Friday, October 9, 2009

Hearing voices

"What's it going to be then, eh?"

There was me, that is Alex, and my three droogs, that is Pete, Georgie, and Dim, Dim being really dim, and we sat in the Korova Milkbar making up our rassoodocks what to do with the evening, a flip dark chill winter bastard though dry. The Korova Milkbar was a milk-plus mesto, and you may, O my brothers, have forgotten what these mestos were like, things changing so skorry these days and everybody quick to forget, newspapers not being read much neither....

Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess: Book Cover These are opening sentences of Anthony Burgess’s novel A Clockwork Orange (by the way, this is a work not enough discussed in the context of contemporary YA—maybe because the Kubrick movie makes us forget how young the protagonist is). Clockwork is the first book I can remember reading that opened my eyes to an author creating a voice from the ground up, plucking the outlines of words from Russian and plopping them into the exceedingly foul mouth of an English-speaking delinquent living somewhere in the not-too-distant future. When you read the first page of the novel, it’s hard not to be astonished by the voice Burgess conjures and by how clear it is despite all the unfamiliar words.

When I only worked on YA, I wore out the word “voice.” It really is the most important thing in any YA novel, I’m convinced, and so I harped on it endlessly and constantly sought it when I read manuscripts. As with A Clockwork Orange, good YA voice isn’t about  going to the mall with a tape recorder. It’s a creative, not an imitative process. You know it when you read it.

But here’s the thing I’ve realized as some of my attention has shifted to other kinds of books: voice is never unimportant, even in third-person nonfiction. There is no good storytelling—fiction or fact—without a discernibly unique voice. Nobody wants to read a book narrated in the textual equivalent of monotone. Vaunda Nelson’s text for Bad News for Outlaws is perfect example of this in practice. Here’s page one:

Jim Webb’s luck was running muddy when Bass Reeves rode into town. Webb had stayed one jump ahead of the lawman for two years. He wasn’t about to be caught now. Packing both rifle and revolver,the desperado leaped out a window of Bywaters’ store. He made a break for his horse, but Reeves cut him off.

Bass hollered from the saddle of his stallion, warning Webb to give up. The outlaw bolted.

Bass shook his head. He hated bloodshed, but Webb might need killing….

Vaunda’s challenge is a little different than Burgess’s—and maybe a little harder. She’s aiming for a narrative voice that’s captivating and that transports the reader to a real past. The language palette she has available is more limited; she doesn't get to invent words from whole cloth like Burgess did. On top of that, she has to navigate all of our Dusty-and-Lefty, cowboy-talk associations to avoid making her serious book a joke. I think Vaunda’s anonymous narrator’s voice is as crucial to the success of her story Alex’s voice is to Clockwork. 

So, if there’s a moral to this post, it’s that I will continue to wear out “voice” when I talk about what I want in a manuscript. I’m okay with that.

 

[Reposted from the Lerner Books Blog]