bad he ended up in rehab. Me, I was stealing from Burroughs at the time. I still have a thing about weird situations cropping up out of nowhere, but now I admire his straight reportage-style prose best.

    Lois: I almost talked about Austen in this post, but I got distracted by O'Connor. What do you mean "too popular?"

    Davin: I think Bloom might be onto something with his theory of misreadings. Some musician (I forget who) once said that he hears people who've taken bits from him, but they're always the things in his playing that he likes the least and is trying to eliminate.

    I am also willing to admit that I might be dead wrong about all of my own theories of influence. It's possible that I don't even know who I try to emulate on a subconscious, day-to-day writing level. Like Michelle says, it takes a lot of insight to see how we're being influenced. Maybe the people I point to as "favorites" are favorites because their writing is so very different from my own? I'm a big fan of Nabokov, but by the time I finish reading a book of his I'm always furious with him and I never want to read him again. Until I do.

    Yet I still think that the answer to who we are as writers is mostly answerable by looking at who we've been as readers. How it all works, though, is anybody's guess.

  8. For many years my favorite writer (for thrillers) has been Dean Koontz. I greatly admire his ability to keep his readers on the edge of their seats. A lot of his novels are fast paced, but yet, the stories I write aren't thrillers and copying his pacing would destroy my work.

  9. Scott, I am so intrigued by your "bizarre religion-centered Southern Gothic darkness"-esque novel...

    I so get this post--it is part of how reading widely can start to make one's own writing a bit schizo at times. Depending on what I am reading I can want my work to be as brilliant and funny as Jonathan Franzen's, as beautiful and profound as Arundhati Roy's, as clear and precise as Ha Jin's, as over-the-top-walking-that-line-between-genius-and-crazy as Zadie Smith's, etc., etc., etc.

    I think a good solution when you feel yourself miming someone else's style is Davin's suggestion--write quickly. You can fix it later, but at least what you are fixing is likely to be your own voice.

  10. If I could learn to do foreshadowing and consistent character the way Jane Austen did, I would be happy happy happy. Everything her characters say and do fits with their 'character,' and it all seems to hint at things to come. My foreshadowing, now that I'm starting to try to include some, feels obvious to me, and sometimes I worry my characters aren't doing what they'd do, they're doing what I want them to do. I don't think I'll ever write 'like' Jane Austen, but I wouldn't mind writing just as well as she did.

  11. Thanks Amber for mentioning Barbara Kingsolver...I'll have to re-read her again when I have the next opportunity.

    And I agree with Lady Glam -- "...let other writing I admire influence the way I write." I tend to do the same thing, and then after I realize what I've done, I hurry to change it, as if I've been caught stealing.

    I've been writing in the 18th and 19th centuries for so long, it's habit. And it's hard to break especially when I start something contemporary. What's worse is when I've been embedded in 18th century England for quite some time and I find myself TALKING like that. Very embarrassing to be sure.

    Thanks for the great post everyone.

  12. I love Flannery. Her: A Good Man is Hard to Find is so good. And The Misfit is paying for a crime he didn't commit or did he? Great stuff!

    You can definitely tell when you're reading something of Flannery's. So her voice comes through. That's how I want mine to be. Instantly recognizable. :)

  13. Scott, by "too popular" I mean that I let a popular culture voice enter in more than my own personal voice sometimes thinking that it will appeal more to teens.


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