Thursday, July 17, 2008

Voice


I've been reading UNDEAD AND UNWORTHY, MaryJanice Davidson's latest novel in her Betsy, Vampire Queen series. The book made me think about that elusive quality called "voice." All writers have a unique voice, we're told, and we should strive to let our own shine. Some authors have highly recognizable (and easily parodied) voices: Hemingway's spare, short sentences; Lovecraft's elaborate prose, eldritch adjectives, and horror-stricken italics; Damon Runyon's New York underworld slang. Some others, equally unique, can't be described so easily. Stephen King's fiction has a characteristic sound and feel, but I don't think it’s so easily imitated as the others I mentioned.

The first-person narrative of Davidson's vampire novels falls into what I think of as the typical "chick lit" verbal register. Indeed, she was probably one of the pioneers of this subgenre in paranormal fiction. When Betsy emerged from her premature grave in UNDEAD AND UNWED, she came across as snarky, self-observed, obsessed with fashion accessories, and prone to overuse profanity. In fact, in some of the dialogue in this series, every other word out of the narrator’s mouth seems taken from the short list of terms that, thirty years ago, were commonly classified as “unprintable.” (Maybe it isn’t literally every other word, but to me, with my verging-on-zero tolerance for “those words,” it often feels like it. I mean, REALLY, how many people do you know in real life who talk that way in polite company ALL the time?) The first book of Davidson’s newer series, starring a mermaid named Fred, contained an author’s note declaring her intention of making Fred a different type of character from Betsy. Didn’t work for me, because their style and diction are so similar. Fred, too, impressed me mainly as flippant and foul-mouthed.

As an aside, why do I keep reading the adventures of Betsy the Vampire Queen if I feel that way about her? Well, she gets into intriguing predicaments, and it’s fun to watch how the plots unwind. The world-building of Davidson’s vampire and werewolf subcultures has its points of interest. And Betsy, to be fair, has grown as a character from the shallow young woman who emerged from that grave wearing (horrors) un-stylish shoes. She’s developed a genuine love for her husband, Vampire King Sinclair, and a deep sense of responsibility for the people, human and otherwise, who have gathered around to place themselves under her protection. I just grit my teeth and mentally “bleep” over the dialogue that rubs me the wrong way, not to mention all that silliness about shoes. (Sorry, I just don’t GET fashion.)

With UNDEAD AND UNWORTHY, however, I perceive a potential mismatch between tone and plot, or maybe even between tone and theme. Readers were warned that the series would take a darker turn starting with this novel. The publisher even changed the cover style. (I much prefer the cartoony cover illustrations of the earlier books, but admittedly they would mislead new readers if attached to darker stories. Cover art pitfalls comprise a whole different topic—the reprints of Laurell K. Hamilton’s earlier Anita Blake novels have the same cover style as the newer books, darkly erotic and therefore VERY misleading as far as the first few books in the series are concerned; those aren’t remotely erotic.) Previously, blood was spilled and villains died, but things generally turned out well for the good guys. When Betsy’s father and stepmother died in a car crash, her estrangement from them kept us from feeling sorrow over the loss, especially since Antonia, her stepmother, aka the Ant, has been consistently portrayed as a caricature rather than a rounded character. (Will she change now that she’s a ghost trapped into haunting Betsy? Hard to tell.) Therefore, the narrator’s voice has been able to keep the tone breezy, verging on humorous, even in the midst of what would, if described in cooler prose, sound like unmitigated horror. At the climax of UNDEAD AND UNWORTHY, however, Very Bad Things happen. Suddenly, Betsy’s characteristic voice doesn’t seem to fit so well. True, in the final chapter and epilogue, the author tones down the snark considerably. Still, I feel the mismatch may become a problem, if the “darker” trend continues as advertised. Will the author gradually change Betsy’s voice, thereby possibly disappointing readers who like the character the way she is, or try to maintain the familiar tone and diction amid a chain of events that may turn out to be too serious for that tone?

If you’re a fan of the series and have read the latest novel, what do you think about this issue? In general, what about the question of harmony among voice, plot, and theme? Have other authors (you or someone whose work you’ve read) encountered this problem because of shifting the focus of a series, and how do they deal with it? The only other example I can think of is rather remote in applicability, because it’s a TV series: MASH. In later seasons, the program shifted focus from the silliness (which became less obtrusive) to more serious plot premises and themes (which were always present but less prominent). A TV show can’t have a “voice” in the same sense a prose narrative does; what would be the analogous factor on TV? The way I remember MASH, its shift to more rounded characters and emotionally engaging storylines (in my opinion, much improved thereby) coincided with the departure of Col. Blake, Trapper, and above all Frank Burns. Frank, in particular, not only irritated me but constantly undermined my suspension of disbelief. I couldn’t accept that such a buffoon could have been admitted to medical school, let alone graduated. Maj. Winchester had his quirks, but he was a believable character with intelligence and depth. I was also fond of B.J., who foregrounded the issue of separation from family, such a large part of the military experience. Col. Potter, of course, was wonderful. And Frank’s disappearance freed “Hot Lips” to develop from a caricature into a real character. So what do you think? Voice, plotlines, and theme—how do they fit together, and if you want to change the latter two, must you alter your voice, also?

3 comments:

  1. Literaturevixen6:19 PM EDT

    Thank God someone is finally bringing this up!

    I started reading the Betsy books(couldnt finish)

    Then I saw she had a new novel out featuring mermaids (I like mermaids)Surely she ought have become better? Sadly she hadnt...

    Fred the protagonist and all the other characters were written like they were teens/children hyped up on sugar.
    Since then MJD is a no-no to me.

    Its author like her that makes one wonder how in the world such authors got their work published.

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  2. >So what do you think? Voice, plotlines, and theme—how do they fit together, and if you want to change the latter two, must you alter your voice, also?

    Hmm...why not just start a new series?

    But if not, I would prefer a changes across the board. Not a 180, but something more gradual. Writers get the call to go in different directions, which is fine with me as long as the craft choices support it.

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  3. You know, MJD used to write short stories in a very different voice. I don't care for the newer Betsy voice. I like the plots, but not the flippant tone. Although this - "She’s developed a genuine love for her husband, Vampire King Sinclair, and a deep sense of responsibility for the people, human and otherwise, who have gathered around to place themselves under her protection." - makes me want to give it another try.

    "Voice, plotlines, and theme—how do they fit together, and if you want to change the latter two, must you alter your voice, also?" I'd think that a voice alteration would be required for a radically different theme.

    Susan Sizemore writes two very different "voiced" vampire series. I prefer "Laws of the Blood" over "Primal Desires" and have found, to my consternation, that I have trouble reading "Primal Desires" because of the voice change. I read many different voices and types of voices so this is kind of a weird situation for me. I guess I just like the one voice so much that I resent the second or something.

    I guess authors just can't win!

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