words follow me

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archive of essays by Teju Cole for NEXT newspaper

fourth letter

Dear friend,

In my letters to you, I’ve been discovering for myself a way of talking about the practice of writing, a way of talking about things I find only in the writing itself. In what follows, I am of course addressing you, but I am also addressing myself. This is apt, since the subject we have been discussing is literary voice.

One of the first questions that arises when we talk about voice is: To whom is the writer, in the guise of a narrator, speaking? The obvious, but somewhat unhelpful, answer is “you”—you the reader in general, whoever you might be. The book is addressed to the person who bought the book, or took it out of a library, or found it abandoned at a bus stop. In that sense, most texts are promiscuous. They don’t give a damn who reads them, so long as they are read. But have you experienced the sensation of a text that felt like it was targeted not to a general reader but to you in particular? Have you felt, at times, a sort of pact between you and the writer? It is an amazing thing.

I think this is part of what the Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk is describing when he writes: “To read a dense, deep passage in a novel, to enter into that world and believe it to be true—nothing makes me happier, nothing binds me more to life.” He also adds, impishly, “I also prefer it if the writer is dead, because then there is no little cloud of jealousy to darken my admiration.”

What I am trying to describe here is like a magician’s sleight of hand. It is impressive when it is done well, literally breathtaking sometimes, but an observer can only guess at what is actually being done. The hands that were bare a moment ago now appear to be generating white doves out of thin air. It is the same with a gifted writer. How does she seemingly climb into our heads—and not even “our heads” but “my head,” because it feels so personal, so specific—without actually knowing us or our circumstances, and from that vantage point proceed to unfold a narrative that we are certain was written only with us, only with me in mind?

I don’t know how it is done. It isn’t taught in any school, not even in the schools of writing. But here’s my guess: the writer takes us into her confidence, but does it without appearing to do so. This invitation into the writer’s thoughts is there in all works that really get under the reader’s skin. It is there regardless of whether it is a writer we identify with or not; it doesn’t matter whether the writer is female or male, old or young, whether the story we are reading is written in the first person or in the third.

Now, if you are reading a romance novel or a thriller, all of this is irrelevant. There are certain plot points that are followed, the language is kept moving and, if you like reading such genre works, your adrenalin carries you through to the finish. Afterwards, you feel like you have experienced a good love story or an action film. You won’t necessarily feel that the characters or situations in the book brought you to a more profound understanding of the human condition. This is because genre writing usually deals in stereotypes: the banker, the spy, the beautiful widow, the handsome new cattle rancher, characters who are of interest only insofar as they contribute to the plot.

There’s nothing whatsoever wrong with any of this, but it is writing that skims the surface, entertains you, and is gone from your life. In serious writing, the writer goes one extra step, and by taking the gamble of including “you in particular” must perforce exclude other, perhaps more casual, readers. This is the price the writer must pay for achieving an interesting voice, a voice that captures and earns your serious loyalty. If there’s any book you feel has entered your head, you can be sure that there will be other readers who say, “I found it boring” or “I didn’t know what she was talking about.”

By way of example, I remember the first time I read Disgrace, by J. M. Coetzee, a few years ago. The story is told in the third person, but the “he” of the story, David Lurie, might as well be a first-person narrator, so close does Coetzee bring us to his thought processes. What was it about this story of life in post-apartheid South Africa that so startled me? Three days after reading the book, I was in the shower when I felt a sudden sob rise in my chest. The story is sad, yes, but I don’t think this was why the book had such an impact on me. Some have complained, not unjustly, about the characterization of the black characters in the book. Nevertheless, Disgrace haunted me like few other books have ever done.

It was the voice. David Lurie’s voice sounded, at crucial points, like my own voice, like the story was being told in a kind of code I alone would understand. But Lurie is a late middle-aged English professor in Cape Town, a white man, divorced, a bitter man, a frequenter of prostitutes, a man who makes passes at his students, an aggravatingly complacent individual. He isn’t remotely me. But because his thought process is ambivalent and stubborn, because he is so annoyed by a disciplinary panel at the university where he works that he is willing to wreck his own career, because he does this with an irritation that, through the author’s precision, I could almost feel as mine—for all these reasons, David Lurie became sympathetic to me, the reader, and I thought, “Coetzee has written this with me in mind.”

And I think he has done it by taking a set of reactions that exist but are not universal, and weaving them into the story. Is that a general principle we could put into our own writing, you and I, to better bind the reader to life? To place at the heart of a story a voice that is neither so vague that it applies to everyone, nor so eccentric that none can relate to it: a worthwhile challenge, don’t you think? The struggle continues.

best,

TC

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Filed under: letters to a young writer, literature

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