Sunday, 7 June 2009

Guest Post: Voicing Concerns, by Dan Holloway

I've been wrestling with a couple of blog posts about voice: what it is, why it's important, and how to get a good one: and along comes the lovely Dan Holloway with this great post, especially for my blog's first birthday. Thank you Dan.

One of the commonest causes of “hands raised in horror” syndrome amongst members of the website Authonomy, is Harper Collins’ (who run the site) failure to publish any of the “beautifully-written” books that reach the site’s upper echelons (the Editor’s Desk). Yet, in the site’s forums, respected literary professionals endlessly repeat (and whenever I ask an “insider” the question, I get the same answer), what the industry looks for above anything else is “a fresh, original voice”.

It occurred to me that the continued prevalence of HRIH syndrome may actually be attributable to the belief that “beautifully written” – or its qualitative synonyms “tightly-plotted”, “exquisitely dialogued”, “masterfully characterised” – MEANS “fresh and original.” It doesn’t.

Let me explain.

After spending too many years studying there (10 – don’t ask), I spent a few more preparing students for Oxford interviews. It’s an infuriating truism that what Oxford looks for in would-be students is indefinable “but you know it when you see it.” I always thought “voice” was the same.

Which is why I was surprised to find it isn’t. I made the discovery whilst at a gig in Southampton a couple of weeks ago (we’d made the considerable journey to see our favourite band, The Boxer Rebellion). My regular readers will be rolling their collective eyeballs (“when he talks about marketing, it’s all music”, “social media and publishing – more music”, “even on sentence construction – it’s arpeggio this and cadenza that”), but music really is the perfect illustration of “voice.”

I’ve been to a good fistful of gigs in recent months. One of the delights of gigs (serendipity being my favourite word) is going to see a headline act and discovering some wonderful support bands (I met my Facebook novel’s “house band”, InLight, that way). It’s always interested me the way the first band comes on and the crowd thinks “great.” Enter main support and it’s “wahey, they’re fantastic!” But then the headline act comes on and everyone else vanishes.

Listening to the opening drums of The Boxer Rebellion’s “walk-on” number, Flashing Red Light Means Go, I realised why that was – and why it explained “voice.”

I’ve seen (checks his website to count links…) lots of support bands this year. They all perform excellently. The songwriting is uniformly exceptional. The frontmen have real charisma. But when you hear one song, then a second, you realise if you heard a third song, in a different context, you’d have a hard time saying whose it was. Any number of people could have written them.

On the other hand, every headline act I’ve seen writes songs that couldn’t have been written by anyone else. Within a bar (a note, even – just the tuning of their guitars is often enough; or if you prefer your music older and more German, think “Tristan chord”) you know exactly whose music you’re listening to.

And that, in a nutshell, is voice.

How do you write voice? Don’t ask me. I don’t have an original voice. Just a loud one.

Dan Holloway is a theologian by training. These days he pushes pens by day and writes by night. Author of several published short stories and two as yet unpublished novels, Dan writes literary fiction about life in modern Europe. Also an academic writer and presenter, on June 12 he will be speaking on "The Ghost at my Shoulder: Literary Reflections on Coming of Age in Post-Communist Hungary" at a conference hosted by the University of East London to mark the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Dan is writing his current novel, The Man Who Painted Agnieszka's shoes, interactively on Facebook. He blogs regularly on literary futurology, is co-founder of the avant-garde collective Year Zero Writers, and is widely rumoured to have invented both time travel machines and bionic fingers in order to accommdate his schedule.


Anonymous said...

Aha! Someone else who turns to other arts in order to talk about writing - and it's so true. Yesterday I was going on about Haydn, today you're talking about The Boxer Rebellion, tomorrow (or rather next week) I've got Picasso's minotaur snorting at the gate of the maze. I wonder why? (might just have to blog about it).

And so true about voice. A quick poll among 12 or so newly-agented friends revealed that the ONE thing that all the agents said they loved, whether it was gritty crime or fluffy chick or uber-lit, was the voice.

Dan Holloway said...

Hi Emma,

Haydn! Isn't it wonderful how much prominent Haydn coverage there's been in the mainstream media recently? What I've said about contemporary muisic is equally true of music from all ages (my wife - a Mendelssohn scholar as well as a Boxer Rebellion fan - is always reminding me there was jus as much bad music written 200 years ago as there is now, but history has winnowed away much of the worst, giving a possibly false impression that musicians were more original then)

Picasso - if ever there were an example of voice - literally - I used Guernica in my last book as a way of trying to take my readers inside a breakdown. For me the painting is an auditory experience - and so much louder, more terrifying than Muench. The only thing that comes close is Bacon (pictures and sculptures).