Tuesday, November 30, 2010

I Done Got Serious

By Jay Stringer

I sat here to write about the authors voice. I was going to discuss to what extent an author should remove their own voice from the work, and especially things like dialogue, to let the characters and story do the talking. I've realised lately that I'm becoming quite stringent in this, that I can defiantly be said to be part of a 'school of thought', which in itself can be quite restrictive. I see it as bad writing to let your own voice intrude over that of the characters. So maybe that's a debate for another day.

As I sat down I watched a BBC program looking into corruption within FIFA, the worlds governing body of Soccer, and the billion dollar decisions that they make. It's a weighty issue, and one worthy of serious treatment.

The show itself was not really the best example of this. It was half an hour of a man running round in a dirty mac shouting questions at men in limousines. Funnily enough, none of them were prepared to answer. It was very thin, as far as journalism goes, and raised plenty of issues that it failed to deal with.

One of the questions that it brought to mind is what happened to journalism? When did 'investigative journalism' go from dealing with such important issues to convincing us that 'public interest' is served by knowing who a football is sleeping with. Maybe this is always what journalism was, and the better moments that we think of were all simply happy mistakes. Once again, that's probably an issue for another time.

No, what the show got me thinking of was morality.

The plot itself would make a cracking novel. A high powered organisation who tend to get tax exemption in any country they operate in, who make billion dollar decisions is locked boardrooms and who may or may not be corrupt. No accountability. No rules. No audits.

Its gold for a crime fiction writer. And as I watched the show I realised two things. Firstly that very point about what an entertaining issue this would be to explore in a novel, film or short story. Secondly, I realised that the show was meant to be eliciting a reaction of anger or shock in me.

There are not the things we are meant to be entertained by.

Back in my younger days, before a few high-profile deaths made me fall out of love with the whole thing, i was a fan of pro-wrestling. Sure, it's fake. But that's like saying theatre is fake. It's good old fashioned story telling and can be as compelling as any other medium when done right. Go watch Shawn Michaels VS Bret Hart last for an hour, or Eddie Guerrero in just about any match, and tell me that's not story telling of the highest order.

Thing is, there's a morality gap. Part of what turned me off to the point that I've not watched it in years was the list of casualties. As the bodies started stacking up we couldn't help but notice the corruption, the drug addictions and the loneliness that stalk the 'sport' from behind the curtain. Again, these are all issues that we love to read and write about, but seeing them played out in real life can cause a different reaction. For example, the tragedy of Chris Benoit and his family. On the one hand, it's the writers instinct to want to know what lead to such a thing, to know what the context was and how people can get into that situation. But there's another reaction, the one that the great many people probably feel, which is to be appalled and to make moral judgements. I'm sure I'm not alone amongst folks out there that my own reactions were a mix of both.

The other part of that morality gap is the story they tell in the ring. Eddie Guerrero played a cheat. Whether he was the face or the heel he would give the audience a knowing wink and then find some way to cheat for the win. And the crowd would cheer or boo, and either way they loved it. But on the flip side, when I'm watching my football team play, I hate cheating. Whether it's one of my own or the opposition, I can't stand to see cheating on the field. I see it as an embarrassment to the sport and to the match that I'm watching.

So how do we square that, morally?

As a writer my stock-in-trade is to try and remove moral judgements from my work. I aim to write crime fiction with a bit of a social edge, and to try and look at the characters and the situations free of any overriding moral judgements. In the book I'm writing right now, I have a supporting character who has opinions on race that are a million years removed from mine, but I have a responsibility to treat him just the same as a character who I might agree with. I have to keep my own judgement out of the way. And I think I'm getting pretty good at that. I think that the better I get at writing, the better I get at managing to see many sides of an issue, and can make public arguments that sometimes seem in defence of what could seem indefensible. I can often be the guy in the room making a case to defend the murderer, the love-rat or the corrupt politician in the daily news story. And it's often not because I believe in the case i'm making, rather that my brain wants to test it out.

As writers we become moral chameleons.

Recently McFet was asking questions in the same ballpark. He showed a clip of a real serial killer confessing to his crimes. And hidden away in there again is the morality gap. We write about these things, we enjoy these things on some level, and we research them often. But when faced with a real example, do we question ourselves?

Is that what the whole thing is? An act of questioning ourselves, testing ourselves?

I don't mean to place writing on a pedestal here as some mystic art. Reading is about many of the same things, and we're all readers above all else. But for the reading side of things, there's an element of tourism. We can pick up a book, spend a day, or a week, or a month exploring some dark land, and then come out and put the book down. To take that same thing on as a writer means to live in the heads of these characters. To spend months or years with these things floating around in our heads. Is it still tourism, or is it something else?

Do we explore these issues to challenge that 'moral gap' and see if we can shift the borders, or do we do it to reinforce what we already think?


Dana King said...

"Do we explore these issues to challenge that 'moral gap' and see if we can shift the borders, or do we do it to reinforce what we already think?"


I first noticed this when I started blogging. I'd sit down to write about my opinion, only to find it had shifted as I thought about the issue enough to move it from thought to words. The intent had been to reinforce what I thought. It didn't turn out that way.
Except for the times I want to wholly re-examine something and find only arguments that buttress my original position.

The key element is that what I call writing--the transference of internal ideas to sharable words--requires thought and examination if it is to be worth doing. No telling where you'll go once that genie's out of the bottle.

On another note, I disagree somewhat with your comments on voice. We all have a writer's voice that must come through, or the story will be styleless and bland. This may vary from story to story, or it may be consistent as part of an author's style. Elmore Leonard is often extolled as someone who never intrudes himself into his stories, but his voice is as distinctive as anyone's. Hand me a Leonard book I haven't read--if you can find one in print--open to a random page, and I'll bet I can identify him by his voice within a couple of minutes.

Chuck said...

Agreed with Dana -- I don't want to the writer to extricate his or her voice. Otherwise, dullness intrudes.

Look at someone like Joe Lansdale -- his voice lives on in the metaphor and dialogue that drives his work. It's a very clear voice, not at all milked dry of its uniqueness.

It's why I love his work, honestly.

I read dialogue from Lansdale, I know it's his from word one.

-- c.

Jay Stringer said...

I plan to return to the 'voice' idea later on to expand on my thoughts and do them justice.

But what I'd add to what you guys have said today is that I think there's a difference to the kind of voice you're identifying -one that becomes clear through good writing- and the distracting kind.

Leonards voice becomes clear when you read through his body of work. The charachters, dialogue and plots will vary, but there's a consistent hand at the tiller. 

I'd say that's different from a writer who let's their voice intrude on the work. 

Look at the flawed auteur theory in movies. There's a difference between directors who's style and voice becomes apparent over their body of work, and one who is stepping in to deliberately make you aware it's their film.

And on a character level, every Tatantino character (aside from in JACKIE BROWN) sounds the same. Different characters all speaking in the same voice. Sane with Kevin Smith. I see that level of intrusion as poor writing, in both novels and films.

John McFetridge said...

"Is it tourism or is it something else?"

Good question. I've never understood visiting somewhere for a short period of time and denying that you're a tourist. Yes, you're a tourist, so what, just don't be an asshole tourist.

But it's true, I guess, the main thing that seperates us from animals is our ability to live in denial ;)

Lamar said...

One of the roles of the storyteller in any society is to create the language through which the audience becomes able to articulate its hopes and fears, and so, to a degree, gain control of those things.

To a great degree, storytelling is sympathetic magic. It's no coincidence that "word" and "weird" come from the same linguistic root.

As a member of the audience -- the reader -- we each choose to read material that best speaks to whatever hopes and fears we feel at any given moment. We take comfort in doing so, because the act of reading a text, or listening to a song, or playing a game, or what have you, is like a wizard reading an incantation from his spell book, or a priest reading a prayer from his scriptures. It gives us power, or at least a sense of power, that helps us deal with the trauma of living day to day.

As storytellers, we take a further step into the shared ritual of creating the story, moving from taking power from other people's words to creating our own power, of refining the magic so that it more strongly deals with our specific hopes and fears. The storyteller, I think, gets more out of the ritual than the reader does. That's appropriate, because the storyteller takes the greater risk, going deeper into the dark cavern than the listener, who always has one foot firmly placed outside the cave's mouth.

The thing is, ultimately, however, that the magic created by the shared ritual of storytelling only affects the model of the world we each carry in our heads. It's a tool for viewing the world, not a means of directly affecting the real world outside of ourselves.

Because of that, we're willing to allow things and consider things in the story that we wouldn't in reality. The hero of the story can take certain actions and we can accept the hero performing those actions within the context of the story because it isn't real, and our purpose in allowing that to happen isn't necessarily a reflection of what we would find acceptable in the real world. Our hero may kill the villain in the end of the story because doing so allows both the storyteller and audience to experience a certain sort of catharsis. The same thing happening in the real world could well be horrifying and appalling because it is real.

I once heard that, while planning the Oklahoma City bombing, Timothy McVeigh told Terry Nichols that he thought of the people in the Murrah Building as "stormtroopers," as in Star Wars. I think that's an example where the storytelling paradigm has failed for that individual because it has failed to reinforce the distinction between the fantasy of the story and reality.

I think perhaps that's the sort of thing you refer to as a "moral gap," when our involvement in the story we're telling or experiencing overwhelms our ability to maintain the distinction between the model of the world we each carry in our heads and the real world in which we live. My first impulse was to consider this a contemporary problem, but thinking back, it seems to a recurrent theme throughout history.

My 2 cents into the pot, for what it's worth.


Jay Stringer said...

Interesting post there Lamar, thanks.

Plenty of ideas to chew on.

Brian Lindenmuth said...

We all have a writer's voice that must come through, or the story will be styleless and bland.

Not all writers have a voice -- in fact most don't and your statement underscores this. I can send you a shit ton of bland books if you'd like to see authors with no voice.

But the real reason I wanted to respond was that I've been thinking of the morality gap in fiction recently but in a different way. I've been thinking about how often consumers of fiction (movies, TV, books, etc.) will happily cheer on characters who represent something they disagree with.

For example I notice it time and time again with regards to torture. We'll cheer on a character who explicitly or implicitly tortures another character to extract information because in the fictional situation that has been set up and presented to us it's deemed not only appropriate but worthy. So if a person, who otherwise believes themselves to hold a different opinion, roots for a character who tortures another character does that mask a latent belief that the person holds or just someone getting pulled into the narrative structure and arc of the story?

All a bit rambly I know but it's representative of what's been going on in my head.

I think that often times an author is unaware of thematic subtext when constructing a story. Is it possible that an author becomes so in love with his/her creation that they can't see it for what it is? With regards to this last thought I'm thinking about a book I recently finished reading and what was really going on under the surface.

John McFetridge said...

Lamar, thanks for the response, good stuff.

Brian, I can tell you that on the TV show I worked on not only was the showrunner not aware of thematic subtext while stories were being constructed, he wasn't interested in talking about those things at all.

I suspect most shows, though, are interested in that kind of thing.

Storytelling is about manipulating the emotions, isn't it, and it certainly helps to have some control over how that's done.