Thursday, March 26, 2015

Thursentary: Voice

Sometimes reading books is hard, like when there are a million words and you want to fall asleep and you have a problem where if you lose interest after five seconds you start daydreaming.

Other times, reading is incredibly easy, and you suddenly hear your alarm clock go off and realize, “Oh yeah, I was supposed to go to sleep.”

It’s an odd contrast, because they’re all the same words. Same ink. And they all tell stories—sometimes very interesting stories. The thing is, in these cases I do not believe it is the story itself, but how the story is told, that makes the difference.

Recently I read Autopista del Sur (Cortázar), Heart of Darkness (Conrad), and The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill But Came Down a Mountain (Monger).

Here is the interesting thing: Autopista del Sur was less than 20 pages, and it felt really long. Heart of Darkness hovered around the 100 page mark, maybe a little less, and that book went on forever and ever. Englishman was about 280 pages and it was a rapid read; it hardly took any time at all to devour.

Now, in numerical time, Englishman took the most time to read. But in perceived time, it did not. I have guesses as to why, with comparisons between all three books.

Autopista del Sur

  • short story, told mostly through narration 
  • little dialogue
  • lots of black space
  • most characters identified by their cars (instead of names)
  • discussion of social order and what happens when people are left to live on their own “islands”
  • in Spanish (which means it felt a little longer to me because reading in Spanish isn’t always easy)
  • hop-around characterization 
  • lots of action and continuous character updates
Basically the story, except for the car moves.

Heart of Darkness

  • novella, told almost completely through dialogue
  • little (formal) narration
  • lots of black space
  • many characters identified by their job or race
  • discussion of imperialism, various psychological forces, and morality
  • in English (which didn’t help)
  • focused characterization
  • TONS of figurative language
What would have been a welcome ending.

The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill But Came Down a Mountain

  • novel, told with quite a bit of jaunty narration, but an awful lot of dialogue, too
  • first person narration of a third-person omniscient story
  • lots of white space
  • characters identified by name, by job, by country (English vs. Welsh), and by local nickname
  • discussion of national pride, community relationships, religion, teamwork, friendship
  • in English (with the occasional Welsh word)
  • hop-around and focused characterization
  • also, I watched the movie first 
Exciting action in town with lovely mountain scenery in the back.

You’ll notice that a, I’m biased, and b, Englishman did a lot of things differently that I personally do not think are unique to novels alone.

Englishman is told from the point of view of a grandson, who is telling the stories he has pieced together since hearing them as a boy. He talks like a human being, but also has the ability to look into each character’s mind because he himself is outside the story.

There’s a good mix of dialogue and of narration. It flows back and forth, to fill in the gaps that the other cannot fill.

The characters are fantastic. The first chapter, which is all about names, is hilarious, and they are identified by things that strongly characterize them as well. They’re memorable!

My native language does help a little. But also getting to enjoy Welsh is fun, too.

The characterization flows depending on what the story needs.

And, I could enjoy the story because I read it for my pleasure, and I could find ways to understand it without risking a grade or getting concerned about the details I’d be tested on.
Englishman enthralled me, rather. It was filled with laughs and smiles, but at the same time it was filled to the brim with Monger’s Welsh spirit, because this story is about a town’s identity, and working hard and long to keep that identity strong.

Is it that HOD or Autopista were bad stories? No. Were they brilliant in their own rights? I’m sure.

But they’re academic stories, in a way. They’re long, filled with details and hidden meanings and criticisms of what is and was.

Englishman is too, but I didn’t find it academic in the slightest. I found it passionate. Witty. Excited, and filled with a memory of a people.

I’m just saying, but when you put that kind of spirit and voice into a book, it’s impossible for it to feel too long. And it’s why Englishman was so much more enjoyable for me.

How do you feel an author’s voice and choices lend to the story? Are there any authors who have a particular style or voice you dis/like?

(By the way, if you don't have an hour and forty minutes or more to read or watch Englishman, you can enjoy the two-minute summary that has nothing to do with the actual story but hey, it's Veggie Tales!)


  1. Oh, this was a really interesting point...I don't usually think about how the voice makes me feel about a book, but yeah, I do think that's a big factor in it. I know I keep bringing up Neal Shusterman, but I mean, I'm pretty sure he NAILS IT. Especially for Unwind. His writing voice there is fast-paced but smart and has a twist of wit in it. I loveeeee it. You can definitely tell when an author is passionate about the story or the subject, and it really rubs off on you, I think, and could affect your enjoyment of a book. It's like listening to someone talk, I guess: if /they're/ bored with what they're saying, you're probably going to be bored, too.

    1. The thing about good voice is usually you don't think about it being good voice. It's when the voice sucks that you realize. Neal Shusterman is an a-maz-ing example! His passion definitely makes the story for me, and I just roll over and die a lot. I like the way you say that—if you listen to someone who is bored, then you will be bored, too. Extra motivation to put a lot of heart into my own writing. :)

  2. It's funny--I've never read the other two books you mentioned, but I absolutely loved Heart of Darkness. This might be because I tend to go for darkly psychological stuff and also because I spent several childhood years in Africa. Also, it shouldn't be surprising that different people have different preferences when it comes to voice and tone and whatnot. Anyway, thanks for sharing. And eventually, when I'm not too swamped, I'll have to look up the other two books.

    1. Really? That is quite an accomplishment and I am impressed. I mean, I thought the dark psychological stuff was cool, it was just told in a way that didn't click in my brain. Like what you said, voice and tone is also an acquired taste. It's good to remember there are other sides to the argument. :)

  3. You read a whole book in Spanish?!? I'm learning German, and I don't think I could read a whole book in German and understand it without having to go to a translation dictionary every other word. Hopefully by senior year I'll be able to understand enough to comfortably read a whole book in German. Anyways, I definitely agree that voice plays a huge part in how much I enjoy a book. A strong voice can pull me into a story so that I lose track of time, and definitely raises my opinion of a book. It's also what a lot of agents and publishers look for.

    1. Autopista del Sur was actually a short story, but I have read a few books in Spanish! (Most notably my favorite book, because I'm weird like that.) I hope you keep learning German, too—it's fun learning other languages! Voices are interesting things, and they totally change our perspective on the book. You're right about agents and publishers, too; they don't want to publish something that is boring!


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