Sunday, May 30, 2010

TSS - Getting voice right

Before getting into my post proper, I want to quickly say thank you to the bloggers who got together and organised Armchair BEA. I had so much fun over the last week, and I know that I still have a ton of posts to read from the event! I really hope that we get to do it all again next year!
Now, to what I wanted to talk about today. A couple of weeks ago I mentioned that I was reading The Help by Kathryn Stockett.

In the author's note for that book, Kathryn Stockett wrote:

I was scared, a lot of the time, that I was crossing a terrible line, writing in the voice of a black person. I was afraid I would fail to describe a relationship that was so intensely influential in my life, so loving, so grossly stereotyped in American history and literature.

and further on

What I am sure about is this: I don't presume to think that I know what it really felt like to be a black woman in Mississippi, especially in the 1960s. I don't think it is something any white woman on the other end of a black woman's paycheck could ever truly understand. But trying to understand is vital to our humanity.

Reading this book had me thinking about voice, and what it is made up of. Firstly, when you are reading a book where there are different types of voices, there could be differentiation in terms of the words that are used, the spelling and grammar which could be used to indicate race or ethnicity or level of education, but other factors that go into giving a character voice, and in particular in giving the reader a sense of authentic voice can also include attitude. As much as we like 21st century attitudes is it realistic to expect to see that attitude in a 19th century woman. Usually not. This is an area that does tend to crop up particularly in relation to those feisty women who defy convention in fiction, but in reality there were so few women who did act against societies norms. The ones who did are exceptional and it is fantastic to read about them, but the numbers of those type of women portrayed compared to the number of women who would have actually acted in this way is definitely disproportionate.

Often times some of the biggest pitfalls relating to voice can come from trying to write a nationality other than your own. There may be certain words that people from certain places are expected to say as a result of cultural stereotypes, but in reality that could be something that isn't every day for every person. Seeing that mentioned several times could be jarring to the reader.

Let me give you an example. One of the things that have been used to promote Australia and that we have a kind of stereotyping about is that we all call everyone mate, as in 'G'Day Mate'. I can't remember the last time I said that to someone. Even just using the word mate is not something that I would use regularly. I remember having a conversation with Heather from Tales of a Capricious Reader not too long ago where we talked about this, and she used the example of the word Y'all, as in 'howdy y'all' and having a similar reaction. Now to be fair, there are some Aussies for whom calling someone mate is a part of everyday idiom. I used to work with a man who called everyone mate. The interesting thing is that he had immigrated to Australia as a teenager, and had lived in a couple of other cities, so maybe it is something that he had more exposure to than I did. So if I read a book where there is an Australian who constantly calls everyone mate to me it doesn't feel genuine at all.

Another example is accent. For example, when I hear that famous line from the Meryl Streep movie Evil Angels/A Cry in the Dark, where she proclaims that 'a dingo took my baby', every time I hear that it is jarring and I think that so does not sound like a genuine Australian (see the video below). Having said that, if you can find audio of Lindy Chamberlain talking, she has a much broader accent than I do so maybe regional differences account for at least some of this difference of opinions.

My point about all this in relation to The Help in particular is that I thought that Kathryn Stockett did a really good job in giving the white and black characters in distinctive voice by using different spelling, grammar, intonation and and in conveying their attitude. The thing is though, my impression is based on what I have seen in movies, in what I have read in other books, and not from personal experience. A quick glance at Amazon shows a small minority of one and two star reviews, and a lot of them talk about not liking the dialect and so obviously their personal experiences have obviously bought influence to bear upon their reading experience.

For me it felt authentic, and I thought it was an excellent read.


  1. That's really good food for thought. I absolutely agree with you that getting the voice right is imperative to creating a good story, for me at least.

    On the Aussie vice thing, I have to admit that I am very guity of suing mate when I talk to everyone. Its such a habit I don't seem to be able to get rid of it. I also have to admit that I was raised in a very lower/middle class family where phrases such as "Gday" are extremely common. I have noticed a lot of my clients say G'day and the like commonly as well. My thoery is that those typically Australian phrases are a bit of a class thing... I could be completely wrong, but that's my theory

  2. Class certainly may be a factor, but I would have said that I was middlish class. Just proves how hard it is to get voice right for everyone doesn't it!

  3. I use G'day as a greeting most of the time, but seldom use mate. And, in my social milieu, ALL the blokes say G'day and call everyone mate. It's just what they do.

    However, I do say Australia, and not Orstraya. :)

  4. Some of the blokes I know are very matey but not all of them.

  5. Another great topic, Marg! It is interesting to consider how authentic a voice an author has when writing a book. It can ruin a book in some cases or really make it resonate. Even so, I confess that it's not something I think about very often unless it sounds off too me. Maybe that's the way it should be though.

    Another issue that sometimes arises is the male/female one. There is a book out there right now that's getting a lot of attention which is written by a man and yet everyone who has reviewed it keeps saying how surprised they are of that fact because he captured the voice of his female character and her experiences so well. I haven't read the book myself yet, but I thought it was interesting how that keeps coming up.

  6. Marg, I really liked the voices in The Help, but what do I know, I'm an Aussie too. Still, I thought it was an awesome book and it sounded fabulously authentic to me.
    Malvinam who occasionally uses 'mate'...

  7. I thought the dialect in The Help was really good, too...As a social worker, I found myself immersed in other cultures and sub-cultures, but admittedly, California blacks probably sound very different from Southern. But occasionally, I would meet someone who just came to visit from the South, and they could have been characters in this book...

    Very intriguing post.

    Here's my Salon:

  8. Great post. I listened to The Help on audio and the difference in voices sounded pretty authentic though I thought the character Minnie was a little stereotypical.

  9. You know, if an author doesn't get the voice exactly right in one of his/her books, it really affects my overall enjoyment of the story, so I think this topic was very interesting to think about. I have sometimes put down a book when the voice just didn't ring true for me. I am greatly looking forward to reading The Help, as I have heard such good things about it!! Great discussion post!

  10. Interesting thoughts on voice, though you could broaden it out and talk about general stereotyping in literature/movies/life... I think it's interesting to consider voice and what's authentic to each reader. Something that works well for you, may not for me. But then, if it all worked well for everyone, there wouldn't be much point, would there?

  11. Hi Marg,

    A great post, and as you might expect, it's got my anthropological self engaged.

    Over the past couple of months, I've read several books which have Australian characters in them and have been both disgusted and frustrated. One author (James Rollins) came up with not only the incessant 'mate' and 'g'day', but decided to invent his own idioms:

    'as wired as a roo on heat' was one that comes to mind.

    I have NEVER heard anyone say this.

    Another thing I notice are the very subtle cultural differences which American writers trying to create Australian characters just miss. Like we don't take 'vacations' we 'go on holidays'. Or we don't ask for the 'bathroom' when we need to pee, we ask 'where is the toilet?'

    It's not difficult to uncover these cultural nuances. It's just poor research on behalf of the author.

    One a slightly different matter, there are indeed regional differences in both the Australian accent and in word useage. I have two great examples:

    When people who've grown up in SA & the NT say 'pool', they flatten the 'oo' sound so that it sounds like 'paul', whereas those from the Eastern states say the 'oo' sound more like 'ew' (I'm from NSW originally, and after 10 years in the NT and having a croweater for a partner, my accent is mixed up).

    Another example is the lunch meat known in NSW as 'devon'. It's called 'fritz' in SA, and 'salami' or 'poloni' in WA. I believe it's called 'luncheon' somewhere.

    Anyway, thanks for a great post and I hope any authors thinking about writing an Australian character are taking note!

  12. I'm a bit mixed as well. I started in Perth, then Adelaide for a long time, then in England living with my African then partner, and now in Victoria! I think that 'meat' is called luncheon in Queensland.

    Pool is a great example of a word that sounds different. I did contemplate making a recording of myself saying something. Might be fun to do with a group of people and see how different we all sound.

  13. I also have an issue with the whole Canadians saying eh! and aboot. It's an old joke that needs to be buried. I rarely say 'eh' and never say 'aboot.' It drives me crazy.

  14. What a thought provoking post Marg. When it comes to the voice or dialogue of chararcters I try not to judge it by today's standards. I accept the story for what it is, the time or place the story is set in, etc. Basically do not pass judgement. I've always done this, but there is a concept I learned about in an anthropology class, I think it's called cultural relativism. I try to apply to most anything.

    Unfortunately in today's world, most people are judgemental. There are quite a few Americans who think a caucasian should not write in the voice of an African American from the South, especially during certain peiods of history. Some feel it is predjuidicial. I for one do not. History happened and this is how people were. Look at how much we have changed since then. I don't know maybe I would have a different pointof view if I were African American. People mock my little Italian neighborhood all the time. Yes it sucks, but I don't let it define me.

    Back on topic, I think the voice perspective comes down to the reader's experiences with the subject matter and how the story is written. Great characters are not just defined by their words but their actions too. I so have to check out this book now. Thnaks Marg and sorry for rambling :)

  15. Great post! I find that voice is very important for me when reading a book. But then I don't know many accents worldwide. It's something I learn on the go. Some times I come across phrases or idioms that feel strange to me. In that case, I do a search to understand their origin. If I don't know a particular accent or dialect, then it won't affect my reading experience. It is when I am familiar with accents (for instance, Indian dialects or American ones), then I can get bugged if something doesn't sound right to me. But I'm all for giving the characters the benefit of the doubt. That said, I agree that The Help was done wonderfully - accents and all.