Confession time: I love my Twitter feed. I really do. It throws so many great, thought-provoking links my way, every day, which sit there in a nice, chronological order, ready for me to devour. The only trouble is that I just don’t have time enough to get to them all … but one link I’m glad I took the time to follow came to me this week via @Text Publishing: an article by Gaby Wood on her experience of being one of this year’s Man Booker Prize judges.
(For those not in the know, the 2011 prize winner was announced last week as The Sense Of An Ending, by Julian Barnes.)
It’s a very interesting article (who knew so much work went into the judging? One hundred and thirty-eight novels, read in seven months! The mind boggles … and then melts) but I was particularly intrigued by this discovery Wood made during her reading journey:-
What struck me most, though, was how much I learnt about my own taste. I was swayed by voice over plot and by sentence over structure. (Of course, in the best cases one didn’t have to choose.)
(We all know what she means by voice - an author’s own style, that particular way of constructing sentences and arranging paragraphs and choice of words that uniquely conveys an author’s personality, or that of their characters, and makes their work instantly recognisable and one of a kind.)
Her comment made me think how highly individual and subjective this choice is, this preference for voice over plot – and vice versa. Many people can happily devour a book that lacks a great voice for the sake of its plot (flogging a dead horse here, but Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code springs to mind) whilst others will only put up with a so-so plot if it’s coupled with a dazzling voice.
I’m not sure where I sit. At the moment, I’m reading Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 for my book club, and at eight chapters in I’d have to say that the plot is nebulous, at best … but the voice! It’s fresh, crazy, totally unique and draws me right in so that I just have to keep reading. But then again … I’ve adored the voice in many other books, yet have nevertheless set them aside, unfinished, when the plots have become a little boggy. Carol Carr’s India Black is an example. I’ll give you a little taste of her voice … this is from the preface :-
My name is India Black. I am a whore.
If these words made you blush, if your hand fluttered to your cheek or you harrumphed disapprovingly into your beard, then you should return this volume to the shelf, cast a cold glance at the proprietor as you leave, and hasten home feeling proper and virtuous. You can go to Evensong tonight with a clear conscience.
However, if my admission caused a frisson of excitement in your drab world, if you felt a stirring in your trousers or beneath your skirts, then I must caution you that you will be disappointed in the story contained in this volume. No doubt you’re hoping to read in these pages the narrative of a young woman’s schooling in the arts of love or perhaps a detailed description of some of my more memorable artistic performances. As for the former, there’s enough of that kind of shoddy chronicle available, most of it written by men masquerading as “Maggie” or “Eunice,” and therefore not only fictitious but asinine to boot. As for the latter, I’d be the first to admit that I was a tireless entertainer in the boudoir, but that’s another story for another time and will cost you more money than this volume when I get around to writing it down.
How’s that for a strong, individual and intriguing voice, right out the gates? It continues like this throughout the book … so why couldn't I finish? Well, I think the answer lies in where I set this book down - and I’m talking physically. See, it’s still on my bedside table, beneath four or five other novels, which means that subconsciously, I've decided I won't abandon it. It’s not been consigned to the “not to be finished/life is too short for this rubbish,” pile in the corner of my study. So yes, while a bit of sagging in the plot has caused me to turn aside for now, it’s not a permanent state of affairs. This is a book I will pick up again, and finish. And that’s all down to the lure of the voice.
So in the end, for me, I guess voice does win over plot. But as Gaby Wood points out, the very best books do both plot and voice brilliantly ... and that's something for us all to shoot for, isn't it?
Which wins out for you - plot or voice? And if you were ever tapped on the shoulder to be a Man Booker judge, would you accept? I think I would have to say yes … then make sure I booked me a nice padded cell in which to recover after the event – no books allowed!