Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Voice Or Plot ... Which One Does It For You?

 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!


  1. Voice, voice, voice. A good plot might intrigue me enough to pick up a book, but voice keeps me reading.

  2. I'd definitely say yes, if only to prove I could! 138 books in seven months, oh my.
    I'm not sure where I stand on the voice debate though - it's easy to say "it depends", but it does, it all depends on whether I like the voice. Holden Caulfield, yes. Bukowski, yes. Or that book I recently read, The Restoration by Rose Tremain, about a man who rose up in Charles II court and then fell back again - that was such a strong, appealing voice.
    But if I can't stand a voice it ruins the whole tale (Philippa Gregory's The Constant Princess comes to mind).
    On the other hand, I'm really not an action-for-action's-sake reader at all. Give me some character development!

  3. Voice!!!! Always and forever it will be voice first. Though I'll admit to wanting it all. ; ) When voice and plot mesh into that synergistic whole, I'm gone--hook, line, and sinker.

  4. Hmm. Both. If the plot is lackluster but the voice is stunning, I'll read it. If the plot is exciting and the voice is so-so, I'll read it. Voice probably calls to me more strongly, but I devoured all of Dan Brown's books eagerly.

    Interestingly, now that I think about it, I feel no inclination to reread them. Maybe the books that I go back to are the ones with compelling voices?

    Also, 138 books in 7 months is my idea of heaven.

  5. Great post, Rach. I posted the same link in a few spots the other day- that article was fascinating! Personally, though, I think that 138 books in 7 months sounds like something out of Guantanamo Bay when you're holding the hopes of those authors in your hands. Breaking it down, that's roughly 20 books a month... 5 per week... All weighty literary novels, and you're supposed to not only read them, but give them due consideration? Oh, heck no. Never.

    For me, voice is important. But I'm at a stage in my life where I'm short on time, so if a book starts to lose my attention, it doesn't take much for me to put it down. It can have a stellar voice, but if the plot isn't going anywhere, it's not guaranteed to keep me hanging on.

    The book I mentioned in my last post (The Sisters Brothers, which was on that Booker shortlist) was an interesting example of how it can amount to more than voice and plot alone- it didn't have such a strong character voice, though a very distinctive authorial voice, and the plot at times was quite weak. And yet I couldn't put it down. Why? Because the combined whole of each of those elements, plus the setting, plus a whole lot of other technical things the author did worked together to strengthen each element of the book.

    Catch-22- I must confess, the voice was so distinctive (and so distinctively crazy) that I couldn't finish it. I think I need another crack at it when I have a little more time to appreciate the skill :)

  6. Wow, when you break it down like that - five per week? Assuming weekends off, that's one tome a day.
    ALL the other books must have been beyond dreadful the year that Barnes' England, England won.

  7. I'm a bit of a book slut; I enjoy all types, plot-driven, voice-laden, a mix of both. It depends on my mood.

    But for a book to truly stand out from the crowd for me, it's gotta have both an excellent voice and plot. By plot, I don't mean it has to be full of action, but the story has to have good forward momentum.

    That elusive elixir of voice, plot, and passion is what takes a book from good to exceptional.

    I also agree with Claire in that a voice that's overdone can totally turn me off of a book. Mainly because I feel like I'm spending time listening to an author show off rather than tell a story.

  8. I enjoy reading both. I'm still finding my own voice and learning plot-development in my own writing. This is a great post...something to think about! :)

  9. @ Elizabeth May - yes, exactly! :-)

    @ Deniz - Agreed. if an author's voice is strong, yet annoys the heck out of you, that book is going to be put aside quick smart. Oh, and I read Restoration years ago, and loved it too (and the movie - Robert Downey Jr is fabulous!)

    @ Zan Marie - oh yeah, a book that does both voice and plot brilliantly is priceless. Sadly, none of the books I'm reading at the moment seem to have that magic combination ... will have to remedy that!

  10. @ Faith - Hmm, yes, that's the same for me. I guess once you know how a story turns out, it's really the voice that'll lure you back for a re-read. Good point!

    @ Claire - LOL @ Guantanamo Bay! But yes, a good point about having all that responsibility ... and The Sisters Brothers sounds more intriguing the more I hear about it. Definitely will have to give it a try!

    @ Kristen - "It depends on my mood" ... Yes, I was thinking just today how much one's mood also plays into the reading experience. A serious literary novel is something I can only sink into when I have nothing else to do, no other distractions, and when I'm not about to nod off to sleep (I tend to do most of my reading last thing at night, in bed); whereas a mystery or the like I can read anywhere, any time. But give me a great story and great voice, and I can't put the book down, no matter the genre or the plot/voice mix.

  11. @ Len - I think that's the beauty of reading a lot, and widely - you'll always learn something, even if it's how *not* to write!

  12. Ooh, I didn't know Restoration had been made into a film!