I’ve been with BiblioBuffet for nearly three years. I’ve loved working with Lauren and Nicki and I shall miss it. During that time, I’ve encountered books from so many directions that I thought I’d leave you with thoughts from three directions, as a last word on three years of bookish writing. There will be more bookish writing in my future, I have no doubt about that, but it won’t be with BiblioBuffet and I shall be the poorer for it.
1. I’ve read nearly all of the novels for my category as a judge of the 2012 Aurealis Awards and there’s some really good writing this year. There’s very little bad writing.
Some good writers have developed curious habits, however. There are (unfortunately) too many writers who make all their characters—no matter what their background—sound the same. Some of the characters are in worlds other than ours, some are from far futures, some are from exotic places and alternate timelines, but an awful lot of them sound as if the authors have only ever paid attention to one person’s speech.
I only have one pile of books left to read (but more ought to be in the mail) and I’m hoping that the speech patterns and the dialogue in those are a bit more considered than the ones I’ve read in the last few days. I don’t demand that dialogue be natural, only that it be credible and, honestly, all characters speaking with but one voice is most credible in Clone Wars and least credible in Young Adult fiction. If there was a school clique and they tried to sound alike to create a feeling of cool and to make themselves important, I’d accept that, but this is not an excuse that fits any of the books I’m complaining about.
My personal favourites to win so far do not have this speech defect. They also have other things going for them. Lots of other things. There are a number of things one has to do right for me to like your novel enough to long list it. Getting speech right is just one thing of many. Right now, though, that one thing is bugging me more than almost anything else.
“Almost,” because I fear I am equally irritated by lazy world-building. It’s credibility again. It doesn’t matter how amazing the premise of a novel is, if the world doesn’t feel real, it’s hard for a reader to lose themselves in it. I’m very happy to allow for tropes and standard ways of doing things as part of credibility, but I’m not happy when ideas are only half thought through and the reader can’t create a proper picture from it.
In an ideally built world, I always say that the reader ought to be able to feel as if they can walk down the streets. In a credibly built world, the reader at least has to know if there are streets at all. Different aspects of world-building are important in different types of novels: in some cultural differentiation is key and in others how a machine works is crucial. A writer needs to know what is important for the novel they’re writing and to feed that information to the reader, within the story. If the writer hasn’t developed that world quite enough in the right directions, then an emptiness can result, or the reader can add all sorts of thoughts or objects from their own background and understanding and those thoughts or objects may make sense or they may make a total nonsense of the tale. It’s hit or miss, if the writer hasn’t thought the world through initially.
The real problem is, of course, that these novels wouldn’t suffer nearly as much if I read them alone. The fact that I’m reading all the Australian Young Adult speculative fiction novels published in a calendar year and I’m reading them in a few short weeks means that where ten different writers make the same idiot mistake then that idiot mistake shows rather clearly.
These errors are avoidable. So many of these novels could have been so much better. More careful world-building and closer attention to how characters sound and whether that particular story requires stronger diversity in voices are the two biggest points of differentiation between the more standard novels (the ones that fit most cleanly into a genre or sub-genre) that make my long list and the ones that don’t. The ones with that level of technical care are the ones that tell me “Don’t read another today—I want the flavour of this to linger a bit longer.” This is when the judge is transformed into the ordinary reader—these are the books I’ll tell my friends to read when the awards have been given. These are the books I will remember and are the ones I will love.
2. Writers fictionalising writers
The more we know about someone real, the harder it becomes for fiction writers to fake a voice that resonates and feels true. The more we know about someone real, the more tempting it is to write about them. Some of the writing feels a bit odd when one zooms the lens in too close, if the reader already had a feeling for the character. I thought it might be fun to explore one of the reasons for the oddness.
What started me along this train of thought was William Shakespeare as a character in books by Sarah Hoyt. Shakespeare’s words fill the two books of Hoyt’s that I’ve read, but the words are out of context.
What is the problem with this? The single largest problem is the fact that they were structured for rhyme and for declaiming and performance. While I would love to speak in the voices of many characters or use iambic pentameter whenever I have a thought, I do not. Hoyt’s Shakespeare uses words from Shakespeare’s plays often (not always, which is disconcerting) and those words sometimes create verse (the iambic pentameter) and always, always represent the voice of one of Shakespeare’s characters. The resonance is different when words spoken by a king are given to a character called Shakespeare to create his speech.
The social structure of Hoyt’s England is different to the one I thought I knew from Shakespeare. Hoyt’s world is built with elves, for instance, and resonates differently to Elizabethan England. This is not a problem, though the confusion of peasant and yeoman and small gentry and the relative status of whomever is a bit tangling until one accepts that is how the Hoyt Shakespeare universe is built. Nor is the real issue with Hoyt’s writing in and of itself. She writes books that are entertaining.
The problem is that we know Shakespeare too well and that Shakespeare was too good a writer. His characters’ voices resonate, even when the lines are said by someone else. My mind follows the words and thinks sadly, “It worked better when Hamlet said it.”
It didn’t work better when Hamlet said it, if I am to be honest. Words created Hamlet. When my memory of Hamlet’s words is the echoing across a stage, deep and lonely, it feels quite wrong when a character in a novel uses the exact words to express indecision. Writers may rehearse words before they’re written down for eternity, but undoing the finished phrase and the eloquent speech is not comfortable.
This is not, as I said, a problem with the skill of the writer. It would take a writer better than Shakespeare to improve on his words when taking them out of context. The problem is the popularity of the pastiche. I think of it as the Sherlock Holmes and the Shape-shifting Zombie Sea Serpents Mystery syndrome. If a writer borrows from another writer whose words are so very much a part of our cultural roots, then every difference will often echo as a wrongness. It works for comedy, for mockery and pastiche is part of the amusement in a comic novel: it’s far less effective for novels that have a more serious tone.
It’s harder for other writers if they use the words of famous writers. We know their language better. Part of being the literati is being able to argue the position of Cardenio (Shakespeare’s ‘lost’ play) and if what we really have is Cardenio or something else that may or may not be by Shakespeare. Hundreds of years of Shakespeare scholarship means that English language culture has a particular Shakespeare sensibility. What this means is that for those who aren’t sure what Cardenio is, there’s still the problem of school plays and having to memorise the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet at age fifteen. Most of us know a surprising amount about Shakespeare, or at least about scraps of his writing.
The more we know the words of a writer, the harder it becomes for fiction writers to fake a voice that resonates and feels true. The more we know about someone real, the more tempting it is to write about them.
This isn’t to do with literary standards. This is to do with cultural accretion. How we know what we know. How we form our views of a person and their time. Where we get our information from and how the shape of that information informs our deeper understanding of that person.
It might feel odd to have these things challenged. I might (personally, because I am an evil historian) hold writers up to a higher standard of historical accuracy if they play with the words of others in their fiction.
My challenge to writers, however, doesn’t mean that writers are necessarily guilty of creating bad books. What these books do is push our understanding of where we get our history from and of how we interpret it. Every single word that feels wrong is a signal of an assumption that the reader is making that maybe the writer isn’t making. Some of the time the reader is right. Some of the time the writer is right. Most of the time there is no right or wrong in question at all, merely the feeling of discomfort and difference because our knowledge has been questioned in new ways.
This is why the more we know of a writer’s language, the harder it becomes for fiction writers to fake a voice using that language that resonates and feels true. The more we know about someone real, the more tempting it is to use them in this way. It’s a quandary.
3. The Mez Family
Three years ago, I persuaded BiblioBuffet to employ me by promising them articles on all my favourite subjects. I’ve written most of those columns now, but there’s just one that I regret not having written. I’d love to write a long, long admiration of the bloody and violent and evil Medieval French epic legends dedicated to vendettas and to one particular family.
I find them impossible to forget. I’d love to explain why.
I have yet to discover a translation of any of them into English. I am just waiting for one good translation, so that I can introduce Gerbert to the world, or maybe Ludie.
Maybe if I leave just one idea unfinished, just one thought incomplete, I will get to work with all the wonderful people of BiblioBuffet again. It’s a loose end, waiting for the universe to complete.
Books mentioned in this column:
Ill Met by Moonlight, by Sarah Hoyt (Ace Books, 2001)
All Night Awake, by Sarah Hoyt (Ace Books, 2002)
Any Man So Daring, by Sarah Hoyt (Ace Books, 2003)
Gillian Polack is based in Canberra, Australia. She is mainly a writer, editor and educator. Her most recent print publications are a novel (Ms Cellophane, Momentum, 2012 – shortlisted for a Ditmar award), an anthology (Baggage, Eneit Press, 2010 – also shortlisted for a Ditmar award), an historical cookbook (for Conflux, 2011), the occasional short story and a slew of articles. She won the Ditmar for Professional Achievement in 2010. One of her short stories won a Victorian Ministry of the Arts award a long time ago, and three have (more recently) been listed as recommended reading in international lists of world's best fantasy and science fiction short stories. She received a Macquarie Bank Fellowship and a Blue Mountains Fellowship to work on novels at Varuna, an Australian writers’ residence in the Blue Mountains, and grants from the ACT government. Gillian has a doctorate in Medieval history from the University of Sydney and is completing a second in creative writing at the University of Western Australia. She researches history, pulls the writing of others to pieces, is fascinated by almost everything, cooks and etc. Currently she explains ‘etc’ as including paying attention to science fiction and trying to avoid emotional cruelty to ants. She is the proud owner of some very pretty fans, a disarticulated skull named Perceval, and 6,000 books. Contact Gillian.