Voice (Differences in Short Story and Novel Writing)


For my Irish fiction class this past week we read the novel Breakfast on Pluto by Patrick McCabe. The story starts with a brief history of Irish revolution and then launches straight into this voice:

“Although I’m afraid I don’t get too many clients these days! I can just imagine the reaction of my old acquaintance is they saw me now, sitting here in my silly old coat and headscarf–off out that door and down London’s Kilburn High Road with the lot of them, no doubt! Still, no point in complaining–after all, every beauty has to lose her looks sometime and if the gold-digging days of poor old darling poo poo puss are gone for ever, well then, so be it.”

Raise your hand if you’re exhausted. These two sentences alone are filled with exclamations, interjections, extra words, and weird syntax, forcing the reader to work really hard to get what’s going on. There is justification for the voice: the manuscript is supposedly the autobiography of an Irish transvestite who is a former prostitute and suspected IRA terrorist. Certainly, this character would have her/his own crazy voice, and certainly her syntax skills would not be quite up to snuff. The idea behind this voice is great.

But after twenty pages or so, it lost its novelty for me, and I simply got tired. I only finished the book because I was reading it for a class. This unique voice, at first somewhat enthralling, became something of an assault. The writing thrust me away from the narrative rather than inviting me in. This probably has thematic resonances: the psychological tendency of Paddy to push away from people; a commentary on the Irish assertion of “differentness”, etc. But if I were wishing I could put the book down, then any thematic resonance is lost. It’s hard to have a theme without having a reader.

Then I read a short story by Lorrie Moore. Her trademark, as my fiction class likes to say, is writing about women having mental breakdowns. In her short story, “Real Estate,” two full pages are occupied with: “Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha!…”

This, too, is pretty assaulting. It hurts my eyes just to look at the page, and my brain just doesn’t know what to do. I certainly am not reading each and every one of those “Ha”s. The paragraph that follows illustrates the quirky voice of the rest of the story:

“Holding fast to her little patch of marital ground, she’d watched as his lovers floated through like ballerinas, or dandelion down, all of them sudden and fleeting, as if they were calendar girls ripped monthly by the same mysterious calendar-ripping wind that hurried time along in old movies. Hello! Good-bye! Ha! Ha! Ha! What did Ruth care now? Those girls were over and gone. The key to marriage, she concluded, was just not to take the thing too personally.”

Though this isn’t quite as crazy a voice as in Breakfast on Pluto, it still groups thoughts together in a way that requires concentration to comprehend and appreciate the content. This short story still took a lot out of me simply to read. But I didn’t want to put it down. While it may have pushed me away from the story because it was just so absurd at points, I kept reading not because I had to but because I was interested.

I think the biggest reason for my different reactions to unique voices is length. With “Real Estate,” I knew it was only a short story and so there was a much higher chance that the narrative would pay off. My investment in the story would only be 30 minutes, and so the end of the story would only need to justify 30 minutes of my time. Breakfast on Pluto demanded several hours, and so the ending would have to be really, really good to make it worth my time.

Voice is definitely fun to play around with, and stories often justify unique voices. But ever since Holden Caulfield, it’s been clear the danger of writing a strong voice in a novel: readers are either going to love it or hate it. I’m not sure if this means that voices like Paddy’s should be confined to short stories or whether there is a way of softening the voice throughout to novel to ease up on the reader, but certainly, short story writers and novelists need to have different approaches to voice to suit their media.

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