Posted by: Corri van de Stege | November 7, 2007

The voice of an author

I am greatly enjoying my meandering through John Sutherland’s How to read a novel.  In a chapter called What do you do with the novel? Read it, listen to it, look at it? he wonders about voice, and how you actually read a novel.  No, not voice in writer’s course book sense, but voice in terms of vernacular,  dialect.  You can very well ask yourself the question when you read a book set in, say, Cornwall.   What would an author’s intention be?  It can make quite a difference to how you read a book.  He provides the example of John Banville’s The Sea which  should be read as ‘meditative and retrospective’,  but then some reviewers have found that tedious. 

This leads me to wonder how accurately a non-native is able to catch the nuances of say American speech or London cockney? 
Can an outsider ever completely master a tongue or dialect, in which they were not brought up?’  Sutherland states that Conrad never did, nor did Nabokov, although their failures are ‘magnificent’ (p.177).

This makes me wonder: I pride myself on being fluently bi-lingual and I write in English, even though it is not my mother tongue.   Mmmm, I will have to move very carefully I think and watch where I go, what I can and cannot do!

Sutherland suggests that acoustics of fiction matter.  We are too obsessed with ‘reading’ and ‘literacy skills’ but this has created a public with a disabling hearing problem when it comes to fiction.  His parting shot is just wonderful:
A hi-tech civilisation which can come up with Christmas cards that sing carols for their recipients can surely invent an electronic tuning fork for fiction.  Why not a novel, which, when opened, recites for its reader the first paragraph in the  author-approved voice?’ (p180)
I second that.

And as we are using the word xmas here (even though it is far far too early), I suggest this book is great fun for book lovers and an ideal stocking filler!

And by the way, the book also has a very interesting chapter on whether or not we always can or do understand what a book is trying to convey, even if we speak the language properly.  We may just misread it.  And he illustrates this with the caustic comments made by John Banville and his denunciation of Ian McEwan’s novel ‘Saturday’.  Sutherland’s comment is that John Banville ‘mis-read’ parts of the book and based his judgement on this completely wrong interpretation of what was there.  Anyway, John Banville in the end walked away as the Booker prize winner, leaving ‘Saturday’ well behind, not even in the shortlist! 



  1. Yes, interesting. I think writing a book comes to be more or less as listening to oneself when one is interpreting a play. If the tone of what one writes is not convincing, then we should look for a better tone. If the scene does not convince us, then we should look for another scene. The acts also should be consequential.

    Just my grain of sand.

  2. I suppose you only find out when no one reads what you write. It helps however to get on a shortlist for, or even win, a Booker Prize or any other award for that matter, as the whole world will suddenly read your book. That’s what the quarrel between Banville and McEwan ultimately was about I think. x

  3. And: I just noticed some appalling typos and errors in this piece which I have subtly corrected. There may be more… Additional thought: never post something in a hurry or late at night. Bad advert for someone who wants to write!

  4. Great post with great insights.

    I have been top-toeing on writing in English language because it’s not my mother tongue, even though I began the study of Chinese and English at the same time. That my writings have met with numerous criticisms has destroyed my morale and confidence, I had given up humanity and literature altogether at one point and pursued instead science. I’m happy that I can rekindle that passion in me. 🙂

    John Banville, by the way, is not an easy author to read.

  5. Publishers are an important part of bookwriting, novels cannot be sold – and read – without the opportune promotion.

  6. Matt: mastering Chinese and English is a fantastic achievement in my view and I’m glad you’ve regained your confidence: you have an obvious love of literature, words, books and it would be such a shame to suppress that! I actually quite liked ‘the Sea’ by John Banville.

    Jose: agree, writers are in their hands!

  7. Words and literature help me get in touch of my feelings and emotions. In the same way, I hope to capture moments of life with my words and observations. That’s the main reason, and driving force, for my making that switch. I’m actually proud of myself. 🙂

  8. very interesting, but I don’t agree with you

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