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?