Sunday, September 13, 2009

Effective Feminine Voice

I just read a blog by an anonymous Ph. D student where the words "a wee bit" were used. Since there was no name given, I thought, "This must be a girl." Like the bubble handwriting that every popular girl has in high school (which turns into an interior designer sort of block handwriting in college), there are writing quirks that give away a girl just as easily on the screen or in print.

"Wee bit" and other cutisms (cutesy words) can be found on the facebook pages and chat windows of young men as well, though somehow I doubt a man would allow a cutism to slip into his more serious writing (if he has such a thing at all). And my real beef isn't with the cutisms anyway.

What I've really been thinking about are the other tell-tale feminine writing habits and voices that make reading women hard for me sometimes. Some I can ignore when the writing flows. Others cause a passing cringe that I can shake off when the story is good. But there are still others that turn me away completely -- and by extension I end up believing that these feminine literary trespasses are a shared malaise among all the soft-focus-photo-covered, moody looking novels on the shelves at the store, all the journalists' articles by women on women, and all the girl band albums at the record store.

The modern woman writer's biggest problem is the moodiness. I don't mean PMS either. I mean the constant need to communicate something emotive and deep and poignant. It's quite depressing actually. It all starts with a plot that unavoidably leads this direction, but the writing style is the curdled icing on the burnt fiction cake.

Here's an excerpt from Jodi Picoult, who doesn't use as much flowery stuff but manages to get in some straightforward, purposeful heart-jabbing. I highlighted the most annoying parts and I don't think I need to do a "close reading" to explain why they're annoying:

"Swallowing, I pull the locket out of the pocket of my jeans. The heart falls on the glass counter in a pool of its own chain. "It's fourteen-karat gold," I pitch. "Hardly ever worn." This is a lie; until this morning, I haven't taken it off in seven years. My father gave it to me when I was six after the bone marrow harvest, because he said anyone who was giving her sister such a major present deserved one of her own. Seeing it there, on the counter, my neck feels shivery and naked."

This is written in the voice of a 13 year old girl, so the style is a little different from Picoult's own narrative voice, but not much (her writing sometimes reminds me of stuff my friends and I wrote as teens). We're on the first page of the book and we're already being made to feel sad, about the present and the past, and meeting a sad girl who pawns jewelry given to her by her father. This might be a hook for bored housewives. It's a real bummer for me (that is if I ever got past the cover of two girls leaning against each other's backs in near-silhouette).

The author had just switched from some expository rambling to the present tense, which is also very annoying. I don't think men use the present tense as often. I'll have to look into that -- I'm speaking mostly from "writers' group" experience throughout this post. But perhaps men feel as if their masculine presence makes their past tense writing "present" enough, and women feel as if the present tense helps them to be more intense.

Unfortunately I don't have a ton of girly passages to post as examples because I don't buy the stuff or wish to be seen checking these books out from the library (which may lead to a check-out desk conversation wherein I must pretend to like the sap-infused books or risk offending the librarian, the book expert, who loves them). That said, I do have some wonderful counter examples!

But first I'll go the middle road. Here is a passage from a new novel by Kim Echlin that I really enjoyed, but I did not get through it without the occasional eye twitch.

"I went to the university and studied languages. I was seduced by the shapes of words in my mouth and when I wrote them on the page they were raw and muscled and shining like a man who performs on stage. I needed memory and hope and since I could find them nowhere else, I looked for them in the declensions of verbs. Words swallowed me like a deep river. I dreamed false etymologies. I dreamed I discovered the beginning of the world in the sound of the adjective vraiment: vrai for truth and ment-ir for lie."

Jeez, I better not do this or I might not like the book as much! But here goes. The first sentence is too full of sexy, masculine stuff. "Memory and hope" are just lame and vague attempts to strike a nerve. "Swallowed me like a river" is like some over-emotional kid's high school poetry. The last couple of sentences I just love, though. Over the top, but successful, because any word lover can relate. I wouldn't say that my relationship with words is any less passionate than the one described here, I just think the writing could have been less intense while still carrying an intense message. The novel works well enough, despite the lapses into girl-anguish. Plus, this is the exact excerpt sent to me by a friend that got me to read the book!

For examples of twitch-free, smoothly-delivered writing, I will of course fall back on my favorites -- George Eliot and Virginia Woolf probably have some of the most ungirly yet uniquely feminine prose. Jane Austen is never hard to read either , even though she has a touch of girlishness in her lines. It might be a naive girlishness that pops up here and there for Austen and for the Charlotte Bronte, but I heartily welcome naivete in writing over clueless writing that tries far too hard to achieve some desired effect. Naivete, at least, believes it is being sincere. (Ok, let's drop all discussions on "sincerity" for now.)

What I notice most as I'm trying to go through these novels to show you some examples, is that it's hard to find just one short example. Here's the thing: What makes these women great writers is that they write not in one voice but in many voices! You can hear them shaping the words of their characters, for sure, but they do such a good job of bantering back and forth between Clarissa Dalloway and Peter Walsh, or between Mr. Brooke and Mrs. Cadwallader, between Dorothea and Casaubon, and even between the layered narrative voices of Ellen and Lockwood.

In between the dialog and inner thoughts written in these characters voices, the good writer often comes through speaking on her own. But she doesn't consciously do it to put her own opinion or mood into the text, the way Picoult and Echlin seem to do. All of their words are their own, and serve their own purposes it seems. And it gets tiresome to hear the same person talking for hundreds of pages.

Here is Mrs. Dalloway having strange and poetic thoughts while sewing:

"... collected the green folds together ... So on a summer's day waves collect, overbalance, and fall; collect and fall; and the whole world seems to be saying 'that is all' more and more ponderously, until even the heart in the body which lies in the sun on the beach says too, That is all. . . [and so on]"

Then into "greeting a visitor" mode, when she hears the doorbell and snaps into girlishness:

"'How heavenly is it to see you!" she exclaimed. He had his knife out. That's so like him, she thought."

Then Peter's inner response:

"Here she is mending her dress; mending her dress as usual, he though; here she's been sitting all the time I've been in India; mending her dress; playing about; going to parties . . . he thought, growing more and more irritated, more and more agitated, for there's nothing in the world so bad for some women as marriage . . ."

In this short section Woolf gets a little intense and emotive on us with the sewing, but reels it in for the dialog scene, and writes a nice, frantic, boyish reaction from Peter, who despite his agitation describes the sound of his name on Clarissa's lips as "delicious." There is also a varied tempo on these pages, which keeps Mrs. Dalloway's sometime inner-monologue style from totally settling in for us yet. Woolf's use of the semi-colon is frustrating at first, but it really helps her to be a champ at writing her characters' "stream of consciousness" at just the right beat. And as I've mentioned before, she's the only writer whose elipses I can stand.

I should really dig out more examples but I'm reading many things, and I have been putting of publishing this for weeks. So here it is. If you don't believe me, try to plow through some Picoult, then go pick up Wuthering Heights or Middlemarch to cure the literary malaise what will certainly ail ye.


  1. Echlin actually is describing "some over-emotional kid" barely out of high school. To a certain extent, your twitches may be attributed to the first person narrative approach, that neither Eliot nor Woolf used. Philip Roth's first person novels are in no way girly, but they do have an emotional messiness that inspires their own kind of cringing.

    I know that for many academics, you legitimize and elevate your critical voice by distancing yourself from "all the journalists' articles by women on women, and all the girl band albums at the record store", but I also know there's a danger there. The inclination to gloss over the bulk of feminine work overlooks some remarkable artistic achievements.

    Only a few generations ago, Mary Anne Evans had to print her "ungirly yet uniquely feminine prose" under a man's name because her contemporaries were sure that a feminine voice was a weak voice. Imagine penning some of the greatest works in the history of English literature, then sticking a fake name on the manuscript because your gender would mar its reputation.

    In the case of women's writing, I think it is important for literary critics to expand their vocabularies wide enough to compare mature feminine voices with immature feminine voices, or skilled feminine voices with inept feminine voices.

    Since I am on the subject of criticism, I will declare that I love watching your critical voice develop as you continue your blog. I really enjoy reading it, and I look forward to your future posts. You're doing a great job!

  2. Thank you so much for the insights! I know what you mean about the dangers of glossing over or generalizing about feminine work -- it's like I don't want to do that myself, but whenever I end up reading something in an "immature feminine voice" it makes me shy away from future ventures into contemporary women's literature. Working through all this on blog-paper is partially my trying to overcome that.

    But it's also partially, of course, my wishing that there were not so many books out there that are so widely read that give women's lit the bad name it must have for so many -- especially considering the contemporary writer you talk about who used a pseudonym! To think in this century that that would be necessary, or that a woman would be so pressured as to feel it is necessary, seems so backward.

    What you say about vocabularies is also what I'm desperately trying to do! I keep stealing Woolf's "man-womanly" and "woman-manly" terms, and your words ("mature feminine voice and "immature feminine voice") are also good to add to the vocab list.

    Thinking about the first vs. third person narrative is something I didn't get into here, but now that I think of it... I write my own fiction mostly in the first person, and I try to stay as "true to my womanly shape" as I can manage. Yet, when I hear a bit of ventriloquy in the words and get that "anxiety of influence," the voices I'm channeling are so often men, to the point where I too would be afraid of offering up something too blunt, humorous, and non-emotive to suit the publisher's expectations of me, a woman.

    Thanks again for reading -- I'm at the point this year where this little project is like walking a tightrope. One one side are my old habits of just making scathing remarks about everything I am critical of, and on the other are my attempts at some real, well developed, (mature? maybe not) leaders into papers and further exploration.

  3. Oops! Mary Anne Evans....I think we can stop protecting George Eliot's identity now.


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